Afghanistan “in freefall”

For the West, and especially the United States, the rapid triumph of the Taliban in the last few weeks of their 20-year mission in the country was a fiasco. On August 6, the first provincial capital fell into the hands of the Taliban, on August 15 Kabul. Numerous people then tried to flee: images of the overcrowded airport in the Afghan capital and those of desperate Afghans holding on to a plane taking off were burned into the collective memory.

Until the symbolic killing of al-Qaeda boss Aiman ​​al-Zawahiri by the US in Kabul, Afghanistan had almost completely slipped out of the limelight. And this despite the fact that the country, which has almost 39 million inhabitants, has been “in a state of collapse” since August 2021, as the Austrian journalist Feroz (“The Longest War”) puts it. One has the impression that Afghanistan is being “held in a pair of tongs”.

APA/AFP/Wakil Kohsar

The images of the chaotic withdrawal of NATO troops went around the world last year

On the one hand, Afghan society is being “punished collectively for the outcome of the war” by the international community through sanctions, on the other hand it is suffering from the “new Taliban rulers, who obviously have no interest whatsoever in opening up. They continue to adhere to Sharia, the strict interpretation of Islamic law.

Hardliners at the levers of power

Hopes that the Taliban could rule more moderately than during their rule from 1996 to 2001 have long since evaporated. “It is very clear who has prevailed, they are the hardliners,” says Feroz. It is about “the old guard around the Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Achundsada”. Although there are different views on many issues within the movement, armed power struggles among the Taliban are in vain, despite false reports to the contrary, according to the expert.

book references

  • Emran Feroz: The Longest War. 20 years War on Terror. Westend Verlag, 224 pages, 18.00 euros.
  • Waslat Hasrat-Nazimi: The Lionesses of Afghanistan. The long struggle for self-determination. Rowohlt paperback, 320 pages, 18.00 euros. Coming out on August 16th.

The fact is that the human rights situation has deteriorated enormously since the Taliban came to power. Extrajudicial killings, torture and forced expropriations are among the numerous human rights violations that, according to a recent UN report, can be traced back to the Taliban.

Journalists and human rights activists, as well as employees of the former government and security forces, were targeted by the Taliban. Violence has also been and continues to be taken against members of ethnic minorities such as Hazaras and Tajiks.

Education, job, burqa: women desperate

Above all, however, it is women and girls who suffer under Taliban rule. “Being a woman in Afghanistan means being systematically oppressed,” says Afghan-German “Deutsche Welle” journalist Hasrat-Nazimi (“The Lionesses of Afghanistan”).

Their rights have been curtailed in almost all areas of life: these days, women are only allowed to travel with a male companion. Wearing a burqa is compulsory in public. Contrary to their promises, the Taliban closed many schools for girls from the seventh grade upwards. Some professions are also closed to women. In addition, escaping domestic violence became more difficult while forced marriages increased.

Woman in burqa in Kabul

APA/AFP/Ahmad Sahel Arman

Women’s rights were successively curtailed in the past year – with sad consequences

Women’s protests and the safety factor

In view of the many setbacks, the fight for women’s rights seems as necessary as it is hopeless. In any case, it’s not over. Protests are now taking place “in closed rooms,” “where women gather, hold up signs and then spread photos of them,” says Hasrat-Nazimi. On the street these have become impossible.

All of this leaves its mark: “We know that the suicide rate has increased. That depression has increased dramatically and that many say: ‘I no longer see any reason or hope to go on living,'” says the journalist, who dedicated a book to Afghan women’s struggle for self-determination. Nowhere in the world are people as unhappy as in Afghanistan, according to a study by the polling institute Gallup.

However, Hasrat-Nazimi explains that the mood and attitude of the people depends heavily on the region in question. “There are regions – especially in the south and south-east of Afghanistan, which used to be heavily contested – where women now feel more comfortable.” Above all, the security factor contributes to this – after all, numerous civilians died during the years of US and NATO operations (drones -) Attacks to the victim. This was partly excused with the fight against terror. There was a lot of resentment and anger among the population.

