Experts say the downfall of Ghani's government was inevitable once NATO forces started withdrawing from the war-ravaged country in May 2021 as a result of Washington's deal with the Taliban in February 2020. But few expected the country to fall to the militants so quickly.

One year of Taliban rule
How life has changed for Afghans

On 15 August 2021 the Taliban overthrew the government in Afghanistan and seized power. One year later, the country is facing multiple challenges that demand immediate global attention. Ahmad Hakimi reports

The Taliban took the world by surprise when they captured Kabul on 15 August last year, experiencing little or no resistance from former President Ashraf Ghani's forces. The Islamic fundamentalist group finally managed to return to power after the U.S. overthrew their regime in a 2001 military invasion.

Experts say the downfall of Ghani's government was inevitable once NATO forces started withdrawing from the war-ravaged country in May 2021 as a result of Washington's deal with the Taliban in February 2020. But few expected the country to fall to the militants so quickly.

Apart from the geopolitical impact of the Taliban's return to power, life for ordinary Afghans has changed drastically since last year — mostly for the worse.

Major step backwards

Despite criticism of the U.S.-backed governments in Afghanistan after the Taliban's ousting in 2001, Afghanistan had made progress on several fronts in the last two decades.

Independent media had flourished under former presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, human rights had seen a substantial improvement, an increased number of girls had started going to school and universities, and Afghanistan's middle class had experienced relative prosperity during the same period.

Over the past twelve months, these achievements have been largely reversed.

Girls in a primary school in Afghanistan (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Betrayal of the Afghan people: under former presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani independent media had flourished, human rights seen a substantial improvement and an increased number of girls had begun attending school and university. Over the past twelve months, these achievements have been largely reversed. The Taliban have not stood by their promises made in Doha in 2020. They have been reluctant to form an inclusive government in the country, while girls above grade 6 are not allowed to go to school

The Taliban have not fulfilled most of their promises under the 2020 Doha agreement. They have been reluctant to form an inclusive government in the country, while girls above grade 6 are not allowed to go to school. Also, women are not permitted to work in most sectors and they can only visit public parks on specific days.

Afghanistan's economy is now in freefall, with the UN warning of a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the country.

International recognition is crucial for the Taliban to avoid potential economic collapse. Millions of Afghans are jobless and their bank accounts are frozen. Many people are selling their possessions to buy food, with urban communities facing food insecurity on levels similar to rural areas for the first time.

In January, the United Nations made the "biggest-ever appeal" for humanitarian aid for a single country, saying it needed €3.9 billion for Afghanistan to prevent the "world's most rapidly growing humanitarian crisis" from deteriorating further.

But the international community has been reluctant to hand over the funds directly to the Taliban, fearing they would use the money to buy weapons. For the same reason, Washington has refused to unfreeze Afghanistan's bank assets.

Deteriorating women's rights

According to the UN, Afghanistan is the only country in the world where girls are not allowed to attend high school.

A large number of women working in different positions in previous administrations – from the ministerial level to office clerks – were sent home by the Taliban in the first months of their rule.

Protesting against new Taliban clothing rules for women in Kabul, May 2022 (photo: AFP)
Afghan women remain defiant: Some use social media to protest against the Taliban's crackdown, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, not to mention physical and psychological torture. "One of my daughters should have been studying at university, while another should have been in grade 11. When I look at their psychological state, I have no choice but to protest. Until I get back our rights, I will not be silenced," says Zholia Parsi, a women's rights advocate

Many Afghan women took to the streets to protest the Taliban's oppressive decisions. The hardline group used force to crush the protests, arresting many women's rights activists.

"Less than one year after the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, their draconian policies are depriving millions of women and girls of their right to lead safe, free, and fulfilling lives," Agnes Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, a global human rights watchdog, said in July.

Despite pressure from the Islamist rulers, many Afghan women are still trying to make their voices heard. Several women protesters have left the country, but at least five women's rights groups are still active there.

Some of them are raising their voice on social media against the Taliban's crackdown, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, not to mention physical and psychological torture. Zholia Parsi, a women's rights advocate, said she chose to continue her protest to safeguard her children's future.

"One of my daughters should have been studying at university, while another should have been in grade 11. When I look at their psychological state, I have no choice but to protest. Until I get back our rights, I will not be silenced," she said.

Free press under threat

Independent media is seen as an enemy by the Taliban. The sector progressed in leaps and bounds between 2001 and 2020, but now thousands of Afghan journalists are either in exile or have lost their jobs.

According to Reporters Without Borders, 43% of Afghan media outlets have been shut down in the past three months. "Out of the 10,780 people working in Afghan newsrooms (8,290 men and 2,490 women) at the beginning of August 2021, only 4,360 were working in December (3,950 men and 410 women), or four out of ten journalists," according to the watchdog.

Mohammad Zia Bumia, head of the South Asian Free Media Association for Afghanistan, said that after the collapse of Ashraf Ghani's government, many Afghan media outlets closed their operations, which rendered hundreds of Afghan journalists jobless.

The Taliban crackdown and the worsening economic situation are also the reasons behind a deteriorating media landscape, he said: "The Taliban have imposed strict censorship on media – on news as well as entertainment."

Reporters Without Borders says that women journalists have suffered more since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

"The Taliban tried to arrest me on many occasions. They visited our house several times. When they gave a warning to my family, I had no choice but to leave Afghanistan," explained Saleha Ainy, an Afghan journalist who fled to Iran.

Hujatullah Mujadidi, head of Afghanistan's Independent Journalists Association, has urged the international community to support Afghan journalists.

Trouble ahead

Despite the gravity of the situation, the Afghanistan crisis is receiving scant attention from the international community, as the Ukraine conflict and tensions over Taiwan dominate the global agenda.

Taliban fighters near Kabul in 1996 (photo: picture-alliance)
1996 all over again? When the Taliban seized power the first time the global community failed to grasp the potential consequences. Away from the global spotlight – and amid a lack of interest in Afghan affairs – the country became a hub of local and international militant groups. The recent killing of al-Qaida chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Kabul is just one example of the imminent threat. "The Taliban have ties with international terrorists. As they consolidate themselves, their tactical and strategic ties with terrorism financiers and sponsors will grow and eventually jeopardise peace and security in the region and beyond," says former Afghan government official Farid Amiri

Some observers say the current situation in Afghanistan is disturbingly similar to the geopolitical scenario in the late 1990s. The Taliban seized power in 1996, but the global community did not fully grasp the potential consequences of that development.

Away from the global spotlight – and amid a lack of interest in Afghan affairs – the country became a hub of local and international militant groups. The recent killing of al-Qaida chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Kabul is just one example of the imminent danger.

"The Taliban have ties with international terrorists. Their return to power has emboldened jihadi organisations in the region. As they consolidate themselves, their tactical and strategic ties with terrorism financiers and sponsors will grow and will eventually jeopardise peace and security in the region and beyond," said Farid Amiri, a former Afghan government official.

Ahmad Hakimi

© Deutsche Welle 2022

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