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Inside a surreal journey from the Pakistani border to Taliban-controlled Kabul

<i>Muhammad Sajjad/AP</i><br/>A Taliban fighter stands guard near a border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Khyber district on August 21.
Muhammad Sajjad/AP
A Taliban fighter stands guard near a border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the Khyber district on August 21.

By Nic Robertson, CNN

Commander Supranullah was busy as we were ushered out of the monsoon rain for shelter on his front porch.

The porch doubles as office and bedroom, which is convenient because since becoming the Taliban’s point person sorting problems and authorizing visiting journalists at the border with Pakistan, Supranullah — who like many rural Afghans uses just one name — has been slammed. He has a three-mile back up of heavily laden trucks waiting to leave Afghanistan at the Torkham border crossing.

When we entered into his world, he was scribbling details relayed by an armed underling into a notebook. Clad in camouflage fatigues, the commander was barefoot despite the rain, working at a low table and sitting on his kot, the traditional daybed.

“Who do you know in Kabul?” he asked. “Zabihullah Mujahid,” we replied, naming the Taliban spokesman. A young, gun-toting Taliban member quipped, “That’s the right answer.”

And so began our surreal, and at some moments fear-inducing odyssey from Pakistan’s Khyber Pass to Kabul.

Back in the 1990s, when I covered the Taliban’s war to take the whole country, I marveled at the amount of former Soviet military hardware abandoned during their 1989 retreat. It was the oddest déjà vu to see the Taliban’s white flags now flutter from sagging sandbags and tired-looking Hesco barriers that not so long ago rimmed the perimeter of America’s Afghan empire.

We passed crumbling outposts, the sprawling Jalalabad airstrip, and several former US bases. I’d flown Black Hawk helicopter missions in and out of some of these bases on embeds with US forces, even seen a US Afghan drone take off in Jalalabad. Now surveying the abandoned huts and communications towers, it was as if I’d stepped back in time before the al Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001, that prompted America’s decades-long war here.

The fight with the Americans is still fresh in many Taliban members’ minds, yet even in victory some like Commander Supranullah and his men seemed ready to reengage, albeit with an underlying distrust.

The road to Kabul

You can feel the billions of American dollars spent here in the roads themselves. Compared to before US forces first arrived in late 2001, the 230-kilometer (140-mile) journey from the border to Kabul should have been a breeze — smooth tarmac all the way. Without hurdles, the drive could have taken five hours.

These roads were busy as we made our way to Kabul, huge trucks struggling up the vertiginous mountain passes, young men at the wheels dangerously weaving in and out of the crowded lanes, mini vans and taxis jammed with young families on board, cautiously taking their time. None of them was rushing for the border.

Compared to yesteryear, this is a country still bustling with chaotic charm despite the economic uncertainty it faces. We drove through bazaars hearing sellers trying to out shout one another, hawking freshly grilled corn, fried fish, sweets, grapes, pomegranates, and delicious long flatbreads hot from open-topped ovens.

What was absent amid the hubbub was women. The Taliban have warned them to stay indoors, and many appear to have heeded them. Only in really rural places were women visible — and even then only a few and clustered together.

One group of half a dozen women in brightly colored shawls balanced bundles of yellowing corn stalks on their heads as they strode along the road. Another tiny cluster of women were shrouded in abayas, black gowns obscuring their bodies, only venturing out with each other for protection.

Without having a chance to stop and talk with them, in our effort to get to Kabul before nightfall, it is hard to know how they feel about Taliban rule. How much the regime change is changing life in remote, culturally conservative communities is equally imponderable. But what is certain is that the gains in rights and liberties that came from the Western-backed government are gone for now.

The Taliban’s grip on security is tight. Driving through one busy market in a small town, we were forcibly stopped by an armed man who stepped out from the crowd. He demanded to know who were, what we were doing and where we were going. We explained, as we had done with Commander Supranullah, that we had Taliban permission to travel, and showed him the documents we’d be given.

It wasn’t enough. Within minutes, we were being whisked away, he said for further questioning. As they were driving us out of town at speed it seemed less clear who they were and where we were being taken. The issue was resolved fairly quickly by calls to Taliban HQ in Kabul. But what is clear is that weeks after the militants taking power, the security situation under the Taliban is still very fluid.

Our few minutes of wondering what would happen next were negligible next to the fear many Afghans live with daily. Just because we couldn’t see it on our drive, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

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CNN’s Ingrid Formanek contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - Asia/Pacific

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