LONDON and SEATTLE
In a rugged valley at the eastern tip of Afghanistan, Gul Nasar has seen his village grow and prosper since a US-led military invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001.
Yet today I couldn’t be more concerned about which of those achievements, if any, spanning education, healthcare and the economy, the renewed Taliban government will sustain.
As disappointment over the first test of Taliban control seeps into the village of Nasar, manifestations of such alarm resonate across Afghanistan.
Why we write this
The Taliban are back in control, but they face an Afghan people who protect the social gains made during the 20 years of American presence: women’s rights, health, education and the economy.
Many Afghans see the progress made over two decades jeopardized by the return to heavy-handed rule of the arch-conservative jihadists, whose ranks include many who seem ill-equipped to take on the burden of ruling.
The danger to women’s rights, the Taliban’s perennial dependence on Pakistan’s intelligence service, and the appointment on Tuesday of a men-only interim government have sparked days of street protests in Kabul and other cities that ended in shootings and beatings.
“Most Afghans did not want [the Taliban]. We want to reject this, ”says an Afghan administrator who works for a foreign non-profit organization in Kabul, referring especially to sentiment among the urban and educated population.
“We are not going to speak calmly in this case. I’m not sure if it means civil war, but it sure does mean that people are not interested in just giving it up and taking it. And there is a new generation of young people who are not afraid of the Taliban. “
Taliban fighters, boasting a military victory over a superpower, have been baffled by Afghan women who chant the word “freedom”, ignore guns pointed directly at them and disobey orders from long-bearded fighters to disperse.
The new Afghanistan
The steadfastness of women is only one element of the new Afghanistan.
“A lot has happened in the last 20 years in terms of infrastructure, children’s education, and people who have jobs,” Nasar says of his remote village, recalling how he and his companions built a multi-room school with large blackboards, carpet mats. colors and windows that let in the sunlight. The girls at the school received their first lessons in reading, writing and math.
A pharmacist arrived to run a newly built health clinic. And villagers struggling to make ends meet from their small corn and wheat fields found government jobs, many of them in local security forces, which Nasar estimates contributed $ 40,000 a month to the community.
“All of that is just gone,” says Nasar, who asked that a pseudonym be used to ensure his safety. The Taliban takeover means that the school today has no teachers, the clinic has no medicine, the local government has no employees and the villagers no longer have jobs in the security forces.
The anger in the town is now beginning, Nasar says, after days of hiding in fear as the Taliban rode in government trucks, leaving them beaten and out of gas on the side of the road.
“People are really disappointed in how the Taliban handled things – they took an existing government and turned it into trash,” he says, mocking that this generation of Taliban are “extremely uneducated people from the mountain tops.”
“There is no clear direction,” he adds, of the chaos. For the Taliban, “it is training on the job.”
Across the country, Afghans are raising questions about the impact of the Taliban takeover as US and NATO troops completed their withdrawal.
Billions of dollars in American and Western aid had produced dramatic social and economic change and raised expectations among a new generation of Afghans, factors that the Taliban are already struggling to cope with.
In an attempt on Wednesday to stop protests against the Taliban, Acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on an FBI “terrorism” list, with a $ 10 million reward for information leading to his arrest. , banned “illegal” demonstrations.
“A different generation”
“Did you see the protests? Was this possible 20 years ago? asks Fawzia Koofi, former vice president of parliament.
Ms Koofi, one of only two female members of the previous government team in mostly unproductive peace talks in Qatar, was under house arrest in Kabul by Taliban guards for 10 days before Qatar negotiated her safe departure from Afghanistan. .
“I’ve been telling the Taliban … that society has been transformed,” he says. “This is a different generation; they do not let arms and oppression rule them. They will risk their lives.
“This is a nation that will not return, for sure,” says Ms Koofi, who has survived two assassination attempts by the Taliban and aspires to quickly return to Kabul.
During years of fighting, tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed, most often at the hands of Taliban insurgents. And the former US-backed government was known for its corruption and weak governance.
But 20 years of Western intervention also improved the lives of millions of Afghans. Infant mortality fell by more than 50%, life expectancy increased by a decade, and overall gross domestic product nearly tripled. By 2017, literacy among young men had risen 28% and among women 19%, according to a US government audit agency.
Afghanistan had developed a vibrant media, a noisy political scene and all the trappings of a state, and a growing awareness of civil and women’s rights.
So the learning curve has been steep for the Taliban, who readily admit that they were not prepared to take control and rule exclusively.
“Running a country is different than being in the mountains, leading a group of 10 people,” says Ms. Koofi. “Now they are responsible, but they are far from that,” he says. Yes “unprofessional [Taliban] members “are appointed to run institutions without taking into account” gender or ethnic, religious and sectarian inclusion, I think it is difficult for those institutions to survive. “
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 Afghanistan-based Network of Analysts. in Kabul. “It is not clear if they appreciate the full scale of the economic disaster that is coming,” it said.
But time is short, as public services collapse, the economy collapses, and drought looms over a third of the country.
This week, the United Nations launched an emergency appeal for $ 606 million, noting that even before the Taliban took office in mid-August, when virtually all donor funds to Afghanistan were frozen, about 18 million. 4 million Afghans needed assistance. A 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 also warned that the “backbone” of Afghanistan’s health system is in danger, with the imminent closure of more than 2,000 health facilities, due to the funding gap.
Amid the turmoil, Afghans wonder how the key social changes of the past 20 years will translate.
As for girls’ education, banned by the Taliban 25 years ago, “the specter has slipped,” says a Western analyst who asked not to be named while his organization evacuates personnel from Afghanistan. “No one, even in the ranks of the Taliban, is gaining ground by saying, ‘There is no education for girls, period.’
The same may be true for health, after two decades of fundamental advances, even for women who were saved during childbirth by legions of newly trained midwives.
“Everyone in Afghanistan, no matter how rural and remote, now believes that they deserve and have the right to public health,” says the analyst.
“But guess what? The more conservative he becomes, the more important it is that the people who provide health services to women are themselves women,” says the analyst. “But where do these female doctors come from?”
The first signs are not encouraging. The Taliban this week reestablished its Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, whose whip-wielding executioners in the 1990s struck fear into the hearts of many Afghans, while apparently taking down the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
“They are not going to start committing to working with everyone else in Afghan civil society until they feel like they have removed the threats,” says the analyst. But on the Taliban’s statements of restraint, he adds: “I am inclined to believe that it is not all just a facade.”
The Taliban “have accomplished something that very few insurgencies, anywhere on the face of the earth in the last 100 years, have been able to accomplish,” he says. “And that speaks to a degree of sophistication and strategic thinking that tells me that they understand that they cannot hold the whole country together through intimidation and beatings, and a secret police force.”
It would be good news for an unemployed English and math teacher at a private coeducational school in Jalalabad, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation. Remember the intense focus on religious texts long ago, when you were a high school and college student under the Taliban rule.
These days, uncertainty and economic hardship have kept students away from the many private schools and universities that have sprung up since 2001, he says.
With his school now closed, he is working in his family’s store, unsure if he will teach again.
He hopes his expectations are wrong: “I’m afraid education will regress.”