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The Taliban’s Afghanistan: murder, repression and economic devastation

The de facto government remains an international pariah, but it's the Afghani people that suffer.

By Ido Vock

A year ago today, on 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered Kabul, capping days of lightning advances as the US and other allies ended their military presence in the country. The Islamic fundamentalist group, which led the country in the 1990s before it was toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001, seized power from the Western-backed government.

It was, as John Simpson wrote for the New Statesman recently, “the most shameful capitulation of its kind in my lifetime”. Afghans stormed the runway at Hamid Karzai International airport, desperate to escape their new rulers. People clung on to the sides of American transport aircraft, and dropped to their deaths after the planes took off. Around 170 died after an Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) suicide bomber detonated his vest among the crowd gathered at the airport.

The horrors continued once the last American soldier had left. Members of the Hazara minority, an ethnic group that has long suffered mistreatment at the hands of the largely Pashtun Taliban, have reported systematic human rights abuses, including alleged mass killings. Extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrests are rife in the country, according to a UN report published in July. Although the Taliban’s coming to power ended much of the outright warfare that had devastated Afghanistan for decades, attacks by ISKP, which is staunchly opposed to the de facto Afghan government, have killed hundreds over the past year.

[See also: Afghanistan after the fall]

Women and children wait to receive food donations in Kandahar. Photo by JAVED TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images

Women’s rights have sharply regressed. Contrary to the Taliban’s promises before the takeover, women and girls have mostly been prevented from receiving an education, just as they were during the 1990s. (Boys have attended school without issue.) The government has ordered women to wear full-body coverings in public. Some female civil servants have reportedly been pressured to find male relatives to replace them in their jobs. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been closed, its former headquarters repurposed into the Ministry of Vice and Virtue.

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The hollowness of another pledge – that the Taliban would not offer “safe haven” to other jihadist groups in Afghanistan – was sharply exposed when the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed by an American drone strike on his home in Kabul, where US intelligence claimed he had been living for months with his family.

Afghanistan’s economy has collapsed in the year since the takeover. International aid, which before the takeover was worth almost half of the country’s GDP and funded three quarters of public spending, has dried up. Government assets held abroad, including central bank assets, have been frozen. The World Bank estimates that Afghanistan’s GDP has dropped by between 20 and 30 per cent over the past year.

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Ninety per cent of Afghans live in poverty. Seventy per cent cannot afford food and other basic necessities, according to the World Bank. The UN special representative Deborah Lyons said in March that fears of mass famine last winter had been avoided, however. 

No countries have so far offered official diplomatic recognition to the Taliban, a key goal for the group. Their insistence on sticking to the hard-line ideology that made Afghanistan an international pariah when they last ruled make the prospects of legitimacy in the medium term unlikely. All the while, the Afghan people continue to suffer.

This article was originally published on 15 August 2022, to mark one year since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan.

[See also: Living standards in Afghanistan have collapsed under the Taliban]

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