Yama Siawash, Other Attack Victims, Their Families Deserve Answers, Accountability
Two years ago today, former Tolo News TV presenter Yama Siawash was killed in a car bombing on November 7, 2020, moments after he climbed into a government-owned vehicle in Kabul. Despite the high-profile nature of the attack, the former Afghan government failed to carry out a thorough investigation or prosecute anyone for the crime.
In April 2021, Afghan authorities claimed to have arrested 11 suspects who had allegedly confessed to the bombing and other crimes. Afghan authorities have a history of obtaining coerced confessions through use of torture. None of the 11 were prosecuted. A parliamentary inquiry concluded that the authorities also failed to carry out a forensic investigation and preserve critical evidence from the scene of the attack, including the remains of the car.
Siawash’s killing took place during a period of skyrocketing attacks on Afghan journalists. According to a United Nations report, 33 Afghan media professionals were killed between 2018 and 2021. The Taliban and groups linked to the Islamic State (ISIS) admitted responsibility for many of these, but the perpetrators of other attacks, including the one that killed Siawash, remain unknown. The UN found that impunity for these attacks had been “total.” With the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, access to justice has further narrowed as the group has dismantled the justice system and continues to carry out serious abuses against journalists.
The second anniversary of Siawash’s killing follows the International Criminal Court’s announcement that it can resume its investigation in Afghanistan. This investigation needs to address serious crimes by all parties to the conflict, including those for which former Afghan government officials may be responsible. The Siawash family is still seeking justice. His killing, and all attacks on journalists, activists, and other civilians should be at the forefront of any investigation.
No Justice in Afghanistan for Slain Journalist 2 Years On
Despite the supply and delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, the people continue to experience acute food insecurity and economic tensions.
In its recent report, the World Bank has estimated that Afghanistan’s economy ‘faces critical challenges’ in which the country’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is projected to contract further, with an accumulated contraction rate of around 30-35 percent between 2021-2022, in addition to having no improvements in per capita income. Moreover, since the re-establishment of the Taliban administration in 2021, Afghanistan has received around $1.8 billion in humanitarian aid from the international community. The United States has provided $1.1 billion in funds to assist the Afghan people during these tumultuous times. However, through relevant agencies of the United Nations, donor countries continue to provide aid to Afghanistan. Yet, despite this assistance, the Afghan communities continue to live in dire conditions accompanied by acute food insecurity, rising food prices, drought, and a lack of jobs.
Since the Taliban forcibly retook power in Kabul, the flow of humanitarian aid, provided primarily by the United States and European countries, has not effectively addressed the deepening economic dilemma of Afghanistan. According to UN calculations, twenty-five million people need urgent assistance, showing an increase compared to 18 million people from last year’s economic meltdown in Afghanistan. Public hospitals are also running out of medicine, and people, particularly children, have been infected by epidemic diseases such as cholera, measles, and malaria throughout the Taliban rule. Meanwhile, private investment has been fleeing the country. Because of economic hardships, no external financial support subsidizing private enterprises, and the reinvestment reluctance of investors and businessmen, the Public Private Partnership (PPP) status is at a zero level. These all have exacerbated the public mindset greatly.
The torn case of the Afghan economy substantially originating from the Covid-19 pandemic, political impasses, massive corruption by elites, and lingering insecurities in Afghanistan in 2020 continued to undermine the country’s economic growth. With the increased insecurity and the scheduled withdrawal of NATO and U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021, the country’s economy started to decline further, encompassing a wide gamut of critical areas and industries, such as education, health, investment, and trade, impacting daily living and the productivity of markets. Foreign organizations also steadily reduced their activities in Afghanistan and closed their missions in different working areas before the complete withdrawal of Western forces.
U.S. sanctions and the central bank’s $9.3 billion in frozen assets contributed to the economy’s sharp decline, resulting in the restriction of the Afghans’ interactions and engagements with the rest of the world. Sanctions and a weakened economy have intensely affected many people in Afghanistan. Some have reportedly resorted to selling their organs and children to buy food, and some even committed suicide. Furthermore, the massive flow of Afghan refugees to neighboring and western countries reflects the increasingly troubled economy, persecution, insecurity, and, more importantly, the ambiguous future of the country under the rule of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA).
Although the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) announced its annual budget for the first time in May, this year essentially rests on collecting national revenues and a significant dependency on coal exports to Pakistan for funding. However, more is needed to address the current economic catastrophe and the challenges ahead. Rising global prices coupled with Afghanistan’s crumbling economy after Russia’s war in Ukraine exacerbated Afghans’ social and economic conditions due to increasing inflation. The facts on the ground illustrate that many families will continue to suffer and endure poverty and food shortages if they do not receive considerable attention. In the latest Global Hunger Index 2022, Afghanistan ranks 109 out of 121 countries and has fallen six spots signaling a precarious future.
Fundamental Challenges to Afghanistan’s Economy Recovery
The Taliban has still not achieved international recognition because it has not met the pledges made to the international community concerning human rights, women’s rights, and inclusive governance in Afghanistan. It has also created domestic dissatisfaction with the Taliban and significant trauma to national legitimacy. Therefore, non-recognition has inevitably resulted in Afghanistan being internationally isolated along with critical trade curbs, banking systems fallouts, and constrained people-to-people contacts, all a considerable blow to the already weakening economy of Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the improved security after the Taliban takeover, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), an opposing group to the Taliban, has become a dominant and rising threat to Afghanistan’s security and stability, killing 700 and wounding 1,406 Afghans by carrying out bombs and suicide blasts coinciding with the Taliban’s rule. Such insecurity and threats have triggered apprehensiveness throughout all classes of Afghan society, particularly the wealthy businessmen, traders, and investors who show no interest in investing in Afghanistan’s private or public sectors. More importantly, Afghanistan has become ignored after the asymmetric media attention given to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the burgeoning ‘Great Powers Competition’ coming along with it.
