One year forward, many steps back
Since the Taliban regained power a year ago, Afghanistan has experienced both severe economic hardship and relative peace after years of conflict. Now that peace can no longer be taken for granted, as Nicholas Nugent reports
When the US used a drone to kill al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at his home in a residential district of Kabul on July 31, it was like a flashback to 2001. That was the year the US first invaded Afghanistan, after al-Qaeda operatives killed 3,000 Americans in aerial attacks on Washington DC and New York City, remembered by the date ‘9/11’.
American-led forces went on to overthrow the first Taliban government – punishment for allowing al-Qaeda to operate from Afghan soil. It took a further ten years for them to track down and execute Osama Bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s leader, at his refuge in the Pakistan city of Abbottabad.
This time, the US struck directly at bin Laden’s successor, al-Zawahiri. They made no attempt to oust the second Taliban government, which the US unwittingly brought to power a year ago, following the withdrawal of US and NATO forces and the collapse of the Western-backed government.
Incoming foreign aid ended when the Taliban, mistrusted by the West, seized power. Previously, 80 per cent of government revenue came from abroad.
Afghanistan sank back into a desperate economic state, compounded by three years of severe drought. With farmers unable to provide even the most basic food needs, many Afghans were on the verge of starvation until the United Nations stepped in to prevent famine and alleviate the worst suffering. More than half the country’s population of 39 million depend on the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) to stay alive.
Reports abound of families selling their children in order to survive, or of pre-pubescent daughters sold into marriage. An earthquake in the east of the country in June drew attention to the desperate situation of the rural poor.
Families were divided as the younger and more agile joined the refugee exodus, leaving older family members behind.
The reversal of fortunes after the Taliban took power was felt most acutely by women, who are no longer allowed to work except in strictly prescribed roles, and girls, forbidden to progress to secondary or higher education.
Many, who were previously studying at university, fled the country while others keep a low profile for fear of being identified as ‘over-educated’, contrary to the Taliban’s orthodox code, which regards homemaking and motherhood as the only legitimate roles for women.
In a diary entry on the day the Taliban entered Kabul – published by the Afghan Bagri Foundation – one woman wrote: ‘We spent the day putting all our family’s books and documents in a bucket for my father to set fire to. I burnt all my books about journalism and politics. I felt as if a part of me was burning. I have to destroy with my own hands the things that I value the most.’
Another woman wrote: ‘We are Taliban hostages unconditionally. How sad it is to feel like a prisoner in your homeland.’
Reverting to the name it was known by between 1996 and 2001, when this reporter experienced Taliban rule, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is once again an austere Islamic autocracy where women are confined to their homes and public entertainment and television (which was banned altogether in the 1990s) must conform to the Taliban code of behaviour.
At least, some observers note, the Taliban takeover seemed to end the civil war that had raged for 20 years, giving way to what the International Crisis Group (ICG) describes as ‘an uneasy calm’. But now even that ‘positive outcome’ is in doubt.
A recent ICG report highlights what it calls the threat to Taliban rule and the world beyond Afghanistan from ‘transnational jihadist groups’ such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The American drone raid against al-Qaeda – as well as attacks in August on two mosques in Kabul, which killed at least 22 and were blamed on the Islamic State, who are at odds with the Taliban – demonstrate that peace is no longer assured.
The Taliban government also faces a challenge from insurgents of the National Resistance Front (NRF), loyal to the ousted government. The NRF is thought to be operating from across Afghanistan’s northern border in Tajikistan.
Internationally, the Taliban’s return to power in August last year has prompted a blame game. Since Afghanistan’s fate was for 20 years determined in Washington, it comes down to which American president has most to answer for.
It was George W. Bush who, in 2001, sent American forces to oust the Taliban government, accusing it of allowing al-Qaeda to operate from Afghan territory. Barak Obama sent in reinforcements in a so-called ‘surge’ in 2009.
Donald Trump’s administration negotiated the Doha power-sharing deal with the Taliban. He was all set to invite their leaders for talks at the presidential retreat at Camp David in the US, a controversial plan that was derailed when the Taliban claimed responsibility for killing an American soldier.
It was left to Joe Biden (who, as vice president, had opposed Obama’s ‘surge’) to fulfil the key plank of the Doha deal by withdrawing all US forces in August 2021. This caused the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which the US had been propping up.
America’s response to last year’s Taliban takeover was to freeze both relations with the new administration and an estimated $7 billion in Afghan state revenue held in US banks. That, together with the cancellation of most foreign aid, compounded the misery of ordinary Afghans, especially those in rural areas.
Now the Taliban have resorted to sponsoring the country’s opium and heroin trade, which they previously banned. Export of these drugs may already be the government’s chief source of income.
Wise counsel in Washington has advised Joe Biden’s administration of the risk of getting involved once again in an unwinnable war. Hence the surgical strike against al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri was a considered move to avoid ‘collateral damage’.
Yet those same advisers may portray the Taliban as ‘moderates’ in the new scenario, when compared with the forces and risks presented by both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Recognising the threat to stability from these other radical groups, the ICG advocates what it calls ‘carefully circumscribed engagement’ by the West with the Taliban as ‘the best of bad options’.
There seems little prospect of this happening unless the Taliban reverse their restrictive policies towards Afghan women and girls. Neither the United States nor other powers have any plans to recognise the government that so humiliated them just a year ago and which, arguably, has undone years of positive nation-building.
Nicholas Nugent has visited Afghanistan under all regimes including when the Taliban was previously in power from 1996 to 2001