Ezanullah, one of thousands of young Taliban fighters from the countryside who rode into Afghanistan's capital over the weekend, had never seen anything like it.
The paved streets of Kabul were lined with towering apartment blocks, glass office buildings and shopping malls. The plush furniture inside the Interior Ministry was like “something I thought of in a dream,” said the 22-year-old fighter from the country's mountainous east.
He said he plans to ask his commander if he can stay. “I don’t want to leave,” he said.
The encounter highlights how much Kabul and other Afghan cities have changed in the 20 years since the Taliban, who mainly hail from rugged rural areas, last ruled the country. An entire generation of Afghans has come of age under a modernizing, Western-backed government flush with development aid.
Many fear those gains will be reversed now that the Taliban are back in power and the last U.S. troops are on their way out.
Thousands have flocked to the airport trying to flee, most of them men unaccompanied by families. Younger Afghans have no memory of Taliban rule but fear its return will mean the loss of freedoms. The militants imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law from 1996 until 2001, when a U.S.-led invasion drove them from power.
The Taliban, who largely hail from Afghanistan's conservative countryside, have signaled moderation in recent days — offering amnesty to those who fought them, inviting women to return to work and pledging to restore normal life after decades of war. But many Afghans, particularly women, remain deeply skeptical of the group's intentions.
Ezanullah was surprised when two women said hello to him on the street.
“They said we were afraid of you and thought you were horrible," he said. “But I told them you are like my sisters, and we will let you go to school and continue your education and give you security.”
“Just look after your hijab,” he added, referring to the Islamic headscarf that covers the hair but not the face.
Whether or not the Taliban have truly changed, the country they now rule is light years ahead of the one they captured in 1996 after four years of civil war following the Soviet withdrawal and the 1992 collapse of a pro-communist government.
Then the city was in ruins, ravaged by warlords who would later ally with the U.S. Most Afghans traveled Kabul's rutted roads by bicycle or in beat-up yellow taxis. There was only one computer in the entire country, and it belonged to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's reclusive leader, who did not know how to turn it on.
Under Taliban rule, television and music were forbidden. Women were barred from attending school or working outside the home, and had to wear the all-encompassing burqa whenever they appeared in public.
Today the country is home to four mobile companies and several satellite TV stations with female anchors, one of whom interviewed a Taliban official on Monday. The Taliban fighters themselves carry smartphones and could be seen taking selfies as they marveled at the capital they had rolled into virtually unopposed after 20 years of war.
Videos circulating online appear to show bearded Taliban fighters laughing and horsing around on amusement park rides and in an indoor gym.
Some things have gotten worse since the Taliban were last in power.
The city has been in the grip of a crime wave for years, one many fear will get even worse after prisons and government armories were emptied during the Taliban's advance. One of the few successes of their harsh Islamic rule was the virtual elimination of crime — suspected thieves had their hands chopped off; other criminals were executed in public.
The Taliban have pledged to restore law and order, but that could take time and might lead them to resort to brutal measures. The city's population has quintupled to 5 million over the last two decades. The Taliban, who have had no major presence in Kabul since 2001, have been going door-to-door registering names and collecting weapons in recent days.
In the meantime, many Afghans fear looters posing as the Taliban more than the militants themselves, said Saad Mohseni, owner of the popular Tolo TV network, who elected to stay in the capital after the Taliban takeover.
“These pretend Taliban could be very dangerous, because they are just hoodlums,” he said.
Gannon reported from Guelph, Canada. Associated Press reporter Mukhtar Amiri in Kabul, Afghanistan contributed.
Kathy Gannon, The Associated Press