Alternatives for Economy Recovery
Despite the supply and delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, the people continue to experience acute food insecurity and economic tensions. It implies that foreign assistance for Afghanistan’s people has been temporarily advantageous but not effective enough to resuscitate the devastating socio-economic conditions of the country. Hence, the international community should consider a unified, consistent, and balanced mechanism to address and encompass Afghanistan’s multi-dimensional challenges. Such potential models include developing community-based small and large projects in sectors such as health and education and subsidizing private enterprises through UN-affiliated agencies. Permitting foreign investment would be an effective and helpful approach that would create job opportunities for laborers instead of humanitarian assistance. Such microeconomic and grassroots techniques will actively help poor people to have income for their families.
In this regard, rather than China and Russia providing diminutive humanitarian assistance, the United States and European countries can play a more significant role in financing Afghans. This strategy will allow for a further loosening of the Taliban’s draconian laws and motivate them to uphold principles towards engagements. Accordingly, proactive engagements through efficient diplomatic channels and other interactions with the Taliban are critical to compelling the Taliban to abide by the pledges made to the international community for the prosperity and development of Afghans. Otherwise, there is a possibility of a further downward spiral reaching more instability, emerging threats, the spread of extremism under religious beliefs and ideology, and opium poppy cultivation that can spill over throughout the world.
Masom Jan Masomy is an assistant professor at the Regional Studies Centre, Afghanistan Academy of Sciences in Kabul, Afghanistan. He writes about Afghanistan, Central Asia and South Asia.
Is There a Way Out of Afghanistan’s Economic Nightmare?
More than one year after the Taliban’s nearly unimpeded takeover of Afghanistan, religious freedom and associated rights in the country are spiraling towards an all-time low. The modest gains in these freedoms made over the past two decades risk complete erasure. The withdrawal of NATO forces and subsequent rapid fall of the previous government in 2021 sparked an emergency evacuation of the international community and of Afghans who supported their work. With energies focused on the closure of diplomatic offices and the withdrawal, there has been limited contact with actors remaining in Afghanistan.
This series invites scholars, diplomats, and regional and policy experts to share their insights into the country and provide recommendations to ensure protections for religious and ethnic minorities and other vulnerable communities, including women and children, across the country.
After capturing Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban essentially had two options in dealing with their rivals and the local population: suppress them into silence or negotiate a settlement. The Taliban regime has chosen the former strategy. They banished Afghanistan’s constitution, appointed an all-male, all-Taliban acting cabinet, replaced the national flag with their party banner, and excluded women from public participation.
The rebel group signed a deal with the U.S. in 2020 which was a pivotal moment in running their violent campaign home. And, after forcefully seizing power, they harbored Al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahari in the capital of Afghanistan against the provisions of this deal. America subsequently killed al-Zawahiri by a drone strike.
Washington may wish to announce at home that “the war” in Afghanistan has come to an end, but reality dictates that we acknowledge it is not over yet.
For twenty years, the United States and its global allies backed the former government of Afghanistan to fight terrorism with a narrow focus on Al-Qaeda, which had orchestrated the September 11 attacks in America. Then Washington assessed that Al-Qaeda was degraded enough to not have the capacity to target America, and that threats of terrorism were no longer confined only to the geography of Afghanistan.
Thus, the U.S. not only shifted its sights to withdrawal but also it negotiated with the Taliban—which had in the first place provided the breeding ground for Al-Qaeda—for safe passage on their way out. The U.S.-Taliban deal, which was endorsedby the United Nations, paved the way for the latter to overrun Afghanistan last year.
Ever since, the world, including the U.S., appears to remain in a season of policy drought regarding the country. The American administration has been grappling with one major question: engage the Taliban or isolate them?
Washington officials have run toward both poles at different times. But largely, the administration in America has hidden behind a pragmatic engagement as a middle ground to define its policy toward the Taliban.
This approach may have seen some short-term gains, but only in two areas: evacuating certain at-risk people and providing some humanitarian relief to the local population.
While it’s true that the US has imposed sanctionson the Taliban, which have been upsetting to the regime, it has also engaged the Taliban and lifted travel bans at times, upsetting anti-Taliban forces. Rather than doing whatever is most expeditious for the U.S.’s own interests in a given moment, the U.S. should maximize their efforts toward policies that understand their own well-being is bound up in the well-being of Afghanistan.
But engaging the Taliban alone is not the way to mutual well-being.
This tentative approach falls short of the U.S.’s policy, which also aims to counter terrorism and promote human rights in Afghanistan. The insufficiency of this approach is starkly depicted in recent and ongoing events inside the country. Neighboring Uzbekistan was hit by rockets fired from Afghanistan’s soil repeatedlyover the last year. Al-Qaeda’s leader al-Zawahiri was found sheltered by the Taliban in Kabul when he was eliminated in July. The Taliban have continued to impose restrictions on women including their ban on education of teenage girls.
Conditions for Armed Conflict
A studyof rebel regimes at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies shows that weak institutions, arms availability, and economic and political grievances—which are all existent in Afghanistan—create the conditions for new cycles of armed opposition. Suppression provides the motivation for the public to revolt.
U.S. officials have said they do not back another armed conflict in Afghanistan. However, they have also stated that it is not a matter of if but when the armed conflict reemerges. Their assertions have been supportive of forming an inclusive government to prevent the recurrence of full-scale violence. Pursuing these policies will require a more active effort than mere statements. Beyond the current tenuous policy, Washington should contribute to fostering the conditions for a political process that leads to the formation of a government that is shaped by all Afghans, not just the Taliban. As a start, the U.S. should adjust the degrees of its engagement with local factions in such a way that does not favor the Taliban over others.
When achieved, a peaceful political settlement will counter terrorism, advance human rights, stem further displacement of Afghans, and stabilize the humanitarian crisis.
Neither total isolation of the Taliban nor pragmatic engagement is conducive to these ends. The United States should instead proactively engage with all Afghan stakeholders including political factions, civil society activists, women, youth, and anti-Taliban armed groups.
Turning a blind eye to the existing and emerging opposition groups will not make them disappear. America should instead communicate with them, resisting the dichotomy of either ignoring or supplying these factions, to balance the scales of political engagement that currently weigh in favor of the Taliban. Congress needs to step in should the American administration shy away from such a stance.
It is true that the Taliban regime has actual power now: control over state institutions, government revenue, and arms. Opposition—be it political, civil society, or armed—may be in their initial stages of formation, but they carry a powerful potential: the ability to mobilize and threaten the regime.
America’s engagement with all Afghan factions, among other methods, can serve as a tool to exert pressure on the Taliban to consider talks with other local factions. It also broadcasts a confident message to the people of Afghanistan that America stands with them in their fight for a free and peaceful country, that America has not abandoned them.
This is the time to create history by actively promoting a settlement or allow the momentum toward conflict to determine the fate of Afghanistan and the world by extension—again.
Aref Dostyar is a Senior Advisor for the Afghanistan Program for Peace and Development (AfPAD) at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
Previously he worked as Afghanistan’s Consul General in Los Angeles, USA. Prior to that, Dostyar served at Afghanistan’s Office of the National Security Council in the positions of Director General for International Relations and Director of Peace and Reconciliation Affairs.
Dostyar’s writing and interviews can be found in the New York Times, the BBC, the Foreign Policy Magazine, the Middle East Institute, and several other publications.
Born and brought up in Afghanistan, Dostyar earned a master’s degree in International Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame through a Fulbright Scholarship.
If the U.S. supports the idea of an inclusive government in Afghanistan, then it needs to have an inclusive engagement with all Afghan factions
Ever since the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, there has been widespread, almost universal, rhetoric in international diplomatic circles—ranging from the United Nations to the European Union and the United States to Russia—thatthe Taliban need to form a more inclusive government, with varying definitions and views on what that means in concrete terms.
The U.S. had negotiated theDoha Agreement with the Taliban in 2020 and tried unsuccessfully to get the Taliban and the previous Islamic Republic government led by former President Ashraf Ghani to reach a negotiated end to the conflict and to embark on a peace process. When this completely failed with the final withdrawal of U.S. and other international troops followed by the unexpectedly quick Taliban victory last year, it was only natural to reach for inclusivity arguments; with peace negotiations no longer possible, the Taliban nevertheless should broaden the political base of their new regime by bringing in non-Taliban elements and influences. Unfortunately, the inclusivity argument is flawed and is undermined by patterns of historical experience.
What Is Wrong With the Conventional Wisdom
A retrospective perspective is important for absorbing lessons from the failure to negotiate a peace settlement in Afghanistan, but the salient question for Afghanistan in the immediate future is: Are there realistic prospects for the new regime to become more inclusive in response to international pressure and rhetoric? And would this be in the Taliban’s own self-interest?
Authoritarian regimes have their own dynamics and incentives, and efforts to influence them from outside must be informed by what makes sense in terms of their own overriding priority of regime as well as individual leadership survival and longevity. Asking an authoritarian regime to take actions that risk undermining—let alone toppling—it is, beyond a certain point, a fool’s errand.
Contrary to how democracies work, authoritarian regimes and their leaders are subject to different success factors. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith explore this issue in their book, “The Dictator’s Handbook,” building on associated research. Whether authoritarian leaders and regimes can stay in power, the authors assert, depends on:
Keeping the ruling coalition small and manageable; not expanding the circle of power much beyond the minimum necessary to maintain control over the country.
For the authoritarian ruler (or ruling junta), reshuffling the coalition, especially in the immediate aftermath of coming into power, to keep potential rivals in check.
Controlling the country’s revenues, and deploying them to reward key supporters and constituencies, pay security forces, and more generally strengthen the regime.
In aid-dependent countries, this includes skewing aid in favor of the regime in various ways ranging from outright corruption to “taxing” aid in different ways and directing it to favored beneficiaries.
Cracking down on any opposition and preventing it from organizing, sometimes through extreme measures such as executions, massacres, starvation, forced relocations, and the like.
Beyond these general principles, what does historical experience tell us about how victorious insurgencies govern after they come into power? This has been an under-researched area, partly because there have been relatively few insurgent victories compared to other outcomes of civil wars, but several recent papers shed some light on this question.
Terrence Lyons argues that victorious insurgencies naturally gravitate toward becoming authoritarian regimes, reflecting their military background and leadership built up during their successful campaign as well as their wartime governance of the territory they took control over during the fighting. Moreover, Lyons argues, victory itself provides the insurgent group with some degree of legitimacy for their authoritarian tilt, and transitional processes postconflict can be used as instruments for consolidating power. This is, however, a debated area, with Monica Toft asserting that victorious insurgencies have an opening to become more democratic, whereas when governments win, they tend to become more authoritarian. Among non-elite populations, astudy of the Balkans suggests that people exposed to war-related violence tend to embrace more authoritarian values.
Kai Thaler divides victorious insurgent groups into two broad categories: (a) programmatic, aiming to achieve long-term goals including transforming socioeconomic and political relations and providing public goods and services, and (b) opportunistic, viewing the state as a prize to win and motivated purely by power and material gain. Thaler argues that victorious programmatic insurgencies will focus on expanding the footprint of the state and its influence over social and economic issues, providing more public goods and services. Opportunistic victors, by contrast, will engage in minimal state building, retain or ignore existing state institutions, provide limited public goods and services, and focus instead on security forces and economic rent extraction, allocating resources for individual and group benefit. The stronger states that some victorious insurgencies build often become more repressive and authoritarian. Thaler notes that “[r]ebel victory can potentially provide peace and public benefits in the short term, but it may come at the cost of longer-term authoritarianism and repression.”
The Taliban, a religious ideology-driven anti-foreign movement, does not fit squarely into either of these two categories. Observed Taliban behavior demonstrates significant elements of opportunism: for example, taking over existing state structures rather than building new ones, not prioritizing provision of public goods and services, focusing on security and rent extraction, using government appointments to balance and reward important members of the group, and the like. But they do have a general program—albeit vague—of ridding the society of what they perceive to be un- and less-Islamic features and foreign influences. And personal greed appears to be less of a motivating factor among the Taliban than has been the case in purely opportunistic power grabs by other insurgents and rebels.
Are the Taliban Performing Like a Typical Authoritarian Regime?
How should the Taliban be assessed in light of these patterns of international experience? Overall, much of what the Taliban have done over the past year (typically the first six months to one year is the most dangerous period for thesurvival of a new authoritarian regime or leader) is not only understandable but largely sensible from the perspective of their own success factors and their leadership’s self-interest.
First, while taking over the formal state levers of power and existing government institutions from the fallen Ghani administration, theTaliban have not strayed from theirauthoritarian roots. The Taliban movement was formed in the authoritarian mold and developed as such during a quarter-century of civil war and insurgency. The movement is headed by a top religious figure (the Amir), with high-level decision-making by a sizable, but far from open, group of religious, military, and political leaders; there is no pretense of democracy.
Second, the Taliban have prioritized maintaining the broad outward unity of their movement despiteemerging tensions between the Amir and his associates in Kandahar and formal government leaders in Kabul.
Fourth, the Taliban have resisted international and domestic pressures to broaden their government even symbolically, let alone become more inclusive in any meaningful sense. They face challenges in managing their own factions, which would be aggravated by broadening their governing coalition.
Fifth, the Taliban have been remarkably successful in collecting, consolidating, and centralizing customs revenue, while sharply curbing corruption in customs and getting rid of the bulk of the numerous road checkpoints that had generated hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes under the previous government. Total revenue collected this year is likely to reach $1.5 billion, and possibly more; this is less than the peak collection under the previous government but impressive given the collapse of the Afghan economy, which has not led to a commensurate decline in revenue.
Sixth, the Taliban have stopped publishing any data on actual budget expenditures, nor have they published a full budget for the current fiscal year (March 2022-March 2023), just some headline numbers. Though sufficient data on revenues has been made available to assess performance, broadly confirmed byfield research, no information is available onactual budget expenditure, which apparently is being treated as a “state secret” by the Taliban administration. While this is bad public finance practice and is harmful to good governance and accountability to the citizenry, budget secrecy allows the Taliban to deploy the resources they are mobilizing to benefit the regime with no external scrutiny.
Seventh, where they perceive it to be in their own interest, the Taliban strive to maintain capacity in several key government agencies, including the customs administration. (The automated customs software was quickly revived and is now employed more effectively than it was under the previous Afghan government.) It also appears that they have tried to maintain existing capacity in the intelligence agency, for obvious reasons.
Apparent Taliban Mistakes
Where do the Taliban seem to have gone wrong? Any conclusions must be tentative, since we don’t know much about the inner workings of Taliban decision-making and managing tensions within the movement behind the scenes. Nevertheless, certain actions seem at least superficially puzzling and contrary to their movement’s self-interest, such as:
The comprehensiveopium ban announced by Amir Haibatullah, which, if implemented, will not only harm Afghanistan economically but also alienate some individuals and groups within and around the Taliban, particularly in the south and southwest of the country, who have been beneficiaries of the drug industry and could cause problems for the regime.
The back-and-forth over the closure of girls’ secondary schools in much of the country, even though women are allowed to apply to and attend university and private girls’ schools remain open, which undermines the public picture of Taliban unity and has damaged their international relations.
The blatant harboring of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul and the subsequent U.S. drone strike killing him, which embarrassed the Taliban domestically and internationally, undermining their claim that they are implementing counterterrorism commitments.
The inability to prevent domestic terrorist attacks by the Islamic State-Khorasan and occasional attacks from Afghan soil on neighboring countries, which undermines their narrative and selling point vis-a-vis the Afghan population and regionally that they are bringing security and stability to the country.
What explains these apparent departures from authoritarian good practice? There are several, not mutually exclusive, possibilities here: The Taliban are learning the ropes of running an authoritarian state, and perhaps they understandably are making some miscalculations; behind-the-scenes political economy dynamics, not fully apparent from the outside, may be influencing some of their actions; they may not focus on or care about certain issues; or the Taliban may be prisoners of their own ideology and rhetoric, which could outweigh considerations of narrower self-interest for the authoritarian regime and its leadership. (The opium ban, for example, went out of its way to be comprehensive and strongly stated, probably unnecessarily so.)
And the Taliban seem almost congenitally unable to make even minor gestures to the international community that would not compromise the regime’s power, authority, or core ideological principles, and would not make their regime more inclusive in any meaningful sense. An example is reaffirming the nominal autonomy of Afghanistan’s central bank (which is enshrined in current Afghan law), appointing non-Taliban technocrats to leadership positions there, and bringing in technical assistance where needed.
More generally, many authoritarian regimes that brutally repress their people maintain decent diplomatic and economic relations with the outside world—not least by putting forward distorted narratives and making announcements and commitments they don’t plan to adhere to but that superficially assuage international concerns. The Taliban have not succeeded in doing so.
What Can Foreigners Do—If Anything?
