KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (AP) – Afghanistan has undergone a dramatic transformation in half a year of Taleban rule.
The country feels safer, less violent than it has in decades, but the once aid-fuelled economy is barreling toward collapse. Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled or have been evacuated, including large numbers of the educated elites. They either fear for their economic future or lack of freedom under the group and during its previous rule in the late 1990s barred girls from school and women from work.
After six months since the Afghan capital of Kabul was ceded to the Taleban with the sudden and secret departure of the country’s United States (US)-backed president. The takeover of Kabul had been preceded by a months-long Taleban military campaign to take control of provincial areas, many of which fell with hardly a fight.
Today, the sight of armed Taleban fighters roaming the street still jars and frightens residents. But women have returned to the streets, and many young men have put on Western clothes again after initially shedding them for the traditional shalwar kameez, the long shirt and baggy pants favoured by the Taleban.
Unlike in the 1990s, the Taleban are allowing some women to work. Women are back in their jobs in the health and education ministries, as well as at Kabul International airport, often next to men. But women are still waiting to return to work in other ministries.
Thousands of jobs have been lost in the economic downward spiral, and women have been hit hardest.
The Taleban have cracked down on women’s protests and harassed journalists, including briefly detaining two foreign journalists working with the United Nations (UN) refugee agency last week.
Girls in grades 1-6 have been going to school, but those in the higher grades are still locked out in most parts of the country. The Taleban promised all girls will be in school after the Afghan new year at the end of March. Universities are gradually re-opening and private universities and schools never closed.
Poverty is deepening. Even those who have money have a hard time accessing it. At banks, lines are long as residents wait for hours, sometimes even days, to withdraw a limit of USD200 a week.
More than USD9 billion in Afghanistan’s foreign assets were frozen after the Taleban takeover. Last week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that promised USD3.5 billion – out of USD7 billion of Afghanistan’s assets frozen in the US – would be given to families of America’s 9/11 victims. The other USD3.5 billion would be freed for Afghan aid.
Afghans across the political spectrum have decried the order, accusing the US of taking money that belongs to Afghans.
The Taleban have campaigned for international recognition of their all-male, all-Taleban government, but they are being pressed to create an inclusive administration and guarantee the rights of women and religious minorities.
Senior Consultant for the International Crisis Group’s Asia Programme Graeme Smith warned against using sanctions, saying that would backfire.
“Keeping economic pressure on the Taleban will not get rid of their regime, but a collapsing economy could lead to more people fleeing the country, sparking another migration crisis” he said. He also noted that this round of Taleban rule “probably ranks as the most peaceful six-month period that Afghanistan has enjoyed in four decades”.
The Taleban have re-opened the country’s passport office, which is clogged with thousands of people a day. The Taleban have promised Afghans they can travel but only with proper documents. Those trying to leave seem largely driven by fear of a failing economy or the desire for greater freedom in a more liberal society.
Several officials linked to the former US-backed government have returned. One of the returnees, former ambassador Omar Zakhilwal, said he encountered no rancor from the Taleban.
He said he hoped that the Taleban will “find the courage” to open their ranks, guarantee minorities a say in the government and go further to guarantee rights of all Afghans.