As the Taliban mass at the gates of Kabul, they are promising a new era of peace in Afghanistan, with amnesty for those they have been battling for two decades and a return to normal life.
But Afghans who remember the Taliban’s brutal rule and those who have lived in areas controlled by the Islamic militants in recent years have watched with growing fear as the insurgents have overrun most of the country while international forces withdraw.
Government offices, shops and schools are still shuttered in areas recently captured by the Taliban, with many residents either lying low or fleeing to the capital, Kabul.
But already there are indications of a return to the harsh version of Islamic rule Afghans lived under from 1996 until 2001, when the US drove the Taliban from power after the 9/11 attacks.
Many fear the Taliban will roll back two decades of gains by women and ethnic minorities while restricting the work of journalists and NGO workers.
An entire generation of Afghans was raised on hopes of building a modern, democratic state — dreams that seem to have melted away before the Taliban’s relentless advance.
As the insurgents reached the capital early on Sunday, a photo circulated on social media showing the owner of a beauty salon painting over posters depicting women. Young men raced home to change out of their jeans and tee-shirts and into the traditional shalwar kamiz outfit.
Shops, government offices and schools remain closed in cities seized by the Taliban in recent days, with residents staying indoors or fleeing to Kabul because of security fears. Many appeared to be lying low until they see what kind of order the militants impose.
A 25-year-old university graduate who works for a local NGO in the western city of Herat, which fell to the Taliban last week, said she hasn’t left home in weeks because of the fighting.
From speaking with other residents, she said there were few if any women out on the streets, with even female doctors staying home until the situation is clearer.
“I can’t face Taliban fighters,” she said by phone from Herat, asking that her name not be used for fear of retribution. “I don’t have a good feeling about them. No one can change the Taliban’s stance against women and girls, they still want women to stay at home.”
She had planned to begin a master’s program this year at Herat University, where women make up more than half of the student body.
“I don’t think I would be ready to wear a burqa,” she said, referring to the all-encompassing blue robe women were forced to wear under Taliban rule. “I can’t accept it. I will fight for my rights, whatever happens.”
The Taliban have issued statements aimed at reassuring Afghans. They say there will be no revenge attacks on those who worked for the government or its security services, and that “life, property and honor” will be respected.
They are urging Afghans to remain in the country and have pledged to create a “secure environment” for businesses, embassies, and foreign and local charities.
But some of their actions send a different message.
Last month, after capturing the Malistan district of the southern Ghazni province, Taliban fighters went door to door looking for people who had worked with the government, killing at least 27 civilians, wounding 10 others and looting homes, according to the semi-official Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
After capturing Herat, Taliban fighters paraded two alleged thieves through the streets with black makeup on their faces. That’s considered a warning, while repeat offenders risk having a hand cut off. The Taliban have also been known to stone suspected adulterers and carry out public executions in accordance with their harsh version of Islamic law.
During their earlier rule, the Taliban barred women from working outside the home or attending school. Women were required to wear the burqa and had to be accompanied by a male relative whenever they went outside.
These days, the Taliban leadership says it is open to women’s education, but rights groups say the rules vary depending on local commanders and the communities themselves. Afghanistan remains an overwhelmingly conservative country, especially outside major cities.
“The gap between official Taliban statements on rights and the restrictive positions adopted by Taliban officials on the ground indicates that the Taliban are far from an internal consensus on their own policies,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report last year.
One issue on which they seem to be in agreement is intolerance of dissent.
Human Rights Watch says the Taliban routinely threaten and detain journalists, particularly women and reporters who are critical of the group. The Taliban and the government blamed each other for a recent string of killings of journalists, some of which were claimed by the more radical Islamic State group.
On Friday, the Taliban commandeered a radio station in the southern city of Kandahar and renamed it the Voice of Sharia, or Islamic law. It’s unclear whether the insurgents purged the station’s employees or allowed them to return. But the station will no longer broadcast music, which is banned in Taliban-run regions.
The Taliban also closed a radio station in the southern Helmand province that offered women’s programming, but the insurgents said it was a temporary decision.
Fear is running especially high among the ethnic Hazara minority, Shiite Muslims who were persecuted by the Taliban and made major gains in education and social status over the past two decades. They are seen as having been deeply invested in the Western-backed government, which could open them up to reprisals following its demise.
In recent years, the Sunni extremists of the local IS affiliate have carried out a wave of horrific attacks targeting Hazaras. An attack on a maternity ward last year killed 24 people, including mothers and their newborn babies.
The Taliban have condemned such attacks and engaged in turf wars with the IS affiliate. But it remains to be seen whether, once in power, the Taliban will crack down on such groups, which share some of their ideology and include former Taliban fighters.