Nearly three months after the Taliban’s rapid takeover, Afghanistan is descending toward one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises with an economy in free-fall. As the harsh winter season looms, aid agencies have warned that over half the country’s population — a staggering 22.8 million people — will face acute food insecurity, including 3.2 million children under five. Now in power, the Taliban’s failure to deliver basic services is exacerbating this dire humanitarian situation. But immediate relief is a distant prospect as the Taliban deliberate on how to govern the country and the international community mulls over how to engage and pressure the fledgling government.

Taliban fighters on patrol in Kabul on Sept. 11, 2021, in Kabul.
Taliban fighters on patrol in Kabul on Sept. 11, 2021, in Kabul. When women and girls vanish from offices and schools, it shows that the Taliban have enough power to dramatically re-engineer public spaces. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

With internal divisions leading to jockeying for power and a severe dearth of technical capacity, the Taliban are ill-equipped to address these challenges. “There’s no plan,” said Stephen Brooking, a former adviser on the Afghan peace process for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “How will the Taliban be using the revenue they do get? … Is there a budget that they can put together?” So far, “They haven’t moved on from being an insurgency movement to being in government,” Brooking added.   

Meanwhile, everyday Afghans are living in increasingly inhumane, squalid conditions and confronting an uncertain future. “The majority of people I know want to flee Afghanistan,” said Naheed Farid, an elected member of parliament from Herat Province. “They want to leave because they don’t see a future for themselves and their family.”

Sanctions and Aid

Amid this humanitarian crisis and economic collapse, the West is enforcing a raft of sanctions on the Taliban government. Washington has blocked the Taliban’s access to nearly $10 billion in Afghan assets housed in the U.S. Federal Reserve. Essential World Bank funding for Afghan public health services has been cut and the International Monetary Fund has suspended loan servicing. Afghanistan’s floundering economy has long been dependent on the foreign aid that has dried up since the Taliban’s takeover.

At a U.N. donor conference in September, donors pledged over $1 billion in aid. And in late October, the United States said it will provide $144 million additional aid, bringing total U.S. aid to the country and for Afghan refugees to nearly $474 million this year.

But the scale of this long-brewing crisis will require more, as a huge gap in assistance remains. “There’s a pretty big math problem here,” USIP Director for Afghanistan Scott Worden said. He noted that United States and Western countries provided $7 billion in aid before the Taliban takeover — and even with that, Afghanistan was dealing with major humanitarian problems. Now, the international community has only pledged about $2 billion in total, with sanctions on the Taliban limiting further assistance. 

Even if the sanctions are lifted and all aid is restored to previous levels, the Taliban lack the technical know-how to establish a functional economy or address the full-scale humanitarian crisis.

Taliban Divisions

The Taliban’s willingness and ability to meet the minimum conditions Western donors have put on aid and political recognition is hampered by their greater priority of maintaining internal cohesion in the face of a sudden victory that has caused different factions to fight for the right to rule the country.

The Taliban announced the composition of its caretaker government in early September, which consisted almost entirely of members of it senior leadership. There are no women, no prominent non-Taliban politicians and 30 of the 33 figures are ethnic Pashtuns. “I think one of the reasons they didn’t move for inclusive government was they were too busy trying to sort out their own internal differences,” said Brooking.

Members of the group’s brutal Haqqani Network wing hold key positions such as the Interior Ministry. “The Haqqanis are way more powerful than the rest,” said Lotfullah Najafizada, the director of Tolo News, Afghanistan’s top news network. “And it does not necessarily send good signals about a more moderate Taliban governance in the future.”

The tension between conservative and reform wings of the movement has yet to be reconciled. Chief among the issues dividing the group is women and girls’ rights and roles in society. “Taliban foot soldiers would question their leaders,” if they were willing to give women and girls the rights and freedoms they had over the last two decades, said Farid, who also served of Afghanistan’s House Standing Committee for Human Rights, Civil Society and Women Affairs. “What was the reason we fought for 20 years?”

This could push Taliban fighters to form splinter groups or even join the Islamic State Khorasan, which has already perpetrated numerous deadly attacks since the Taliban takeover. “I think the Taliban are very concerned about that split in the movement and therefore … have been cautious in their decisions,” said Brooking.

In recent days, the Taliban have made some strides in building a government, announcing the appointment of 17 new provincial governors and 10 provincial police chiefs.

Despite Taliban divisions and the struggles Afghans are experiencing, there is no viable political alternative to the Taliban for the foreseeable future. Although riven by ethnic and political divisions, Najafizada said Afghanistan needs unity on all sides if such an alternative is to emerge.

‘A Gender Apartheid’

When the Taliban marched into Kabul, they said “all the right things,” said Farid. “They said that they have no problem with girl’s education. Women can resume their jobs. In terms of women’s rights, they had no objection.” But, the Taliban quickly backtracked and began imposing restrictions on women and girls’ education and right to work. “I call the situation against [Afghan women] a ‘gender apartheid,’” said Farid.

Following the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces, some believe that the international community has abandoned Afghan women. “I cannot believe there isn’t a bigger outcry from the international community,” said Najafizada.

How the Taliban treat women will be a key benchmark in whether the international community engages with the Taliban government. Farid argued that the international community can do more now to ensure that women’s voices are integrated in aid efforts and in diplomatic engagements. Afghan women, she said, should not be looked at solely as “victims” of the Taliban or “beneficiaries” of Western aid. “Women should be part of any humanitarian delivery, planning, design and implementation of all this aid that goes to Afghanistan,” said Farid. She also noted her disappointment in the international community for rarely including women in diplomatic delegations that meet with the Taliban.

After the advances of the last 20 years, Afghan women have shown they will continue to fight for their rights. “In a country where your president has fled, there are girls who go out and protest in the face of the Taliban and express their views and demand their rights. That means that women’s empowerment in the past 20 years was meaningful,” said Najafizada.

Beyond women’s rights, many of the other hard-won gains made in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, including freedom of speech and of the press, have largely evaporated during the Taliban’s short rule. “Objective reporting is almost not there or isn’t there as much as we want it,” said Najafizada. On a more hopeful note, he added, “There are hundreds of journalists who have bravely chosen to stay behind and continue to work. We should be grateful to them.”

Moving Forward

There are signs that the international community will begin to engage the Taliban. Just this week, U.S. Special Representative Tom West said that United States was considering reopening the Kabul embassy but wants to see a “record of responsible conduct” from the Taliban. Germany’s special envoy for Afghanistan is reportedly traveling to Kabul to “reassess” Germany’s relationship with the Taliban and the Taliban’s foreign minister has met with representatives from Pakistan and China in recent days.

Can the international community pressure the Taliban to moderate their behavior or is there a domestic source of pressure that can do the same? If the Taliban are unable to achieve some legitimacy from Afghans themselves, “then the international recognition and international legitimacy will be severely lacking,” said Brooking. The question is how will the Taliban react to such pressure? “Will they respond … by adapting, by softening policies, by being more inclusive or will they have a crackdown?” asked Worden.

Afghanistan’s crises should impel more immediate urgency from regional countries, who will be forced to deal with refugee flows and instability if further chaos ensues. “I think the region made some strategic miscalculations … I fear that the region did not believe Americans would actually leave,” said Brooking. With Afghanistan descending down a dire path, “one would hope that people can come together to provide a more multilateral approach,” he added. “But, I’m not optimistic.” The Taliban have shown that they are resilient to pressure, leaving the international community in a dilemma. To address Afghanistan’s massive crises, the international community will perforce have to engage with the Taliban one way or the other. But, there are no quick or easy fixes — which means that Afghans have a hard road ahead.

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