What’s Happening in Afghanistan 1 Year After U.S. Withdrawal

OThe country’s trajectory has been spiraling since August 31, 2021, when the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan. Although many Afghans feel relieved by their departure, the country is still in a humanitarian crisis. Nearly 20 million people—about half the country—are facing acute hunger amid a significant fall in per-capita incomes and foreign currencies.

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Taliban have taken a more hardline approach. Amnesty International’s Aug. 15 report revealed that the Taliban has taken a more repressive approach to women and targeted Afghan minorities. They also engaged in extrajudicial murders of opponents.

Here’s what to know about the state of Afghanistan today.

Economic crisis in dire need

The U.S. supported government relied on the international community around 80% to fund its budget before the Taliban tookover in August 2021. “It wasn’t a strong safety net but it was a safety net nonetheless. It being taken away essentially precipitated this terrible crisis and made it very difficult for many Afghans to make ends meet,” says Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center and expert on Afghanistan.

According to a World Bank April report, per-capita incomes fell nearly one third in the final months of 2021 due to a steep fall in international assistance and the U.S decision in February to suspend Afghan central bank assets worth $9.5 billion. Although these decisions were made to stop the Taliban accessing funds, they had a devastating human impact on the country.

More recently, U.S. President Joe Biden’s executive order in February to earmark about $3.5 billion in those frozen assets from the Afghan central bank for a pot to Cover the costs of lawsuitsAfghans heavily criticize the American victims. (They later celebrated a federal U.S. judge’s recommendation Aug. 26 that 9/11 victims should not be allowed to seize assets from Afghanistan’s central bank.) U.S.-based Afghans To A Better Tomorrow called Biden’s decision “short-sighted, cruel” and warned it would “worsen a catastrophe in progress, affecting millions of Afghans, many of whom are on the verge of starvation.” The Biden Administration initially said that an equal amount would go to humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, but has since ruled out releasing that money in the near future—citing concerns that Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri had been taking refuge in Kabul.

Afghanistan relies on U.S. dollar and other hard currency to buy its goods because it imports far more than it exports. “The financial sector is hobbled—meaning that ordinary people and businesses are paying high costs to make transactions informally, and those fees get passed along to the most vulnerable consumers in the world,” says Ibraheem Bahiss, an analyst focusing on Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group, in an email to TIME.

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Kugelman states that a lack of foreign money means there’s not enough money to cover basic expenses like food, fuel, and salaries.

The Taliban’s stifling restrictions for women and minorities are not only alienating the international community, but are also directly hurting the local economy. Sima Bahous is the U.N. Women’s executive director. She claims Afghanistan has lost up to $1 billion annually due to the fact that women are effectively barred from entering the labor force.

Taliban march in the streets on a national holiday to mark the first anniversary the Taliban tookover of Kabul, Afghanistan (August 15, 2022).

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Effects on minorities and women

Despite the Taliban’s prior assurances to the international community that they would not roll back the rights of women and minorities—as they did when they last ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001—that has not been the case.

Since returning to power last year, the Taliban has issued a series of decrees restricting almost every aspect of womens’ lives. In addition to heavy restrictions on working, women are no longer allowed to travel long distances outside of the home without a male companion unless absolutely necessary—and are required to wear burqas when outside. The Taliban had promised that they would open schools again for women students but they rejected the offer for secondary schools.

The Taliban’s strict rules have left women-led households particularly vulnerable as many struggled to access humanitarian aid. “Depending on where this aid is being distributed in your province, especially if you’re living far away from the city center, getting access to that can be a problem,” says Mariam Safi, founding director of the Kabul-based Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS). “If you don’t have a male relative then you don’t have access.”

DROPS has conducted a survey of Afghan women over the past months to find out how secure they feel. “While in some provinces, physical security may have improved, women’s sense of security has worsened quite a lot,” she says. Women reported feeling trapped and in prison. “One of our respondents said that it feels like a crime to be a woman,” she says.

“What’s happening right now is gender apartheid,” says Yalda Royan, a founding member of the Afghan Women’s Advocacy Group and a feminist activist who fled Kabul during the Taliban takeover. Women are now more prone to forced marriages—either because their families can’t afford to look after them or because a Taliban militant likes a woman and asks the family to give their daughter away, she says.

The Taliban has also cracked down on the minority Hazara community, which makes up about 20% of Afghanistan’s population. Their government positions have been taken away and they are the victims of targeted attack. Amnesty International’s Aug. 15 report documented cases of Afghan minorities being forcibly evicted from their homes and unlawful killings.

Taliban fighters shoot into the air while they disperse rare women’s rally. They chant “Bread and work for freedom”, and march to the Education Ministry Building, just days before the anniversary of hardline Islamists returning to power on August 13, 2022, in Kabul.

Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images

What should the international community do?

Many believe that the first step is to negotiate a route for billions of dollars in assets frozen to be released to Afghans. According to reports, the U.S. decided on Aug. 22 that it would start talks about the assets in light of growing concern over the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. One of these options is a Swiss-based trust account that would bypass Taliban to get assistance directly into Afghan hands. “Humanitarian aid is not going to solve a liquidity crisis,” says Kugelman of the Wilson Center.

Humanitarian aid remains essential and can be seen in a variety of ways. Bahiss from the International Crisis Group states that Afghanistan cannot rely solely on humanitarian aid as it will soon run out. For a successful development plan, Western donors and other regional players need to meet with Taliban leaders. “That kind of high-level engagement is still impeded by Western squeamishness about talking to the Taliban,” he says. “We should admit that the Taliban control the country and behave accordingly, for the sake of the Afghan people.”

Naheed A. Farid, a former member of Afghanistan’s parliament and now a fellow at Princeton University’s Afghanistan policy lab, says that the “solution is perhaps that there has to be conditionality.” She is referring to the need to tie some aid to certain reforms to moderate the Taliban’s governance. But Farid is also practical and says the international community should find better ways to channel money toward non-profits and women’s groups.

She and other women activists from Afghanistan believe that the ultimate goal of inclusive governance is creating a government with local and national elections. They also want to repeal any discriminatory laws and provide universal education and equal employment for Afghans. “I still have hope that we will take our hijacked freedom back from the Taliban,” Farid says.

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