Afghanistan: Can social gains of last 20 years survive Taliban rule?

Wali Sabawoon/AP
Women gather to demand their rights under Taliban rule at a protest in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 3, 2021. When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, they enforced a harsh interpretation of Islam, barring girls and women from schools and public life, and brutally suppressing dissent.

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Over years of fighting, tens of thousands of Afghans have died. But Western intervention also improved lives for millions. Infant mortality plunged, life expectancy increased, literacy became more widespread, the GDP nearly tripled. Afghanistan developed a vibrant media, a noisy political scene, and an ever-growing awareness of civil rights.

Yet alarm is echoing across the country. Many Afghans see the hard-won progress of two decades jeopardized by a return to the heavy-handed rule of the archconservative Taliban, whose ranks include many who seem ill-prepared for the burden of governing.

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban are back in control, but face an Afghan people protective of social gains made during the 20-year American presence – on women’s rights, health, education, and the economy.

The danger to women’s rights and the naming of an all-male, Taliban-only interim government have prompted days of protests in Kabul and other cities that have ended in violence. Taliban fighters – who boast of a victory over a superpower – have been flummoxed by women chanting the word “freedom,” disregarding guns pointed directly at them.

“Most Afghans didn’t want” the Taliban, says an Afghan administrator working for a foreign nonprofit in Kabul. “I am not sure if it means civil war, but it sure means people are not interested in just laying down and taking it. And there is a new generation of young people that is not scared of the Taliban.”

In a rugged valley on the eastern edge of Afghanistan, Gul Nasar has seen his village grow and prosper since a U.S.-led military invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001.

Yet he could not be more concerned today, about which of those gains – if any – encompassing education, health care, and the economy, will endure renewed Taliban rule.

As disappointment with the first taste of Taliban control seeps into Mr. Nasar’s village, manifestations of such alarm are echoing across Afghanistan.

Why We Wrote This

The Taliban are back in control, but face an Afghan people protective of social gains made during the 20-year American presence – on women’s rights, health, education, and the economy.

Many Afghans see the hard-won progress of two decades jeopardized by a return to the heavy-handed rule of the archconservative jihadis, whose ranks include many who seem ill-prepared to take on the burden of governing.

The danger to women’s rights, the Taliban’s perennial dependence on Pakistan’s intelligence service, and the naming Tuesday of an all-male, Taliban-only interim government have prompted days of street protests in Kabul and other cities that have ended in gunfire and beatings.

“Most Afghans didn’t want [the Taliban]. We want to push back on this,” says an Afghan administrator working for a foreign nonprofit in Kabul, referring especially to sentiment among the urban, educated population.

“We are not going quietly on this one. I am not sure if it means civil war, but it sure means people are not interested in just laying down and taking it. And there is a new generation of young people that is not scared of the Taliban.”

Taliban fighters – who boast of a military victory over a superpower – have been flummoxed by Afghan women chanting the word “freedom,” disregarding guns pointed directly at them, and disobeying long-bearded fighters’ orders to disperse.

The new Afghanistan

The women’s steadfastness is just one element of the new Afghanistan.

“A lot happened in the last 20 years in terms of infrastructure, children’s education, and people having jobs,” Mr. Nasar says of his remote village, recalling how he and fellow villagers built a multiroom school with big blackboards, colorful carpets, and windows that let in sunlight. Girls at the school had their first lessons in reading, writing, and math.

A pharmacist arrived to run a newly built health clinic. And villagers struggling to live off their small fields of corn and wheat got government jobs – many with local security forces, which Mr. Nasar estimates brought $40,000 per month to the community.

“All of that is just gone,” says Mr. Nasar, who asked that a pseudonym be used to ensure his safety. The Taliban takeover means the school today has no teachers, the clinic no medicine, the local government no employees, and the villagers no more security force jobs.

Anger in the village is now setting in, says Mr. Nasar, after days of hiding in fear while the Taliban went joyriding in government trucks, leaving them banged up and out of gas on the side of the road.

“People are really disappointed how the Taliban handled things – they took an existing government and turned it into trash,” he says, scoffing that this generation of Taliban are “extremely uneducated people from the mountaintops.”

“There is no clear direction,” he adds, of the chaos. For the Taliban “it’s on-the-job training.”

Muhammad Farooq/AP
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid speaks to reporters in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 7, 2021. The Taliban announced a caretaker cabinet stacked with veterans of their harsh rule in the late 1990s and subsequent 20-year battle against the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan government allies.

Across the country, Afghans are raising questions about the impact of the Taliban’s lightning takeover as U.S. and NATO troops completed their withdrawal.

Billions of dollars in American and other Western aid had yielded dramatic social and economic change, and raised expectations among a new generation of Afghans – factors that the Taliban are already struggling to contend with.

