During their first year in power the Taliban have presided over one of the fastest declines of any nation in history. Not only have about 90 percent of Afghans been dragged to the brink of starvation, but the female half of the population have also been entirely robbed of their future, including any prospects for higher education or employment.
Child mortality is soaring, and the economy is in freefall. Neighboring countries report a surge in opium smuggling, along with systematic efforts to export extremism and instability.
A large part of the blame goes to successive US administrations for creating the conditions in which this great leap backwards became inevitable. In the Trump administration’s notorious deal with the Taliban, it was obvious that these militants were experienced liars who wouldn’t lift a finger to abide by their promises. Unwilling to retain a couple of thousand soldiers in support of the democratically elected government, Trump’s successor Joe Biden instead pulled the plug, crippling the system’s ability to defend itself.
The Taliban had barely established themselves in power before they had settled Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in one of the most desirable areas of Kabul under the protection of the Haqqani clan — personified by Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the FBI’s most wanted men.
At a time when many Muslim states are making rapid progress in women’s empowerment (witness Saudi Arabia’s 65 percent growth in female employment in just two years), Afghan women face a campaign to erase them from public life. Videos are circulated of women protesting against the loss of all their rights only to be beaten back by brutal Taliban foot soldiers. Female activists are detained and tortured. Women report being regularly beaten on trips to market, sometimes for wearing “inappropriate” clothing, sometimes just for smiling or talking loudly. Numerous figures deemed ill disposed to the new regime have simply disappeared.
Cancelling their pledge to allow girls’ secondary education was perhaps the most spectacularly cruel gesture of Taliban rule, as thousands of distraught girls were left standing outside school gates that had literally been slammed in their faces. Some girls deliberately failed their primary examinations to remain in education an extra year. Teachers have risked their lives to set up networks of secret schools, along with hidden underground rooms where girls can hide when the Taliban come visiting.
Highly educated women in senior government positions were summarily fired. In sectors such as female healthcare and primary teaching, where female employees are essential, the education ban makes the collapse of these sectors in the near future inevitable, especially as all those who can are determined to flee. Sportswomen, musicians, artists, writers, intellectuals — at a stroke Afghanistan has lost an entire generation of talent. Witness Baroness Kennedy’s laudable campaign to assist dozens of female Afghan judges and other professionals in resettling overseas.
At a time when many Muslim states are making rapid progress in women’s empowerment (witness Saudi Arabia’s 65 percent growth in female employment in just two years), Afghan women face a campaign to erase them from public life.
A book by Chief Justice Mawlawi Haqqani articulating the Taliban’s governing ideology declares: “The enemies of Islam — infidels and hypocrites — have realized that corrupting women is one of the most important methods of destroying the family.” The book emphasises that women must “stay out of sight” in their homes, and should stay out of politics because they “cannot make big decisions or form coherent opinions.” Posters were put up declaring that uncovered women “look like animals.”
Daesh in Afghanistan is a monster of the Taliban’s own creation, its ranks flush with dissatisfied Taliban members. Any sense of security in Kabul has been shattered by a succession of Daesh attacks, including mass casualty strikes against public servants, Shiites and non-Muslims. Daesh propaganda relentlessly attacks the Taliban for minor “hypocritical” compromises on its hard-line values.
With the full spectrum of terrorist groups making Afghanistan their base of operations, the stage is set for the Taliban themselves to be pushed in even more ideologically extreme directions.
Afghanistan has fundamentally changed in the two decades since the Taliban were last in power. A population that had grown accustomed to education, global connections and material comforts is for now tolerating the new regime, but this is already changing as illiterate Taliban appointees demonstrate their inability and lack of interest in doing anything to alleviate the universal suffering of the populace.
As one local observer noted: “These are traditional rural forces … instead of integrating themselves, they want the cities integrated to them. They want us to look like them.”
Meanwhile the increasing assertiveness of armed groups opposed to the Taliban, and growing infighting within Taliban ranks, hint at a relapse back to low-level conflict. The US’s use of drones against those who pose a threat, and the readiness of neighboring states to intervene in order to contain the regionalised chaos, undermine the Taliban’s pretentions to be protecting national sovereignty. Regular skirmishes on the Iran-Afghan border illustrate Tehran’s predicament in dealing with a fellow pariah regime with somewhat different ideological leanings.
The war in Ukraine was a gift to the Taliban, distracting global attention during a critical period. However, the world must not turn its back. Increasingly sophisticated and comprehensive vehicles for delivering aid must be devised, while grappling with the fact that Afghanistan will be a long-standing worldwide exporter of terrorism, narcotics and instability. With 45 percent of Afghans aged under 14, the nation furthermore faces a demographic timebomb.
Western powers spent two decades in Afghanistan, claiming that their occupying presence was necessary to protect women’s rights, ensure stability and democracy, stimulate economic development, and combat extremism. The past year of Taliban misrule demonstrates the absolute urgency for the international community to discover new methods to demonstrate its continuing commitment to securing these principles.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.