Almost a year has passed since the fall of my homeland to the Taliban. While the militant group and its allies celebrate a year of triumph, and the US and Nato pause for a moment of reflection, the people of Afghanistan, especially brave Afghan women, mark a year of toil, tears and horror that does not seem to have an ending any time soon.
This time last year I thought we could still reach peace. As a member of the peace talks delegation of the former Afghan Republic, my colleagues and I were hopeful for a settlement. After all, we naively believed in the narrative that was created for us. We were told that the “Taliban 2.0” is a changed group. Our international colleagues, who had met Taliban leaders in Doha reassured us that the militant group’s ideology on women’s rights had evolved.
Taliban leaders were also quick to seize newfound fame, repeating the narrative that they had changed their position on all issues, especially women’s rights. They even approached the four female members of our delegation to convince us. A senior Taliban negotiator reiterated to me in person that a “Taliban 2.0” regime would allow women to hold high political offices, including the office of prime minister.
To convince the world, other senior Taliban figures, including the leader of the Haqqani Network, a particularly conservative element within the organisation, even went as far as publishing an op-ed in The New York Times, spewing words of hope for the formation of “an inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded”.
This false narrative was amplified by scores of Taliban sympathisers and supporters, deceptively disguised as women’s rights activists, who poured into Doha from their homes in the US and Europe to give credibility to the Taliban’s “changed” position. They launched a public relations campaign, publishing articles that painted “Taliban 2.0” as having gone through a radical transformation, even claiming that they would even allow women to lead prayers.
Given the prevalence of this narrative, my colleagues and I, up until the last moments of that fateful day, August 15, 2021, were cautiously optimistic that we could save the achievements that our nation made since 2001. We failed because of the leadership of the former Afghan government, which chose to flee so suddenly at the last minute. We lost because the US and our international allies chose to pull their troops out without a peace settlement. And more importantly, we faltered because of our own mistakes, failures and beliefs in the narrative that was created for us.
So, where are we a year later?
There is no inclusive political system. It’s a government of the Taliban, by the Taliban and for the Taliban, ruling harshly and using violence and force rather than governing by consensus.
Taliban rulers have banned millions of Afghan teenage girls from school, destroying the hopes of an entire generation, yet again. Afghan women are banned from working in the justice sector. And as I am writing this, female teachers at one of my schools inside Afghanistan told me that the Taliban have just informed them that girls who are already high school graduates and who are taking university entrance exams are banned from selecting engineering, law, fine arts and other humanities and science schools.
The Taliban has abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Although it was a largely symbolic government institution created in 2001, it was still a place of solace where women could speak up. In its place, the militant group has resurrected its notorious Ministry of Vice and Virtue, which operates as the Taliban’s Gestapo, enforcing their ideology of darkness, brutally imposing further bans and restrictions on Afghan women.
Hundreds of Afghan girls who came out to protest for their basic rights in the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan have been disappeared, jailed, humiliated or forced into exile. According to the latest Amnesty International report, they have cracked down on Afghan women protestors using widespread torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions and physical and psychological abuse.
Since taking over Afghanistan, the Taliban’s obsession with banning and restricting women has been relentless. While the country is reeling from a humanitarian catastrophe, Taliban leaders have been issuing more edicts, totalling 28 so far and counting, to restrict and ban women from almost every sphere of life. The Taliban’s Supreme Leader has also abolished “man-made” laws, taking away the last remaining liberties of Afghans, especially women.
And while Afghanistan under the Taliban is fast sliding into the age of darkness, the world is struggling to find a solution.
Some argue for more aid to prevent the ongoing humanitarian disaster. This is a short-term solution but a long-term problem. More aid, while critical to saving lives, could also help sustain the Taliban’s new repressive regime.
Others, especially those who tacitly advocated for the Taliban during Doha peace talks last year, argue for removing sanctions on Taliban leaders and unfreezing the funds of Afghanistan’s Central Bank, which are held in the US. Unless there is an international mechanism in which this money is used to support the people through international organisations, falling for this argument will only bolster the Taliban’s ranks and will give away the last cards of leverage to force the militant group into genuinely changing.
There are also some who argue that more engagement with the Taliban will bring about their change. I heard this argument during the Doha peace talks. While I support conditions-based engagement that yields actionable results, I am against endless talks that are focused on issues raised by the Taliban solely. I also harbour strong doubts as to whether the current format of talking to the Taliban will lead to something tangible. From my perspective, the world has given too much to the Taliban without getting anything major in return. This must end.
Finally, I have also heard the Taliban’s advocates arguing that without the group, Afghanistan’s only other option is ISIS. My question is why should the Afghan people have to choose between a terrible option and one that is even worse? There are already several extremist groups operating in Afghanistan, drawing inspiration from the Taliban’s victory, and are actively present, posing grave threats to neighbouring countries and beyond.
The way forward starts with Afghanistan’s political leadership.
We should establish our own narrative and take ownership of our future. We can blame the whole world for our problems, but it is us and our political leaders who are fragmented, stuck with political bickering and failing to come together. Unless Afghanistan’s existing political leadership unites and takes ownership with one single narrative, our country will always stay fragmented, ruled by militant groups whose ideology represents nothing but failure, deprivation and isolation.
The international community should work towards providing the same space for Afghanistan’s political and civil society and women’s groups that they have been giving the Taliban for several years.
The international community should also move beyond humanitarian aid. They should use whatever is left of their leverage to push for an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan by working closely with regional countries. The international community, especially the US, should not end the travel ban on Taliban leaders, should not recognise its de facto authority and should not engage with the militant group’s leaders unless they agree to a political settlement which is inclusive of all Afghans.