Informed by historical experience with other victorious insurgencies and authoritarian regimes, how should the U.S. and other countries approach and try to influence the Taliban? This is a major challenge, as little that has been tried over the past 14 months has worked in meaningfully influencing Taliban behavior and actions.
Unfortunately, what has not worked and will not work in the future is clearer than what might work. In particular, preaching international laws and norms, the need to form an inclusive government, and the like—even when incentivized by the possibility of recognition and implicit or explicit offers of aid—has not made much of a difference and isunlikely to change the Taliban in the future.
One set of actions that effectively influenced and changed regimes in Afghanistan’s own historical experience as well as in other countries—external support to armed groups—appears to be ruled out in the near-term future. Foreign powers—some of whom supported such groups in the past—are refraining from doing so now. They may be considering the likelihood that the resulting conflicts and, at the extreme, “proxy wars” risking a breakdown into general civil war would be more damaging to Afghanistan and to their interests than the present situation with the Taliban in power.
Leadership succession (through natural causes or otherwise) is the Achilles’ heel of many authoritarian regimes. Though it may sometimes present opportunities for change, it may also give rise to major risks such as widespread conflict during a succession crisis. External involvement in leadership changes and succession easily could prove short-lived, ineffective, or even counterproductive, as happened with U.S. and international interventions in several presidential election crises during the Islamic Republic regime. And—an example of direct, kinetic action to change leadership—the U.S. drone strike in 2016 that killed the preceding Taliban leader, Akhtar Mansoor,did not succeed militarily or politically and delayed incipient negotiations with the Taliban until a few years later when the military equation was even more favorable to them. Foreign governments, however, would do well to maintain sound knowledge, engagement, and flexibility with respect to the Taliban regime so as to be in a good position to respond to any succession developments and associated opportunities that may arise as well as to mitigate risks.
So, what might work in the short run to influence the Taliban? Given the experience over the past year, as well as in earlier peace negotiations and other interactions with the Taliban, expectations need to be modest.
Arecent report from the Afghanistan Analysts Network admits that the Taliban’s collection of large amounts of revenue is unlikely to translate into some kind of “social contract” whereby much of the money is returned in the form of public services to the population, nor is it likely to give rise to some kind of tax revolt. The traders, transporters, and businessmen, however, who pay the bulk of taxes under Afghanistan’s narrowly based tax system (heavily reliant on customs duties and taxes paid at border crossings) have demonstrated the ability to exert some degree of influence over tax rates and other business issues that directly affect their profits, and thereby how much tax they can afford to pay. According torecent research, the Taliban seem aware of profitability considerations and have proved willing to renegotiate when, for example, private businesses argue strongly that high tax levies render their activities financially unviable.
Another segment of Afghan society that appears to be able to exert a degree of influence over the Taliban at the local level is traditional rural stakeholders, including tribal leaders, village elders, and the like. The strength of this channel of influence varies across different parts of the country and, perhaps, also the idiosyncrasies of local Taliban leaders and their relationships to the central regime.
Neither of these potential sources of influence should be overstated, and their impacts would tend to be around specific issues that are important to the stakeholders concerned and local problems. Moreover, foreigners attempting to exert leverage through these channels, however well intentioned, is especially risky since that could discredit the Afghan stakeholders and trigger a Taliban backlash—making the situation even worse.
The question remains whether intermediaries at least somewhat trusted by the Taliban could argue cogently in favor of actions in the Taliban’s own self-interest as an authoritarian regime and leadership. Again, such interventions cannot be seen to be orchestrated by international actors, as it would discredit the intermediaries. Nevertheless, there may be scope for some indirect advice to the Taliban, oriented toward the regime’s own self-interest.
One example might be to put forward technical arguments for the de-politicization of certain government functions that are not sensitive to the Taliban ideologically and would not threaten their power. The central bank may be a good example, and improvements there would be beneficial in helping to stabilize the economy.
Overall, the U.S. and other international partners are left with very limited levers to influence and change Taliban behavior—let alone to push them to become meaningfully more inclusive, which is not in their own self-interest. Recognizing this is the first step toward a more practical approach.
William Byrd is a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he focuses on Afghanistan; the views expressed are his own. A development economist by background, he was previously with the World Bank and has worked on and lived in China, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Let’s Not Kid Ourselves: Afghanistan’s Taliban Regime Will Not Become More Inclusive
A failure by the United States, successive Afghan governments and the Taliban to seize opportunities has put Afghanistan back at ‘square one.’
The United States, successive Afghan governments and the Taliban missed several opportunities to achieve peace over the past couple of decades. Today, under the Taliban government, which is not recognized by a single country, Afghanistan is facing twin economic and humanitarian crises while the marginal gains made on women’s rights have all but evaporated.Masoom Stanekzai, a former chief peace negotiator for the Afghan government and director of the National Directorate of Security in Afghanistan, believes three historic mistakes were made in the decades-long peace process. First, he said, the exclusion of the Taliban from the Bonn Conference in 2001 that produced an agreement on a post-Taliban government was a “strategic mistake” that resulted in squandering a “unique opportunity” for peace. Second, Pakistan, through its support to the Taliban, played the role of spoiler in the peace process. And third, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 diverted attention away from Afghanistan at a critical moment.Steve J. Brooking, a former special advisor on peace and reconciliation at the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) who led U.N. engagement with the Taliban, quoting Lakhdar Brahimi, a former head of UNAMA, described the exclusion of the Taliban from the Bonn Conference as the “original sin.”
Habiba Sarabi, a former member of the Afghan government negotiation team led by Stanekzai, and former deputy chair of the Afghan High Peace Council, a body established in 2010 to negotiate with the Taliban, pointed out another flaw in the process. She said that when the peace process got underway participants were looking for a “quick fix” and, as a result, critical constituencies, particularly women, were ignored.
Stanekzai, Brooking and Sarabi participated in a panel discussion hosted by the United States Institute of Peace on October 25.
