Life under the ‘new Taliban’: What’s changing and what isn’t
Last August, Taliban forces took over virtually all of Afghanistan following the chaotic withdrawal of US troops after nearly 20 years of occupation. In the initial days after the capture of Kabul, the group vehemently insisted that it had changed its ways, pledging, amongst other things, to respect the rights of women and allow for the freedom of the press. A recent report from Amnesty International debunks that claim, asserting that the Taliban has reneged on virtually every reassurance it has made since returning to power. That, combined with a sudden drop-off in international aid, has wreaked havoc on the Afghan economy and the well-being of its 40 million citizens. Across every sector and demographic group, there are signs that paint a picture of a country dangerously on the precipice of disaster.
The Taliban claimed that under its rule, women would be accorded every right within the confines of sharia law. It even went as far as to say that in the new Afghanistan, women would be working shoulder to shoulder with men. However, in the months that have followed, the group has imposed harsh restrictions on women’s education and their access to employment.
Girls have been banned from attending school after Class 6, and those who are younger can only be instructed by women teachers, who are in short supply. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), nearly all women who previously had paid employment have lost their jobs. In provinces like Ghazni, where cultural sensibilities are staunchly conservative, women have been barred from taking up any employment outside of healthcare and education. Those lucky enough to have kept their jobs are contending with a lack of pay, given that those sectors were largely dependent on foreign aid.
Reports indicate that the Taliban is implementing its policies unevenly across the country but even in the more liberal areas, the prognosis is grim.
Women are forced to wear a burqa and a long dress, are restricted from accessing technology and in certain cases, forbidden from entering shops and other commercial establishments. According to the HRW report, women are even afraid to avail of medical services, a problem compounded by the fact that there are very few female doctors left to treat them.
The situation is made worse because the majority of young women in Afghanistan were accustomed to vastly different circumstances. The share of girls attending primary school rose from 0 in 2001 to 85 per cent in 2019. For secondary school, the number is much lower at 40 per cent but still markedly higher than the last time the Taliban was in power. These draconian laws are unlikely to change anytime soon as the Taliban’s interim government excludes the participation of women. Previously, they accounted for a quarter of the country’s parliament and 6.5 per cent of its ministerial posts.
Despite promises that no former government officials would be harmed, reports indicate that the Taliban has conducted executions and enforced disappearances of former government officials, many of whom are now wrestling between the choice to flee or go into hiding. Taliban authorities have also used intimidation to extract money, food, and services from civilians under the guise of raising taxes. Ethnic minorities in particular report feeling vulnerable, especially given that educational curriculums have already been changed in order to incorporate more religious content.
Taliban leaders also imposed restrictions on the media with 70 per cent of Afghan media outlets closing since the group took over. In late March, the Taliban raided the offices of four radio stations in Kandahar for violating a ban on music and later that day banned all outlets from broadcasting international news programmes.
Most concerning, a majority of Afghans are veering on the brink of starvation. The UN World Food Programme has issued multiple warnings of worsening food insecurity and the risk of large-scale deaths from hunger throughout Afghanistan due to below-average rainfall caused by La Niña. While that cannot be blamed on the Taliban alone, its occupation of power is restricting the flow of humanitarian aid entering the country.
Without huge interventions, Afghans face an extensive risk of widespread famine in the near future. According to health ministry officials, approximately 1 in 10 Afghan babies born since January 2022 have died due to factors ranging from worsening malnutrition to the collapse of the country’s healthcare sector. Already, 95 per cent of the population does not have enough to eat and 3.5 million children need nutritional support.
Under the previous government, around 75 per cent of public spending was financed by foreign donors. Once the Taliban took over, most of that international aid dried up. Under UN sanctions, the Central Bank of Afghanistan is prevented from receiving new paper currency, which is printed in Europe. It has also been cut off from the international banking system and denied access to the country’s currency reserves. Reportedly, under the direction of the US, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also prevented Afghanistan from accessing credit and assets. Additionally, US President Joe Biden signed an executive order allowing $3.5 billion of the $7 billion in Afghan frozen assets to be redistributed to victims of the 9/11 attacks. Given that the Saudis and not the Afghans participated in the 9/11 attacks, this has upset the sentiments of those Afghans who had previously ambivalent ties towards the West.
While America and the UN have clarified that sanctions don’t apply to humanitarian work, most banks remain unwilling to transfer funds into the country. According to a recent survey by the Norwegian Refugee Council, around 85 per cent of NGOs say that withdrawal limits and the inability to transfer funds into Afghanistan are seriously hampering their relief work. Some humanitarian aid and other assistance provided by the UN and other NGOs have gradually restarted but levels remain far below what the country requires and has been accustomed to. Security concerns, business closures, evacuations, and legal uncertainties exacerbate the problem.
