The Taliban have consolidated power and overseen an enormous improvement in security across Afghanistan this year. At the same time, the Islamist rulers have failed to gain formal international recognition and sanctions relief by refusing to remove restrictions on women’s freedoms to public life and education.
The insurgent group returned to power in mid-August 2021 as the United States and NATO-led Western allies completed their military withdrawal after two decades of involvement in the war with the Taliban.
More than 16 months into renewed Taliban rule, fears of an economic collapse, widespread famine and massive migration of Afghans stemming from U.S. sanctions and suspension of foreign aid seem to have eased.
The lack of crisis is largely attributed to a series of exemptions granted by President Joe Biden in the U.S. sanctions and to the delivery of emergency humanitarian assistance by Western allies.
A Taliban crackdown on corruption, a marked reduction in violence and an unprecedented increase in coal exports to neighboring Pakistan have also contributed to slowing Afghanistan’s economic free fall and stabilizing the conflict-torn nation.
But the Taliban regime continues to face severe criticism for its human rights record, especially for its treatment of women.
New restrictions on women in public
Norway hosted Taliban diplomats in January for meetings with European delegates on Afghan humanitarian and human rights issues. The initiative generated hopes the Islamist Taliban would live up to their pledges of ensuring women’s freedoms and opening schools for girls in return for Western economic cooperation.
But the developments in the months that followed strained an already fragile relationship between the Taliban and the outside world. The new regime in Kabul, known as the Islamic Emirate, began curtailing women’s freedoms in breach of repeated commitments.
Hibatullah Akhudzada, the reclusive Taliban supreme leader, abruptly decided against allowing teenage girls to resume classes when public secondary schools across the country reopened in March.
Afghanistan’s rulers continued to tighten restrictions on women, banning them from public places, including parks, bath houses, and gyms. Women are required to cover their faces in public and can attend health facilities or undertake road travel beyond a certain distance only if accompanied by male chaperones. Most female government staff say they have effectively been confined to their homes or rendered unemployed.
The United Nations and Western governments have persistently decried women’s exclusion from public life as a “human rights crisis” in Afghanistan and called for reversing the rules.
“The country’s economic and social stability and the Taliban’s domestic and international legitimacy depend enormously on their treatment of Afghanistan’s mothers and daughters,” Thomas West, the U.S. special Afghan representative, told Taliban Defense Minister Mohammed Yaqub in a December meeting in Abu Dhabi.
The Taliban have also curbed media freedoms and space for civil society activists to operate has increasingly shrunk.
In a rare mid-year speech, Akhundzada rebuked international outcry and calls for him to remove curbs on women and girls.
“I am not here to fulfill your [foreigners’] wishes, nor are they acceptable to me. I cannot compromise on Sharia [Islamic law] to work with you or even move a step forward,” he told an all-male gathering of thousands of religious clerics in the Afghan capital.
Floggings, executions return
Akhundzada also directed Taliban courts toward the end of the year to begin applying Islamic law to criminal justice, leading to public floggings of dozens of Afghans, including women, in crowded sports stadiums for allegedly committing “moral crimes” such as adultery and theft.
In December, the Taliban staged their first public execution of a convicted murderer, effectively reviving the practices of the previous Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.
The reversion to harsh punishments drew international outrage but Taliban rulers rejected the outcry as “reprehensible” and an “insult” to their religious beliefs.
Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Anniken Huitfeldt told an event in Oslo this past week that her government believes in continued engagement with authorities in Kabul in order to ensure much-need aid reaches Afghans.
“On many levels women are basically erased from public life. This is a human right crisis,” Huitfeldt told an event in Oslo this past week. She defended her government’s decision to host the Taliban meetings in January and to advocate continued engagement with them, saying there is no alternative to dialogue in order to help the Afghan people.
“But the Taliban have not delivered on their promises. They have not opened the schools for girls. They have not moved towards a representative government. They do not respect human rights, as illustrated most recently by the public execution,” Huitfeldt said.
Taliban foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi defended his government’s policies and stressed the need for other countries to work toward bridging the mutual trust deficit.
“It is imperative the West revisit its policy of collective punishment and allow Afghans their most basic human right — the right to life,” Balkhi told VOA in written comments.
“After experiencing half a century of crisis and violence caused by foreign interference and great power politics, Afghans must be given an opportunity to rebuild their lives and heal their trauma through assistance, cooperation and integration so trust deficits can be narrowed and a way forward forged in tandem with the world,” Balkhi added.
Taliban hardliners in control
Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at Washington’s Wilson Center, says he is not optimistic the Taliban and the international community will come to an understanding next year. He says the Taliban polices are being driven by the religious hardliners, including Akhundzada, who have the upper hand within the ruling group.
“The trend lines are not good, and the Taliban appear to be intensifying the draconian policies that so concern the international community,” Kugelman stated.
“And the Taliban don’t care about reconciliation, recognition, and assistance from the international community. Unless the Taliban’s internal dynamics change next year in a way that allows the moderates to gain more control over policy, I doubt much will change, sadly,” he added.
Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan official and political commentator, says the Taliban leadership is using the strictest interpretation of Sharia to please hardliners, in an effort to avoid creation of splinter groups within the movement.
“However, it gives the wrong image of the Islamic faith overall. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation [the Muslim-majority nations’ grouping] has also been reluctant to extend recognition to the Taliban regime so long as the teenage girls’ schools remain closed,” Farhadi said.
“Needless to say, Western countries are not interested in having Taliban regimes’ representatives and emissaries sitting as ambassadors in their own capitals,” Farhadi said.
Taliban leaders dismiss as Western media propaganda reports of rifts in their ranks.
The Islamist rulers take credit for ending years of war in the country, but they have not been able to counter growing terrorist attacks by ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State group. ISIS-K has staged high-profile deadly bombings in recent months targeting Taliban members, the Afghan Shiite minority community, Russian and Pakistani diplomatic missions as well Chinese nationals in the country.
Balkhi rejected the criticism of their counterterrorism actions and renewed his government’s resolve to not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against other countries.
“The Islamic Emirate has been far more effective in combatting ISIS than any other state through adoption of sound policies, preemptive operations and quick reaction to incidents,” he said.
The Taliban are also battling a low-level insurgency, known as the National Resistance Front or NRF, which is active in parts of northern Panjshir province and surrounding areas. The insurgent leadership is believed to be operating out of bases in neighboring Tajikistan, but they have not been able to pose much of a threat to the Kabul regime.
The international community has also discouraged continuation of violence, fearing it could spark another Afghan civil war and eventually create space for increased transnational terrorist activities.
Norway’s Huitfeldt also noted in her December 12 speech in Oslo the Islamic State group “poses an even greater threat” in Afghanistan and it can spread internationally over time if not contained.
“We must not look away. History has taught us that it’s unwise to give up on Afghanistan. No one will be safe if the country descends into civil war or becomes a base for terrorism. That would hurt both the Afghan people and the international community.”