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Taliban in Afghanistan: 20 Years of Progress Undone

Kate Byng-Hall reports on the concerning developments in Afghanistan as the Taliban regains control, casting uncertainty over the country’s future.

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Photo by The Raven

After over forty years of on-off war and terror threats, the Taliban have taken back power in Afghanistan only a matter of days after the last US troops left the country, marking the start of a new and unsettling period for the nation under a “strong Islamic” government dictated by strict Shariah law.

One of the primary concerns surrounding the Taliban’s return is that they may transform Afghanistan into a safe haven for terrorist activity, potentially providing a hub where al-Qaeda could reform and provide a serious threat outside the country’s borders as well as within them.

The Beginning of the Struggle

The first Afghan war of recent years began in 1978 with the Soviet-Afghan War, resulting in the withdrawal of USSR forces in 1989. During that time, an Islamic group named the Mujahideen was formed in order to fight the Soviets for an independent Afghanistan; this force received funding from the West in the fight against the USSR. Almost all of the original members of the Taliban fought for the Mujahideen.

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was followed by a decade of civil wars running up to the start of the millennium due to fractious relations between different military groups in the country. The Taliban itself came into existence in 1994 with the professed aim of ridding Afghanistan of the corrupt warlords from the country’s 90s leadership and restoring true Islam to the nation, and took power in 1996.

In 2001, the most recent and longest-running conflict of modern Afghanistan began – the War of Afghanistan between the Afghan National Army (backed by US and UK troops) and the Taliban. The war became an international affair after the 9/11 attacks on New York, because at the time, the Taliban was sheltering Osama Bin Laden – the then-leader of terrorist group al-Qaeda and self-proclaimed mastermind of the attack – thus implicating themselves. Because of this, US troops remained in the country for two decades fighting the terrorist organisation, marking the start of the American War on Terror.

Over the past twenty years, total US expenditure on the war have reached $778 billion, while the UK (the second largest coalition force during the conflict) spent an estimated $30 billion. Around 241,000 people have died in the warzone since 2001, including over 64,000 members of Afghan forces and roughly 71,000 civilians. During the conflict, 3,500 coalition troops have lost their lives, including 2,300 US soldiers and over 450 British troops.

The Afghan people haven’t known true peace for over four decades.

Recent Collapse

In early July of this year, it was announced that the remaining US troops in the country would be withdrawn with very little notice. The decision followed the Doha Agreement, signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban in February 2020. The agreement stipulated that the Taliban would proceed with national peace talks without American supervision, but it seems they have already contradicted this, attacking Afghan national forces almost immediately after the American exit.

Some see the speed of the Americans’ retreat as facilitating the Taliban takeover, as a strong national leadership did not have the time to form independent of foreign aid. Back in July, 30-year-old Afghan Sayed Reja told CNN that “[the US troops] could have stayed for longer until the Afghanistan government was on its feet. But now they have left, and we cannot stop them from leaving Afghanistan.”

Others have even seen the US withdrawal as a symbolic victory for the Taliban, with a spokesperson for the group calling it a “positive step”, going on to say that “if foreign forces leave Afghanistan, Afghans can decide future issues among themselves. We will step forward for the security of the country and our hope for the peace would increase and inshallah we will have development.”

And, just as Mr Reja feared, the Taliban rapidly took control of the country’s biggest cities, eventually gaining complete power on 15th August by taking the capital Kabul and driving the president Ashraf Ghani to flee the country just weeks after America’s exit. The Taliban had not occupied Kabul since 2001. All the progress generated through twenty years of fighting, billions of dollars of investment and thousands of lives lost was undone in a matter of days. It is nothing short of a cataclysmic failure.

The Afghan people have been thrown into panic, as their rights, livelihoods and lives themselves are in potential danger because of the Taliban’s return. Women are at a particular risk, especially those with careers which Islamic extremists consider unwomanly and thus ungodly, thereby endangering female journalists, lawmakers, judges, academics, activists and more. As of early 2021, 27% of the seats in Afghanistan’s Parliament were held by women, but now, if the same laws are implemented as were during the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, women may not be allowed to work at all.

The Taliban has stated that women will be permitted to work as long as they do so within a Shariah Islamic framework, but there is concern that if this is the case, men and women will not be allowed in a room alone or in the same room at all, thus excluding women from many positions, especially if the opposite genders are not allowed to speak to one another.

