One year ago, the world watched in disbelief as America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, after a 20-year military misadventure, played out in a chaotic, violent frenzy. As foreign forces hastily completed their withdrawal, the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital Kabul, making a number of pledges for the new government. But a year after their stunning victory and takeover, the Taliban are still struggling to shift to a governing, political force. Beyond the still reverberating geopolitical consequences of the Taliban’s return to power, Afghanistan — after decades of near-constant violence, corruption, failure to establish a sustainable government and only limited gains in terms of women’s rights — is back to square one.
With the same fundamentalist faction that had ruled the country by the gun from 1996 to 2001 back at the helm, Afghanistan is going through yet another period of challenging times: the humanitarian situation has dramatically worsened and human-rights violations are constantly on the rise, as emphasised by the July 20 report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. The UN says Afghans have been in ‘survival mode’ for the past one year, with millions facing hunger and malnutrition. The economic crisis has been exacerbated by the rapid reduction in international grant support, lack of access to offshore assets and disruptions in financial linkages.
The freezing of funding, combined with sanctions and a decline in development assistance, has thrown Afghanistan’s economy into a freefall. Complicating matters further is the fact that the US does not recognise the Taliban government as legitimate and is legally prohibited from transferring funds to what it considers to be a ‘terrorist organisation’, raising the question of whether the funds held by the Afghan central bank belong to the Taliban. Irrespective of the rationale behind freezing the Afghan government’s bank accounts, which is a point of a different debate, the fact is economic punishment being handed to the Taliban government is jeopardising humanitarian assistance to Afghan people reeling under severe economic hardship. The near economic collapse of the country, as the UN has warned, could push Afghanistan into a ‘near-universal’ poverty rate of 97 per cent this year.
Who is to be blamed for Afghanistan’s fall into political, social and economic instability? Obviously the responsibility lies with the US and its two presidents — Donald Trump and his successor Joe Biden. Trump signed a reckless agreement with the Taliban just to have something that looked like a foreign policy success before the 2020 presidential election. Biden, when he came into office, could have abandoned it; but he chose to go with the supposed peace deal to further his own standing than continuing the war, though it wasn’t much of a war and even if it was unwinnable. Biden had months to think about it and it is said that many people tried to dissuade him, but he took no notice. Had Biden not abandoned a thriving city that was wholly dependent on American support, the Taliban would not have walked into Kabul.
Now, after a year, the odd coalition that took power in Afghanistan has settled into some shape but the regime has not lived up to its many promises, particularly rights concerning women. For, it is the Afghan women who have borne the brunt of America’s exit and Taliban’s return to power. Not only have many of their rights and freedoms been curtailed, but regulations on clothing and laws forbidding access to public spaces without a male guardian have also been reimposed. While primary school education for girls has been permitted, the Taliban reversed an earlier promise of permitting girls to attend secondary school, for which it has blamed a lack of female teachers and the need to arrange the segregation of facilities. This has affected, according to the UN, an estimated 1.1 million pupils.
While some public universities opened for both men and women in February, women’s participation in the labour force has dropped since the Taliban takeover, according to the World Bank. Female participation in the labour force had increased from 15 per cent to 22 per cent between 1998 and 2019. However, with the Taliban imposing restrictions on women’s movement, the percentage of women working in Afghanistan shrank to 15 per cent last year, according to media reports. According to an UN Security Council report in June, the Afghan economy had contracted by an estimated 30 to 40 percent since the Taliban takeover in August last year. While economic conditions remain dire,the suspension of most international aid and the freezing of Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves has had serious economic consequences for the country.
Although to compensate, the Taliban have sought to increase tax revenue and ramp up coal exports to take advantage of higher global prices, the loss of international support, security challenges, climate-related issues and global food inflation are all contributing to a rapidly deteriorating economic situation. The Taliban’s pledge to tackle cultivation of opium poppy is a continuation of their earlier policy they introduced with some success when they were last in power more than two decades ago. Though there is no firm data to assess how the clampdown is progressing after the Taliban banned growing of poppies in April this year, media reports suggest that the Taliban have been forcing farmers to destroy poppy fields. An official US report in July also suggested that the Taliban “appear committed to their narcotics ban”.
Though obsessively inward-looking, the Taliban have however learned the hard way that they need outside help and support. The threat of famine that Afghanistan faced last winter was averted by the UN World Food Programme and organisations like the International Rescue Committee. Although the conflict that brought the Taliban to power is largely over, the overall security environment is still unpredictable, according to the UN, with the presence of at least a dozen separate militant groups opposed to the Taliban who are present in the country. According to reports in the Western media, it seems the Taliban are going to remain in power in Kabul at least for the next few years, and they are increasingly open to negotiations. After having failed the people of Afghanistan one year ago, the world should not turn its back on them now.
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule