The Taliban sent shockwaves around the world last year when they rolled into Kabul on Aug. 15 and took back control of Afghanistan — 20 years after the U.S.-led War on Terror ousted them from power.
The extremist group, which ruled the central Asian country from 1996 to 2001, pitched itself as a reformed group last year, floating the idea of women in government, for example, a far cry from the days when they barred women from attending schools, banned music and stoned adulterers.
In the year since the insurgents forced Afghanistan’s military and government to flee, the Taliban haven’t shown reform with women’s rights being suppressed and various human rights violations being committed, a United Nations report published last month shows.
With that in mind, it’s hard to be optimistic about Afghanistan’s future, said Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto.
“By any objective standards, the country is a disaster. As much as half of the population is facing hunger (and) the economy is in a horrible state,” he told Global News.
“Politically, this is a totalitarian system. In terms of human rights, their record is not only abysmal, but growing more so almost on a daily basis.”
What’s happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban?
One year into life under Taliban rule, at least 700 people have been killed and 1,406 have been wounded, the July 20 UN report states. The majority of those casualties are linked to attacks by the Islamic State group’s affiliate in the country, a rival of the Taliban.
While the nation’s security has improved overall since the Taliban takeover, according to the report, Afghanistan’s economy is in shambles with the UN warning in November that the country’s banking system was on the verge of collapse.
Nearly 20 million people are growing hungry, and women’s rights — despite the advances over two decades under the West — are being suppressed.
The UN report said the erosion of women’s rights has been one of the most notable aspects of the de facto administration to date. Under the Taliban, women and girls have had their rights to fully participate in education, the workplace and other aspects of public and daily life restricted, and in many cases, completely taken away.
The Taliban have issued edicts requiring women to cover their faces except for their eyes in public, including women TV presenters, and banned girls from attending school past Grade 6.
“It is like watching a massacre in slow motion,” said Lauryn Oates, executive director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan.
“Actually, not that slowly. I expected the worst … but it surprised even me the speed at which they implemented edicts and rules … (which) some of them are actually deadly in the outcome that they’re having.”
The report added an amnesty for former government officials the Taliban announced last year has not been consistently upheld. The UN has recorded 160 extrajudicial killings and 178 arrests of former government and military officials to date.
Last month, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid called the UN report “baseless and propaganda” and its findings “not true.”
The Taliban have shown over the past year they can’t reform, Braun said.
“Any illusions that anyone would have that this is reformable, they do not understand what totalitarianism is,” he said.
“If you begin to have enough reforms, it will disintegrate on you. It’s not adaptable, and so they try to stay in power by constantly finding means of control.”
What has Canada done?
Much of the federal government’s focus in Afghanistan over the past year has been on getting Afghans out of the country.
Ottawa has promised to resettle at least 40,000 Afghans as quickly as possible, and has welcomed 17,375 under its various programs to date. But the government’s efforts have come under fire over the past year from veterans, advocates and Afghans who say they’re being left behind.
Nipa Banerjee, who worked in Canada’s Afghanistan embassy as head of Canada’s aid program from 2003 to 2007, has contacts who are still stuck in the country, waiting to come here.
Many of them applied under a special immigration program for Afghans who assisted Canada, a pathway which is reportedly winding down.
The government has pushed back on those reports.
“These people who had applied, and many of them I supported because they worked for our project, they have no hopes and they are still writing to me. I’m embarrassed that I can’t really do anything,” said Banerjee, who is also a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa.
“I don’t know what I can do about this. … I don’t think the efforts have been that great. I do not clearly understand what their problem is.”
Ottawa has denied closing the 18,000-spot special immigration program. A spokesperson told Global News in an email Wednesday that of the spots available, 15,000 had applied. Space is also available in other programs, including a humanitarian pathway for female leaders and other vulnerable Afghans, according to the spokesperson.
With no physical presence on the ground in Afghanistan, Ottawa is facing several challenges that it hasn’t experienced in other resettlement operations, the spokesperson added. Many Afghans are in need of protection, and movement out of the country both by air and land is difficult and dangerous. Afghans also need to have the right documents to travel and the ability to do so, they added.
“Every step along the way there’s a unique challenge depending on the circumstances,” the spokesperson said.
“We are focused on moving people quickly and safely, while making sure that as people arrive in Canada, they have access to a safe place and that they’re landing in communities that have the capacity to help them integrate successfully.”
Aside from resettlement efforts, Canada has also pledged $143 million in humanitarian assistance to aid partners in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries this year. Canada has refused to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government and has listed them as a terrorist organization, creating penalties of up to 10 years in prison if Canadians directly or indirectly provide them with property or finances.
The Taliban want a greater role in distributing foreign aid, but dealings around them will continue to be tricky to navigate, Braun said.
“In a sense, you might say that the Taliban hold their own population hostage, that the humanitarian situation is so dire that there’s a decent instinct we have in democracies to try to help. We want to put ideology aside and seek to relieve human suffering,” he said.
“The problem is that it’s hard to know how to do that with the totalitarian system because we just don’t know where that aid will go and by the very nature of the government, the Taliban will restrict movement access of humanitarian workers.”
Going forward, the focus for Canada in Afghanistan has to be on getting people out, Oates said.
“There’s people left behind and they’re wondering what’s going to happen to them, and there’s a very real possibility that bad things will happen to them: death, detention, torture, and that will be blood on Canada’s hands,” she said.
What’s next for Afghanistan under the Taliban?
It’s not clear what the future holds for Afghanistan under the Taliban, but there will be a time when governments will have to negotiate with them for there to be peace in the country, said Banerjee, adding that doesn’t mean having to recognize them as a government.
She fears if Afghanistan’s current problems are resolved through negotiations, civil war will break out.
“We need to continue trying for the sake of ordinary Afghans. … The people need help,” Banerjee said.
“With the military option gone, what is left is support to the poor people (in) humanitarian assistance … not directly to the Taliban, but through the UN and CSOs (civil society organizations). That might be an interim solution.”
In the meantime, Oates sees the Taliban remaining in power, but questions if they’ll be able to maintain it in the long term.
“They know how to fight, they know how to wage an insurgency, (but) they do not know how to govern, so that’s going to catch up with them sooner or later,” she said.
“It’s a miserable situation, and I think the only thing we can do is actually stay hopeful, despite this misery. Even when you’re looking at a situation that looks like a lost cause, it’s really important to still stay vigilant because the Taliban fell once before and they will fall again.”
— with files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press