There have been a few glimmers of hope, as female anchors and reporters have remained on Afghan television unlike in the ‘90s. The Taliban has also stated that they want to initiate an amnesty across Afghanistan and include women in its government, but it has not made clear how this could be compatible with Shariah law. Girls’ education is threatened at a fundamental level, with doubts about the extent to which girls will be able to receive any kind of non-domestic education under Taliban leadership despite claims that they will, as it was banned completely during their previous leadership.

Across the country, images of women’s bodies and faces are being removed, erased and defaced, and all women are being forced to cover themselves completely when outside, regardless of whether they would choose to do so of their own will. The Taliban has claimed that these restrictions have been implemented because they “don’t want women to be victimised”, but the reality is more sinister. Amnesty International have stated that under the Taliban’s previous leadership, “women were essentially invisible in public life, imprisoned in their home”. The expression of female existence is at risk once again for Afghan women.

The Possible Future

The Taliban has been confident in asserting that they have changed since their last stint in power, with a spokesperson saying that “when it comes to experience, maturity, vision, there is a huge difference between us in comparison to 20 years ago”. This has been widely regarded with scepticism considering they have already contradicted the stipulations of the Doha Agreement, with US national security adviser Jake Sullivan stating that “the [Taliban’s] track record has not been good”.

There is widespread concern that former coalition military facilities could be used by the Taliban not to train troops to protect the Afghan people and promote diplomacy, but as bases for terrorist groups to either grow or reform. This anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that many see the Taliban and al-Qaeda as inextricably linked; if this is true, Afghanistan could become the prime location for the terrorist organisation to regroup after the death of Bin Laden in 2011. These threats loom large, as the departure of American influence in the country makes it a “hard target” in intelligence terms; monitoring potential terror threats has been made a lot more challenging as a result of American’s withdrawal.

International leaders, including Boris Johnson, have expressed particular concern that terrorist resurgence in the country could threaten global peace once again, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urging the UN Security Council to “use all tools at its disposal to suppress the global terrorist threat in Afghanistan”.

“The Afghan people deserve to live in dignity, peace and security, reflecting the last two decades of their political, economic and social achievements, in particular for women and girls. Afghanistan must never again become a safe haven for terrorism, nor a source of terrorist attacks on others.” – G7 Leaders Statement on Afghanistan, 24th August 2021

It’s an even scarier time for the Afghans stuck in the country as the Taliban takes over. Their rapid return saw thousands flock to Kabul Airport in a desperate attempt to flee the country. In a record airlift campaign, US forces have evacuated 70,000 American citizens, NATO personnel and Afghan refugees from the capital since 14th August. UK forces have evacuated a further 10,000, and is now flying out 2,000 Afghans a day in the biggest evacuation effort in living memory.

However, the Taliban has stipulated that foreign aid must leave the country completely by 31st August. The group has made it clear that foreign presence in the country must end by the end of the month and not a day later, with spokesperson Dr Suhail Shaheen ominously stating: “If the US or UK were to seek additional time to continue evacuations – the answer is no. Or there would be consequences. It will create mistrust between us. If they are intent on continuing the occupation it will provoke a reaction.”

Despite this deadline, on 26th August, Kabul Airport and a nearby hotel were targeted by a bomb attack from an as-yet-unconfirmed source, killing at least 60 people and injuring 140 others, including US personnel helping with the evacuation effort. Boris Johnson has called the attack “despicable”, but has stated that it will not deter UK forces from continuing their evacuation efforts, saying they “will keep going to the last moment”. The attack came as concerns about potential terror threats to the evacuation site escalate as the withdrawal deadline approaches.

After the deadline passes, there are fears that the Afghans left behind will have to live in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, with the risk of famine, drought and widespread Covid-19 alongside political turbulence. David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme, has said “the number of people marching towards starvation [in Afghanistan] has spiked to now 14 million”, and that the international community must donate $200 million in order to provide sufficient food aid to the nation.

After a crisis meeting, the G7 countries (the UK, the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia) have issued a statement detailing their cautious view of the Taliban leadership, and their commitment to protecting both Afghan citizens and the international community:

“We will work together, and with our allies and regional countries, through the UN, G20 and more widely, to bring the international community together to address the critical questions facing Afghanistan. As we do this, we will judge the Afghan parties by their actions, not words. In particular, we reaffirm that the Taliban will be held accountable for their actions on preventing terrorism, on human rights in particular those of women, girls and minorities and on pursuing an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan. The legitimacy of any future government depends on the approach it now takes to uphold its international obligations and commitments to ensure a stable Afghanistan.”


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