Two years after the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the country is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, leaving Afghan people with little hope for the future.

Since the Taliban’s takeover of power in August 2021, Afghanistan has undergone a significant and concerning transformation that has undermined the human rights of Afghan citizens and created a major humanitarian crisis.

The regressive changes include the prohibition of women’s employment, restrictions on girls’ education beyond the sixth grade and dismantling the 2004 constitution. The Taliban has replaced the meritocracy with a system of governance known as a ‘mullahcracy’, where they filled senior administrative positions exclusively with mullahs and talibs (religious students).

In just over two years of Taliban rule, donor countries have terminated development aid to Afghanistan, and sanctions have been imposed, including a freeze on central bank reserves. The economy has been plunged into crisis and the country has once again become a safe haven for extremist militant groups.

A rapid descent into crisis

The economic collapse in Afghanistan has become a major humanitarian crisis, with poverty and hunger on the rise.

In 2021, the country’s gross domestic product contracted by one-fifth, according to the World Bank. A United Nations report found that 28 million people – two-thirds of Afghanistan’s total population – will need immediate humanitarian assistance in 2023.

While development aid was withdrawn, humanitarian aid from the United States and others totalled USD 6.9 billion between 2021 and mid-2023. But with the national economy in crisis, the impact of this money has been limited.

While the economy is no longer in free-fall, employment prospects remain poor and there has been no sign of change in the Taliban’s behaviour, casting a shadow of despair over the nation.

As American forces were withdrawing from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war, the Taliban took Kabul, seizing power from the internationally-backed government. Photo: timsimages.uk/stock.adobe.com

Most dishearteningly, women and girls find themselves deprived of any semblance of opportunity and hope for their future, as the government, rather than being their protector, has become an obstacle to their progress.

The Taliban’s rule has received legitimate criticism, both from Afghans and the international community, for establishing a system of gender apartheid, suppressing the population, establishing an exclusive government and imposing their own interpretation of religious law in lieu of a defined rule of law. Secrecy shrouds their affairs, including in regards to revenue collection and public expenditure.

With each day, Afghanistan regresses towards the first period of Taliban rule between 1996 and 2001, where an exclusively male, talib-dominated regime employed a system of gender apartheid, supported by state-enacted violence.

This can only deepen the suffering of Afghan people, ignite new forms of conflict and undermine any prospect for lasting stability. Tellingly, no state has officially recognised the Taliban government – a situation that is unlikely to change soon.

A tunnel with no light

While the Taliban holds power, they are by no means the sole embodiment of the nation.

The circumstances surrounding the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan are complex, shaped by decades of conflict and by rivalries between the United States and other powers, including Russia, China and Iran. Support of the Taliban from within Pakistan over the two decades after 2001 was also vital to the group’s return to power. Paradoxical American policies, such as the Doha US-Taliban agreement, have also contributed to this outcome.

It’s essential to note that the Taliban did not ascend to power through elections or any other legitimate mechanisms, nor did they have the inclination to do so. Their lack of popular support isn’t surprising, considering the group’s reliance on brute force and violence to assert control.

In reality, Afghanistan is an extremely diverse country of more than 40 million people. No matter how hard the Taliban try to suppress them, women and girls, young people and individuals from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities will be central to the country’s future. Acknowledging this diversity will be critical in charting a path forward for the nation.

Since seizing power in Afghanistan, the Taliban have prohibited women’s employment and restricted girls’ education beyond the sixth grade. Photo: Marcus S./adobe.stock.com

But stability and peace in Afghanistan cannot exist in the totalitarian theocracy of a Taliban Emirate. In the words of ANU Emeritus Professor William Maley, life under the Taliban is like being in a “tunnel with no light.”

The way forward is to establish a pluralistic and inclusive order that derives its legitimacy from all Afghan people, not a self-appointed few. This order would need to prioritise the protection of the rights of all Afghans and aim for internal harmony while fostering peaceful relations with the global community.

The outside world or international community can play a vital role in supporting Afghans by delivering humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and advocating for the protection of Afghan citizens’ rights, the establishment of an inclusive government and the promotion of lasting stability through intra-Afghan dialogue and settlement. It is imperative for the international community to sustain pressure and leverage on the Taliban regime.

There is a long path ahead of the people of Afghanistan in their struggles for dignity and peace. We can only hope that before too long, Afghan people begin to see some light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

Top image: 279photo/stock.adobe.com

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