Following the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, Stanekzai said Afghanistan was turned into a laboratory for experiments with peacemaking, development initiatives and security sector reform. But, he said, the disconnect between these efforts meant instability persisted.
In 2013, an opportunity for peace presented itself when the Taliban opened an office in the Qatari capital Doha following months of diplomatic negotiations. It was a good idea to have an official address where people could engage with the group’s leadership, said Brooking. However, that opportunity was lost because the Taliban opening of the office violated certain terms of a memorandum of understanding, which was brokered by Qatar. The Taliban shut the office following objections raised by the United States and then Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the Taliban’s use of its white flag and a sign that read “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — actions that were expressly prohibited in the memorandum of understanding.
By 2018, the peace process had gained momentum. Then U.S. President Donald J. Trump appointed Zalmay Khalilzad special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation and tasked him with striking a deal with the Taliban.
The United States engaged in direct negotiations with the Taliban in Doha. The Taliban had refused to negotiate with then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which it considered a puppet of the West, as it did the Karzai government before it. The fact that the Ghani administration was excluded from negotiations — just as the Taliban was excluded from the Bonn Conference in 2001 — delegitimized the Ghani government, said Stanekzai.
Khalilzad’s appointment marked the beginning of a process with the Taliban that Kristian Berg Harpviken, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, said caused “considerable unease” among Afghanistan’s neighbors “almost all of whom actually want the United States out, but then almost all of whom also worry about the consequences” of a U.S. withdrawal.
The United States’ priority was the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan, while for Afghans it was that this withdrawal be done in a responsible manner that results in peace, said Stanekzai.
Brooking said that after the United States signed the Doha agreement with the Taliban in 2020, the Afghan negotiating team was sent in “with one hand tied behind their back” and later when U.S. President Joe Biden announced his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan it “cut the legs off the negotiating team.”
“After that, failure was inevitable,” Brooking said. By August 2021, the Taliban had overrun Kabul and Ghani had fled the country. Brooking said Karzai and Ghani were equally to blame for lost opportunities for peace. He said they had “scuppered various initiatives for peace, presumably for their own interests.”
Women Ignored in Peace Process
Describing women as strong peacebuilders, Sarabi, who as governor of Bamiyan province was the first female governor of an Afghan province, said they were “forgotten” and “ignored” in the peace process. “The peacebuilding that people are doing at the local level with the community is very important; the social peace,” Sarabi explained.
Sarabi said that when peace negotiations got underway, some organizations took the initiative to have an “inclusive mechanism for peace” with the aim of building a bridge between civil society, women’s groups and community elders and the peace negotiations team. However, she said, “the Taliban was not ready to listen to the voice of people and the voice of women.”
Sarabi pointed out that the Doha agreement did not contain a single word about women. “The quick fix announcement of [the] peace process damaged everything,” she said, adding, “Peace cannot be [achieved] within a month or some months.”
A big problem, Sarabi and Stanekzai said, was a lack of consensus among the United States, Afghan leaders and Afghan civil society on the definition of peace. For example, Sarabi explained, while there were many discussions about reducing violence these came to naught in the absence of a mechanism to reduce violence. Stanekzai said the U.S. and Afghan governments were focused on the peace process but not on the end state.
Managing the Spoilers
According to Stanekzai, Afghanistan’s stability has been impacted by several factors, including government corruption, extremism and the fact that the country is caught in the middle of global and regional power rivalries.
“In order to understand Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan we certainly have to understand Pakistan’s relationship to India,” said Harpviken, pointing to the longstanding rivalry between India and Pakistan.
Stanekzai described the detrimental role played by “spoilers” — specifically Pakistan — in the peace process, noting that neither the U.S. government nor the Afghan government properly managed this challenge.
“Pakistan has been a problem,” said Brooking, adding that while U.S. intelligence agencies and successive administrations were well aware of the support Pakistan was giving to the Taliban, nothing was ever done about it.
“The United States often has a myopic view of conflicts,” said Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at USIP, who moderated the discussion. “We put ourselves at the center of the problem and then, in this case, we focused on Afghanistan” and then “recognized that Pakistan had a central role in both supporting the Taliban and affecting events on the ground in Afghanistan.”
In Bonn, Brooking recalled, the United States told the world “you are either with us or against us.” Pakistan reluctantly sided with the United States, but then the invasion of Iraq created a “massive distraction” which Pakistan exploited to rearm the Taliban, he said.
In 2010, with the establishment of the special representative’s office in Washington, “the policy of the day became Af-Pak,” said Harpviken. There was an eagerness to “pursue a genuine regional engagement,” but that goal was quickly shelved as “the strategy for the neighborhood morphed into primarily being about preventing Pakistan from undermining the project in Afghanistan,” he added.
Afghanistan’s neighbors pursued their own objectives that were largely informed by security threats. As a result, Harpviken said, despite the fact that there were “very attractive economic and social prospects” that they could have pursued, the immediate threat to these countries was “existential,” which is what shaped their relationship with Afghanistan.
Harpviken said the United States did not consistently pursue a regional concert in support of Afghan peace. As for Afghanistan’s neighbors, he asked: “Why was it that they didn’t see the potential for them in a peaceful Afghanistan?” The answer to that is quite simple, he said, adding: “The obstacles to getting to that objective, attractive as it was, seemed to them to be insurmountable. Therefore, minimizing risk would be the wise thing to do.”
‘Back to Square One’
Worden noted the shift in the United States’ global position in 2001 when it was a unipolar actor with greater economic and political leverage than it has today. Following its military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August of 2021, Worden said, the United States has become “increasingly reliant on the region to address the risks that come from Afghanistan, and Afghans themselves rely on the region to hopefully provide a source of additional stability.”
