15 August 2022 will mark the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Despite coming to power spouting promises of reform under the new Taliban 2.0, events over the past 10 months have marked the gradual undoing of any democratic gains made in the country over the past two decades. With the Taliban reintroducing discriminatory policies against women under increasingly extremist rule and a worsening economic crisis, Afghanistan’s security landscape appears as fractured as ever before.
THE ROLL-BACK OF POLITICAL FREEDOMS AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Taliban 2.0 marketed itself as a reformed organisation; one which would respect the rights of women, forgive those that had fought against them, and ensure Afghanistan would not be the safe haven for terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda that it once was. However, this vision of a new Taliban was short lived. Since coming to power, there have been growing reports of violence towards civilians, specifically, ethnic and religious minority groups, women, and members of the former government and security apparatus.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the organisation’s position regarding women. In December 2021, the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued guidance that prohibited women from travelling more than 72 km from their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. Then, in March, the Taliban announced that girls’ high schools would be closed, and in May, the Taliban’s supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, issued a decree requiring Afghan women to cover their faces in public. The Taliban also went on to dissolve five key institutions established under the previous government, among them the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the Independent Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of the Constitution of Afghanistan, and the High Council for National Reconciliation.
The moves were a clear signal that the Taliban of new was simply the Taliban of old. And as the Taliban rolls back the political freedoms and human rights secured in recent years, the country is facing growing economic and security challenges.
A SIMMERING SOCIO-ECONOMIC CRISIS
Afghanistan is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. By May 2022, 47 percent of the population were facing high levels of acute food insecurity, a situation worsened by the fact that the provision of aid represents the international community’s primary lever over the Taliban. For example, in response to the Taliban’s turnaround on girls’ education, the World Bank suspended aid projects focusing on agriculture, education, health, and livelihoods worth USD 600 million. Although the institution later revoked the move, instead only withholding USD 150 million for education, it demonstrated the absence of any alternative punitive measures to pressure the Taliban, and that foreign aid remains a lifeline for the country.
Prior to the Taliban’s return, at least 75 percent of the government’s public expenditure was covered by international grants. Although the Taliban has sought to bolster its own revenue sources, ongoing restrictions on the type of aid that can be afforded to the widely sanctioned regime means there is no imminent solution to Afghanistan’s economic woes. Any new reductions in foreign aid will put the country at further risk of turmoil. Already, the population has experienced significant internal displacement amid growing reports of conflict, and access to aid has proved a significant hurdle in coordinating a response to the devastating June earthquake in which more than 1,000 Afghans were killed.
A FRACTURING SECURITY LANDSCAPE
Meanwhile, the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening. Since the start 2022, the country has experienced a spate of terrorist attacks, including the 29 April Kabul bombing which targeted a central mosque and killed more than 50 people. The attacks have been largely claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) – the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State, which has sought to take advantage of the security vacuum in Afghanistan following the US 2021 departure. Meanwhile, the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF), an insurgency against the Taliban based in Panjshir province, continues to make claims of territorial advancement in Panjshir.
Despite Taliban claims that it enjoys popular support and holds military dominance in the country, the past 10 months have seen the rise of numerous armed movements, reflective of the multi-layered religious, political, and tribal structures present in the country. In response, the Taliban has launched counter attacks against ISKP and other anti-Taliban groups, leading to clashes across the country. Now, despite an initial decline in violence in the country immediately following the Taliban takeover, violence is on the rise once more.
LITTLE HOPE IN SIGHT
The increasingly precarious political and security environment in Afghanistan has left little space for hope or help. Aid agencies and foreign journalists alike have scaled back operations amid operational challenges, fear of persecution or due to growing safety concerns despite appeals to the contrary. With competition between armed groups emerging, and with the Taliban appearing increasingly comfortable in its extremist approach, it is likely that those seeking to address Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and human rights challenges will find themselves in the crosshairs for acts of intimidation, harassment, extortion or even kidnap.
The outlook for Afghanistan remains largely negative in the absence of a long-term socio-economic development plan that can both support and reign in the Taliban. And, with the world’s attention on conflicts elsewhere, the potential for a solution to Afghanistan’s multiple crises appears ever elusive.