Withdrawals from individual accounts have been capped and the money that remains is rapidly losing value. Instead of using formal services, most groups rely on the hawala system to transfer funds, even though the service charges range from 8 per cent in cities to 13 per cent in remote areas. Before the Taliban came into power, rates were around 2 per cent.
All of this has resulted in a massive liquidity crisis that has curtailed the Afghan economy. The government lacks the money to pay for imports like electricity, food, and medicine and the private sector is being crippled by a lack of cash to pay salaries or suppliers. At least 5,00,000 people, roughly 5 per cent of the workforce, have lost their jobs since August. The United Nations estimates that in the upcoming months, more than 97 per cent of people could be living below the poverty line.
Terrorism and regional security
While sources indicate that crime within Afghanistan has decreased, many express fear about how the Taliban rule could facilitate terrorist groups in the country and motivate them outside of it. The US in particular has expressed fears that the resurgence of the Taliban would lead to a more permissible environment for terrorist groups, estimating in October that the Islamic State (ISIS) could conduct external operations against America in six to 12 months.
However, the Taliban has claimed that it has arrested over 670 ISIS militants during the last three months, adding that 25 hideouts of the terrorist group have also been destroyed.
The prominence of the Haqqani group amongst Taliban leadership is also a cause for concern. The Haqqanis along with other Taliban leaders have maintained close ties with both Al Qaeda and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). India, therefore, can rightly fear that Pakistani terrorist groups like LeT and JeM could receive support from the Taliban to train and recruit within Afghanistan. According to one Brookings report, “Al Qaeda, LeT, JeM and other groups targeting Western and Indian interests do not need the Taliban’s active support and facilitation. They need only that the new Afghan government remain largely passive — and on that count, the Taliban are likely to oblige.”
Cracks within Taliban
As they were in the 1990s, the Taliban is committed to establishing a government that marries Islamic canonical theories with the realities of creating an Islamic state in these times. However, even within the Taliban movement, there are diverse views on the forms such an order takes.
According to a report by the Combatting Terrorism Center (CTC), in its few months of governance, the Taliban has neither set out a clear plan of objectives nor a political hierarchy that the organisation would operate under. It states, “The Taliban have not clearly defined the scope or structure of their state, nor have they shared long-term plans for their rank-and-file, many of which continue to operate as they did before August 15, 2021.”
In the past, Taliban leaders favoured internal cohesion over all else. However, since the death of Mullah Omar, several leadership challenges have emerged over the years. These cracks are made more serious by the relationship between senior leaders and foot soldiers. In an article for Foreign Policy, journalist Stephanie Glinsky quotes an Afghanistan expert, writing that “many of the latter have been tasked to kill for years and largely operated on their own without being told what to do; now, they’re being governed by a hierarchical organisation and told to peacefully police a nation.” The difficulty, Glinsky notes, is in taming several associated groups so that they agree to operate within a rules-based system instead of doling out justice however they see fit.
The Taliban has managed to deliver an order and has received much political capital for its seemingly uncorrupted dispute resolution mechanisms. However, the same Brookings report suggests that while the Taliban has been somewhat successful in improving domestic security, the group still leaves a lot to desire in terms of structure. The report states that the Taliban “has no experience with or technocratic capacity for delivering or even just maintaining other existing services such as electricity or water delivery, let alone tackling complex issues like setting macroeconomic policies or addressing drought.”
Instead, the group has retreated to oaths of fealty, gestures of support, the appointment of a temporary government, and the establishment of relative law and order.
All the factors noted have driven many Afghans to leave the country whenever routes become available. Amongst those who have remained, there are still semblances of resistance. Glinski writes that in the Panjshir valley, the resistance “is quiet but alive” under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, son of notable guerrilla commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud. She states that similar pockets of resistance are found across Afghanistan “and although none are strong enough to actually launch large-scale warfare, discontent with the Taliban is widespread.”
Prominent intellectuals have also spoken out against the government, including Faizullah Jalal, a professor of law and political science at Kabul University. Jalal was jailed in January for his criticism but was released a few days later following a strong international backlash. Media outlets also report about conditions under the Taliban although they are often punished for doing so.
Social media has been used as a prominent channel for information with both Afghans inside and out of the country using digital platforms to protest against the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s dress and education. Perhaps most significantly, groups of women activists have maintained several protests on the streets of Kabul and other major cities.
While the situation in Afghanistan is troubling on many fronts, these acts of resistance can provide a glimmer of hope to people in the clutches of the Taliban. However, without foreign support, or at least, the unfreezing of Afghan assets, catastrophe is unfortunately imminent. With a starving population, a repressive government, and a flailing economy, Afghanistan’s best hope is that the international community, once so attuned to the challenges of the Afghan people, redirect their attention again to aiding those who are most vulnerable under Taliban rule.