However, there may be only so much that regional powers can do. Harpviken said that while Pakistan has been “absolutely instrumental” in the Taliban’s ability to return to power, it now finds that the Taliban are “not obeying orders” and “in many ways we are back to square one.”
Unlike in the 1990s, when the Taliban government was recognized by Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, no country today recognizes the government in Kabul. Nevertheless, Harpviken said many of Afghanistan’s neighbors have developed working relationships with the Taliban. “We do see a gradual adaptation,” he said, adding, “geography matters and if you are a next-door neighbor you want to minimize the risks.”
Eventually, Harpviken said, “A level of consistent engagement with the Taliban will be necessary, recognizing fully that we will not see dramatic reform within the Taliban neither in the short nor the long term.”
Missteps and Missed Opportunities for Peace in Afghanistan
Officials, armed fighters widen ‘enforcement,’ beatings, puberty exams for schoolgirls.
Afghanistan’s Taliban are escalating restrictions against women, sending armed men into girls’ classrooms and forcing staff to inspect girls’ bodies for signs of puberty to disqualify them from further schooling. Afghan women report Taliban enforcers beating women whom they find wearing Western-style pants beneath their regime-mandated outer robes. The Taliban are intensifying these assaults in response to women’s rights campaigns in Afghanistan and Iran, and amid their own struggle to consolidate power. The Taliban’s intensifying violations against women risk mass atrocities and may presage greater violent extremism and threats to international security. Policymakers must respond.
Taliban Repression — and Its Danger
The new abuses of women reflect Afghanistan’s manifold, rising crises. Fourteen months after the Taliban recovered power in Kabul, they rule by force and are unlikely to make any significant effort to broaden the base of their regime, USIP analyst William Byrd argues. Their repressiveness is heightened by the country’s economic collapse.
The Taliban’s top leaders — largely ethnic Pashtuns from southern regions around Kandahar and educated in hardline religious schools in Pakistan — face murky divisions among Taliban sub-groups such as the Haqqani network, rooted in eastern provinces, and ethnic Uzbeks in the north. (While the Taliban often are identified as a Pashtun organization, they do not represent the Pashtun population broadly.) Indeed, USIP’s Andrew Watkins has noted, the Taliban’s internal divisions are most dramatized over women’s rights. In March, the group’s Kandahar-based emir, Haibatullah Akhundzada, suddenly vetoed a promise by Kabul-based Taliban officials to lift their prohibition on schooling for girls beyond sixth grade.
Peacebuilding experience shows that campaigns of threat or violence against marginalized groups, notably women, pose risks of mass atrocities. While narrow, openings exist to influence Taliban behavior. U.N. Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett, who yesterday underscored the deepening crisis, deserves more resources and a more robust mandate to investigate the myriad abuses of women’s rights that are being reported and, if warranted, refer crimes to the International Criminal Court. In addition, governments that engage with the Taliban or shelter Afghan refugees should appoint special envoys for Afghan human and women’s rights to press the case for reform in diplomatic engagements with the Taliban.
A New Spiral of Abuses
Afghan women activists, who cannot be identified for their safety, said this week the Taliban’s newly intensified attacks and threats against women are partly a response to Afghan women’s sustained demands and protests for basic rights — and to the high-profile women’s rights uprising in neighboring Iran. An alarming development, the women told USIP, is this: The Taliban previously forced their restrictions on women through their official “morality police.” But now, Taliban leaders’ more strident directives to control women have emboldened, or compelled, countless other men into abusive roles as “enforcers.” Men ranging from ordinary Taliban gunmen, many with little to do since the end of their long war last year, to civilian supporters of the regime have begun ad hoc enforcement against any woman they may see. Taliban have forced shopkeepers, teachers and other ordinary citizens into enforcement roles.
Women activists in Kabul are reporting the new abuses to colleagues abroad via e-mail and encrypted text messages. Details also are emerging via social media and notably from Rukhshana Media, a news website run by Afghan women journalists. Rukhshana published several articles this month on new restrictions and violence against women and girls, in Kabul as well as Herat and other provinces.
Soon after re-taking power last year, the Taliban scrapped the 20-year-old Women’s Affairs Ministry and re-established the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which the 1990s Taliban regime used to repress women’s rights and their roles in public life. While the regime declares it is respecting women’s rights, its “virtue and vice” enforcers — most of them bearded men wearing white tunics with a ministry emblem — have policed women’s dress in streets, on buses and in other public spaces. The Taliban have steadily tightened restrictions on women’s dress, their ability to move in public spaces, and their study or work in roles it dislikes. They declared new restrictions in May, ordering women to cover their faces in public, halting the issuance of driving licenses to women and forbidding them to travel long distances from home without a close male relative as chaperone. Still, the degrees of enforcement vary.
The recent weeks’ heightened repression and assaults on women have come heavily in Kabul, which, with 4.5 million people, shelters more than 10 percent of the country’s population. Increasingly, Afghan women said, abuses are committed by gunmen dressed in ordinary street clothes, whom women could not identify. These armed squads entered women’s classrooms in universities and private schools across Kabul, demanding to inspect female students’ clothing. They forced the students to lift their long skirts and robes to show their garments underneath. Where the enforcers found girls or women wearing Western-style pants, they beat them with electrical cables, the women said.
Puberty Exams and Beatings
In public elementary schools, the Taliban have been appointing women, trained in the regime’s approved madrassas, as teachers and principals. The Taliban order them to enforce the regime’s requirements for women and girls to wear all-concealing clothing. In recent weeks, the Taliban’s virtue and vice ministry has in some schools instructed principals to examine the bodies of girls as young as 10 or 11 for signs of puberty — and to expel from school any girls who appear older or whose bodies are beginning to mature.
Women in Kabul said Taliban have entered girls’ elementary schools to enforce the regime’s months-old order that students and teachers keep their faces, except for their eyes, covered even in class. In the raids, as recent as yesterday, enforcers beat accused violators with electrical cables, sticks or gun butts.