In a bid Wednesday to stop anti-Taliban protests, the acting interior minister – Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on an FBI “terrorism” list, with a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest – forbade “illegal” demonstrations.

“A different generation”

“Did you see the protests? Was this possible 20 years back?” asks Fawzia Koofi, a former deputy speaker of parliament.

Ms. Koofi, one of only two female members of the former government’s team at mostly unproductive peace talks in Qatar, was kept under house arrest in Kabul by Taliban guards for 10 days before Qatar negotiated her safe exit from Afghanistan.

“I have been telling the Taliban … that society has been transformed,” she says. “This is a different generation; they don’t let weapons and oppression govern over them. They will take the risk to their lives.

“This is a nation that will not go back, for sure,” says Ms. Koofi, who has survived two Taliban assassination attempts and aims to quickly return to Kabul.

Over years of fighting, tens of thousands of Afghans have died, most often at the hands of Taliban insurgents. And the former U.S.-backed government was renowned for corruption and weak governance.

But 20 years of Western intervention also improved lives for millions of Afghans. Infant mortality plunged by more than 50%, life expectancy grew by a decade, and overall gross domestic product nearly tripled. By 2017, literacy among young men had increased 28%, and among women by 19%, according to a U.S. government auditing agency.

Afghanistan had developed a vibrant media, a noisy political scene and all the trappings of a state, and an ever-growing awareness of civil and women’s rights.

So the learning curve has been steep for the Taliban, who readily admit they were not ready to take sole control and govern.

“Running a country is different from being in the mountains, running a group of 10 people,” says Ms. Koofi. “They are accountable now, but they are far from that,” she says. If “unprofessional [Taliban] members” are appointed to head institutions without consideration for “gender or ethnic, religious, and sectarian inclusion, I think it’s hard for those institutions to survive.”

Pavel Golovkin/AP/FILE
Fawzia Koofi speaks to media before "intra-Afghan" talks in Moscow, Feb. 5, 2019. One of only two women on the former government’s negotiating team, Ms. Koofi was kept under house arrest in Kabul by Taliban guards for 10 days before Qatar negotiated her exit from Afghanistan. “I have been telling the Taliban … that society has been transformed,” she now says.

Indeed, the Taliban “showed little interest in running public services,” either during their rule from 1996 to 2001, or in areas under their control since then, according to a report this week by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. “It is unclear if they appreciate the full scale of the looming economic disaster,” it read.

Urgent needs

But time is short, as public services collapse, the economy melts down, and drought looms over one-third of the country.

This week, the United Nations launched an emergency appeal for $606 million, noting that even before the mid-August Taliban takeover – when virtually all donor funds to Afghanistan were frozen – some 18.4 million Afghans were in need of assistance. One-third of the population faced “crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity,” and the country “teeters on the brink of universal poverty.”

The World Health Organization warned, too, that the “backbone” of Afghanistan’s health care system is in danger, with the imminent closure of more than 2,000 health facilities, due to the funding pause.

Amid the turmoil, Afghans wonder how key social changes of the last 20 years will translate.

On girls’ education, forbidden outright by the Taliban 25 years ago, “the spectrum has slid,” says a Western analyst who asked not to be named while his organization evacuates staff from Afghanistan. “No one, even in the Taliban ranks, is gaining any traction by saying, ‘No education for girls, period.’”

The same may be true for health, after two decades that have seen fundamental gains, including for women saved during childbirth by legions of newly educated midwives.

“Everybody in Afghanistan, no matter how rural and remote they are, now believes that they do deserve, and have a right to, public health,” says the analyst.

“But guess what? The more conservative you get, the more important it is that the people providing health services to women are themselves women,” notes the analyst. “But where do those women doctors come from?”

First steps

The first signs are not encouraging. The Taliban this week reinstated its Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, whose whip-wielding enforcers in the 1990s struck fear into the hearts of many Afghans, while apparently doing away with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.

“They are not going to start making compromises to work with everyone else in Afghan civil society until they feel like they have eliminated threats,” says the analyst. But, of Taliban statements of moderation, he adds: “I’m inclined to believe it is not all just window dressing.”

The Taliban “have pulled off something that very few insurgencies, anywhere on the face of the earth in the last 100 years, have been able to manage,” he says. “And that speaks to a degree of sophistication and strategic thinking that tells me that they do understand that they can’t hold the entire country together through intimidation and beatings, and a secret police force.”

That would be good news to one out-of-work teacher of English and math at a private, coeducational school in Jalalabad, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation. He remembers the intense focus on religious texts long ago, when he was a high school and university student under Taliban rule.

These days, economic uncertainty and hardship have kept students away from the many private schools and colleges that have sprung up since 2001, he says.

With his school now closed, he is working in his family’s shop, unsure whether he will teach again.

He hopes his expectations are wrong: “I am afraid that education will be going backward.”

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