In Kabul, some fear economic collapse more than Taliban fist

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A man sells Taliban flags in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Many Afghans are anxious about the Taliban rule and are figuring out ways to get out of Afghanistan. Some street vendors have managed to turn the Taliban's arrival into a money making business selling their white flag emblazoned with a Quranic verse. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi)

KABUL – At a pizzeria in downtown Kabul, the staff and customers alike are anxious about Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers.

Some, however, said they are more worried about economic collapse and being unable to feed their families than about having to grow long beards — a practice from the Taliban's previous time in power.

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Others fear for the future of their children, or were spooked by the panic on display when tens of thousands of foreigners and Afghans fled in a mammoth airlift over the past two weeks.

With full Taliban control about to become a reality with a Tuesday deadline for the final U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, exit plans are still being hatched.

“I have to run away so I can feed my family,” said Mustafa, a waiter at another nearby fast-food place who had come to the pizzeria for tea and a chat with friends among the staff.

Mustafa, who like many in Afghanistan only uses one name, said he has a family of 11 to support and is toying with the idea of seeking work in neighboring Iran. He said his salary has been cut by 75% to less than $50 a month since the Taliban overran Kabul and business dried up.

Pizzeria owner Mohammad Yaseen said daily sales have plummeted, and that at this pace, he won't be able to cover the rent.

Yaseen has been sifting through old emails, searching for a foreign acquaintance who might help him resettle abroad, “It’s not for me I want to leave, but for my children,” he said.

Still, there's a sense of a return to business as usual across much of the Afghan capital of more than 5 million people, in sharp contrast to the harrowing scenes at the Kabul airport where thousands surged toward the gates for days, hoping for an opportunity to leave.

In much of Kabul, the usual chaotic traffic is back and markets have opened.

At traffic stops and roundabouts, the same police who served in the Washington-allied government of President Ashraf Ghani are still waving their hands in an often futile attempt to rein in the chaos.

Taliban fighters have taken up positions in front of most government ministries. Some are in camouflage uniforms, while others wear the traditional Afghan dress of baggy pants and long tunic.

Enterprising street vendors have even managed to turn a profit, selling the Taliban's white flag emblazoned with a Quranic verse.

Shah Mohammad makes up to $15 a day selling various sizes of the flag, weaving his way through traffic and shoving the small flags at passing cars. He also has full-size flags on offer. Previously, he sold cloths for cleaning cars, saying he made about $4 a day.

At the massive Chaman-e-Hozari Park, scores of young boys played cricket and soccer, a game the Taliban had frowned upon when they ruled from 1996-2001.

Giant murals still adorn giant cement blast walls. The paintings include women holding young children to promote health care, Afghan national flags and even one of a top Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, posing with the U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

But the financial desperation hangs heavy over the city.

Salaries have gone unpaid. Government ministries that employ hundreds of thousands of people are barely operating, even as the Taliban have urged some to return to work.

Outside the Afghan National Bank, thousands are lined up, five and six abreast, trying to withdraw money. The Taliban have limited weekly withdrawals to $200.

Noorullah, who has been operating a hole-in-the-wall hardware shop for 11 years, said he hasn't had a single customer since the Taliban arrived Aug. 15. He said he can't pay the rent on his store.

“The banks are closed. All the people who have money are running away from this country,” he said. “No one is bringing money here.”

Noorullah said he has no chance to leave and isn't certain he would even if he could. He said if the economy picked up, he would stay, even with Taliban in power.

“I was born here,” he said. "I lived here all my life. I will die here.”

Reflecting on the 20-year U.S. military presence, Noorullah said he was disappointed.

“America did not do a good job here,” he said. “They let corruption grow until there was nothing left.”

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