MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan – The inconspicuous high-top sneakers made of white leather with green and yellow trims are a bestseller for half a dozen shoe sellers in a sprawling bazaar in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
But they are not in demand because they are the latest fashion trend. For many Afghans, the sneakers evoke only one emotion: fear.
This is because they are loved by Taliban fighters as a status symbol, even though they have become a cruel sign of an endless war. The white silhouette of the sneakers often cuts across the Afghan battlefields of dirt, sand and blood.
The sneakers known as Cheetahs are made by Servis Shoes, one of the largest shoe companies in Pakistan. Marketed to athletes who were once recommended by sports stars, they are the company’s best-selling model.
In Afghanistan, they have been carried by rifle-wielding insurgents for decades – from the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s to the US-led war that began in 2001. They are burned into the memories of many, along with the wanton death and destruction the country has suffered since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979.
The sneakers have become synonymous with violence, especially on the Taliban’s feet.
In the Mazar-i-Sharif market, the vendors’ stalls are neatly arranged – a trading center with kebab stalls, home improvement and pharmaceuticals, children’s toys and everyday clothes.
The popularity of the high-tops – which come in instantly recognizable white and blue boxes – is rarely recognized out loud. But they are often displayed inconspicuously between hiking and running shoes, boots and sandals. A single sneaker sits in front of many sales tables that line the dimly lit alleys of the bazaar.
The positioning is almost like a subtle message: “You can get this here, but ask quietly.”
“I don’t ask,” said Hashim Shingal, 36, referring to who bought his sneakers.
Mr. Shingal was only one of the few shoe salesmen who made it comfortable to speak on the record. At least 10 others turned it down, mainly because they feared receiving taxes or retribution from the Taliban.
Even in the heart of Afghanistan’s most populous cities, including the capital Kabul, the shoes evoke a sense of fear.
“I’ve seen these shoes worn by the Taliban many times,” said Mar Jan, a resident of the city of Khost in the mountainous east of Afghanistan. Government militiamen, some security guards, criminals and rural people also buy and wear them.
Servis (pronounced “Sarwees”) introduced the Cheetah line in the early 1980s and appeared shortly after in Afghanistan.
Brig. General Khair Mohammad Timor, a former insurgent commander who fought against the communist-backed Afghan government and the Taliban before becoming police chief in 2011, recalled that more than 30 years ago his supervisor ordered shoes to make his fighters look more professional to let .
They “became a tradition,” said General Timor, who was charged with human rights abuses in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.
When US forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the shoes were quickly associated with the Taliban, who came to power in 1996 and took over the shoes along the way.
“Most of the time we wear white shoes and the white is a sign of peace,” said Najibullah Aqtash, a local Taliban commander in Kunduz province, flatly. He noted that white was also the color of the Taliban’s flag.
American troops named the sneakers Haqqani High-Tops after the group’s violent and criminal wing in the east of the country and neighboring tribal areas in Pakistan. They often stopped and interviewed people who were wearing them, and intelligence officers sometimes said to units dispatched to Afghanistan: watch out for your sneakers.
However, these days, American forces have slowly withdrawn from the country. The Afghan military and police now bear the brunt of the fighting, losing dozens of troops each week, while the 2,500 or so U.S. soldiers still in the country conduct air strikes.
These days, the shoes cost between $ 13 and $ 25, depending on where they’re sold and whether it’s the original Servis brand or Chinese imitators that are deceptively similar but of poorer quality. No matter who makes them, the high-tops are comfortable and robust.
In southern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters often swap their sandals for cheetahs in winter, but sometimes they are worn year-round in more mountainous parts of the country, which Taliban members say takes about a year before they need to be replaced.
The Taliban purchase the sneakers – which are also available in low-top styles and black – in different ways depending on the region, according to several Taliban members and shopkeepers.
Taliban commanders in the north, east and west mostly send taxi drivers or employees downtown to buy in bulk from local vendors such as Mr. Shingal. He said winter was his best season; He sells about 300 pairs per month. He added that his clients were mainly from districts outside of Mazar-i-Sharif where fighting is currently taking place between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
His customers almost always ask for receipts, he said.
In the south, Taliban commanders are moving to Pakistan and buying shoes in border towns like Quetta and Chaman.
About two years ago, a senior Taliban commander recalled preparing for an operation against the Islamic State subsidiary in the country anchored in Kunar province. The commander said the battle was difficult and he wanted his men to “fight comfortably”. So he sent taxi drivers to buy 200 pairs of cheetahs in Jalalabad, a busy city in the east.
The Taliban and the Afghan government are currently holding peace talks in Qatar. As these negotiations progress, the Taliban have undertaken a concerted push of propaganda to publicly divorce the cheetahs in an attempt to appear more like a professional army – despite their history as an insurgent force responsible for human rights abuses, oppressing women her harsh interpretation of Islamic law and participation in a recent campaign of targeted killings of members of civil society across the country.
Instead, their videos and pictures show uniforms and military boots that were sometimes looted from Afghan military bases along with US-supplied weapons.
Even so, cheetah sales in Afghanistan continue.
In the vibrant epicenter of the city of Kabul, on the second floor of a row of shops, is the office of the only licensed Servis importer and distributor in Afghanistan.
Servis has been officially importing the shoes in Afghanistan for around 25 years, said Omar Saeed, Servis Chief Executive Officer until 2019, who is now on the Board of Directors of Service Industries Limited, the parent company.
In a good year, Saeed said the company typically exports around 200,000 pairs to Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the only other country where cheetahs are officially sold, the company typically sells over a million pairs.
“We believe everyone in Afghanistan is wearing it,” Saeed said in a recent telephone interview about the sneaker. “We don’t see it as a shoe for the Taliban.”
The warehouse in Kabul is the main distribution center for the shoes, which are sewn and glued together in a factory in Gujrat, Pakistan, before being shipped across the border.
An elderly man in the Kabul office who refused to give his name looked alarmed when asked about the sneakers and his business. He refused to talk about her.
But in the narrow, dimly lit room, the distinctive Servis Cheetah boxes were stacked almost from floor to ceiling.
The coverage was contributed by Farooq Jan Mangal from Khost, Afghanistan. Taimoor Shah from Kandahar; Asadullah Timory from Herat; Zabihullah Ghazi from Jalalabad; Najim Rahim from Kabul; and Salman Masood from Islamabad, Pakistan.