US strike against al-Qaeda raises dust

In view of this, it is also unclear what the killing of al-Qaeda boss al-Zawahiri by a US drone attack in Kabul, which became known in August, means for Afghanistan. In the Doha Agreement, the Taliban had promised the United States, in return for the troop withdrawal, that they would not offer terrorist groups a safe haven.

Now the United States and the Taliban, who are repeatedly said to have close ties to al-Qaeda, are accusing each other of violating the agreement. The US accuses the Taliban of harboring Sawahiri, and the Taliban criticize the drone attack. It remains to be seen whether the killing will result in further sanctions. From the USA it was already said that the Taliban would have to answer for Zawahiri’s presence.

Every one and every second person affected by famine

This is not the only reason why the mood in the country is explosive – Afghanistan is constantly in crisis mode. “Due to a combination of factors, including a collapsing economy and persistent drought, there is a high level of acute food insecurity across Afghanistan,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said when asked by ORF.at.

Girls with water canisters after earthquake in Paktika

AP/Ebrahim Noroozi

The aftermath of the devastating earthquakes in Paktika and Khost continues to concern the country

According to an analysis by the UN World Food Program (WFP) in May, around 20 million people are suffering from acute hunger. The children’s charity UNICEF expects that around 1.1 million children will suffer from severe wasting – the most threatening form of malnutrition – this year. And just in June, eastern Afghanistan was hit by a devastating earthquake, killing over 1,000 people and leaving thousands homeless.

“The effects of the war in Ukraine are exacerbating the food security situation, driving food prices to new highs, raising the cost of essential agricultural inputs, particularly fertilizers, and putting pressure on countries in the region that ship wheat to Afghanistan to Limit food exports and prioritize local needs,” the FAO also said.

Taliban in the drug dilemma

Under the Taliban government, which is not recognized by any country in the world, income and vital aid from abroad are lacking the most. The Afghan central bank’s $9 billion, most of which is stored in the United States, is still frozen. A significant part of the population, who work mainly in the agricultural sector, is also getting into trouble because the Taliban government issued a decree in spring banning the cultivation of poppies, from which opium is produced.

Farmer on poppy field in Kandahar

APA/AFP/Javed Tanveer

The Taliban banned the cultivation of poppies, although a tenth of economic output is based on the opium business

Although cultivation was already illegal in the past, the drug business was still considered a major source of income – the Taliban also benefited from it. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), around a tenth of Afghan economic output is based on opium. The drug trade is still going on, and the ban isn’t working, “because those in power can’t offer the farmers any other alternatives,” says Feroz.

IS gives Taliban a “headache”

Despite the abuses, there is hardly any resistance to the Taliban, according to the Afghanistan expert. According to the journalist, “skirmishes” with rebel groups are mainly taking place in the north of the country, in the provinces of Panjshir and Baglan. The remaining rebel groups such as the National Resistance Forces (NRF) under Ahmad Massoud – he is the son of the well-known Mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud – lack international support for lasting success.

Ahmad Massoud, next to picture of his father Ahmad Shah Massoud, during a speech in Paris

APA/AFP/Christophe Archambault

Ahmad Massoud is considered the leader of the resistance group NRF

“There is one actor who threatens them (the Taliban, note) more seriously and also causes them headaches: that is the Afghan IS cell,” says Feroz. The terrorist militia has been responsible for attacks on the Taliban several times in recent months, and civilians have repeatedly died in IS attacks. The militia is at enmity with the Taliban.

“The suspicion here is that foreign secret services are helping the IS in some way,” says the journalist, referring to the Pakistani secret service Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which had actually supported the Taliban up to now. Due to historical circumstances, Islamabad has always had problems with “a strong central power in Kabul being in charge”.

Gloomy outlook

However, Feroz does not expect anything to change in the power structure in Afghanistan in the near future. That’s in the nature of power politics, he says: “Once someone has power, they’re reluctant to give up a piece of the pie, and that’s exactly the case with the Taliban now.”

The journalist Hasrat-Nazimi also doesn’t believe that things will change for the better for the people in the country any time soon. Rather, she fears a further escalation. The Taliban have “differences among themselves, the population is starving and of course frustration is increasing,” she says. She thinks it is plausible that attacks by the IS and also by the NRF will continue to increase – and “that there will then be a civil war”.

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