“My fifth-grade daughter was beaten by Taliban for not having her face covered” in her classroom, a mother in Kabul told USIP. “She is terrified to go outside and refuses to attend school.” Another woman described Taliban enforcers stopping her family in their car this week. “They asked my husband about his relationship with the ‘black head,’ referring to me.” When he said they were married, the enforcers took each out of the car to ask them separately “what we had for dinner the night before, the name of my uncle and where we lived.” They let the family go, but only after ordering the woman to move from the front seat, next to her husband, to the back, with the children.
Women in Kabul report new abuses by Taliban gunmen in residential districts across the city. On Sunday, enforcers raided several girls’ schools and privately run education courses in the southern neighborhood of Chihil Sutun, beating students and teachers for wearing pants as undergarments, outer robes that did not reach their ankles, or clothing in colors other than black, the women said. Taliban abuses and restrictions reported by women in recent weeks include these:
On October 11, enforcers expelled about 60 female students, most from the ethnic Hazara minority, from dormitories of Kabul University. A university student said the expulsions appeared to be reprisals for Hazaras’ public protests over violent attacks against their community, and for Taliban’s suspicions that students had joined protests against the September 30 suicide bombing that killed at least 53 people at a Hazara education center in Kabul that was teaching girls. The student said Taliban warned it would retaliate against anyone reporting the expulsions to news media.
Female students who earned high school diplomas before the Taliban takeover, and who this month sat for university entrance examinations, report that Taliban officials prohibited them from registering for studies in fields including engineering, economics, veterinary science and journalism. An education official confirmed the prohibitions to Spain’s EFE news agency but was contradicted by an official Taliban spokesman.
Taliban are continuing routine torture and killings of women. Their officials in the central province of Ghor this month condemned a 24-year-old to execution by being buried to the waist in a pit and then stoned to death for alleged adultery. She committed suicide before her scheduled killing, two Afghan news agencies reported.
Afghan women’s resistance to the new Taliban repressions continues in part via protests — at times in public and often in private but shared via social media. It continues as well through women’s reporting of the rising violence. In an effort to throttle both tactics, women told USIP, Taliban enforcers also have been forbidding girls from carrying cellphones that can record video — a primary way that women in both Afghanistan and Iran have energized their movements and international support for them.
Taliban Escalate New Abuses Against Afghan Women, Girls
The inside story of Kabul Bank and the nearly $1bn of money laundering and corruption that devastated Afghanistan.
From its foundation in 2004 to its collapse six years later and subsequent attempts to recover its vast losses, this is the inside story of the rise and fall of Kabul Bank.
Involving nearly $1bn of money laundering, deception, embezzlement and failure of accountability, the banking disaster hit the savings of many Afghan families and left a legacy that contributed to events in Afghanistan years later.
In The Kabul Bank Crash, this financial “house of cards” story is told by those on the inside and beyond.
The collapse of the economy has led families across Afghanistan to make desperate decisions, including, for some, giving young daughters in marriage in exchange for a bride price. To gain more insight into this, AAN’s Ali Mohammad Sabawoon sought to interview fathers of young brides. He identified about a dozen such men, but most felt too ashamed and remorseful to talk about it. The four men who did speak described the pressures that had led to their decision, one they never imagined they would have to make, and the emotional turmoil that accompanied it. Unfortunately, for all four men, the difficult decision to marry off their daughters did not end up solving their problems (with input from Kate Clark). Although there are no solid statistics to corroborate whether underage marriages are on the rise in Afghanistan, anecdotal evidence, media reporting and the context of widespread and deepening poverty strongly suggests they are. The first report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan, published on 10 September 2022, which quoted some survey data, expressed concerns about “the reported surge of child marriage.” Anecdotally, it also seems that more Afghans than in the past knew or had heard about families marrying off a young daughter. For this reason, the author decided to talk to such families to better understand how they had come to this decision and whether there was indeed a trend.
It turned out to be difficult to find people willing to be interviewed on the topic. While the author managed to identify and contact 11 fathers who had married off an underage daughter, and they all admitted to having done so, seven were unwilling to speak about it. Only four of the fathers agreed to an interview. Those who did speak – and most of the ones who did not – admitted to feeling guilty, depressed and ashamed over what they had done.
The four fathers who spoke to AAN were from Helmand, Kunduz, Laghman and Kabul city; the girls who were married (or promised in marriage) varied in age from 5 to 13. The two oldest girls, both 13 years old, had a wedding ceremony and moved into the houses of their husbands, respectively a 45-year-old mullah who already had a wife and the 20-year-old son of a business partner the father owed money to. Both fathers said they thought their daughters were happy in their new lives, although it would probably have been difficult for them to admit otherwise, and the girls themselves may have felt it impossible to ‘complain’ to their fathers if they were unhappy.
The arrangements for the two younger girls, a 11-year-old girl contracted to the 20-year-old son of a landowner and a five-year-old girl contracted to the seven-year-old son of a neighbour, were different. These girls were only promised in marriage. However, in Afghanistan, this ceremony, often translated as ‘engagement’ – kozdhda in Pashto and shirin khori in Persian – is considered binding and backing out of the subsequent marriage itself will bring enmity between the families. The families of these girls reached an agreement that the marriage would take place only after their daughters had reached puberty or the parents thought that their daughter was ready to be married. Till then, they would stay at their parents’ homes.
None of the girls were consulted about their marriage. In some cases, they were not even informed beforehand. The fathers generally feared they would cry a lot. All four of the fathers did say they had consulted their wives, and most also more widely within the family. One of the wives decided to meet the prospective groom to see if he and his family were suitable and herself agreed to the marriage; two opposed the marriage, but were eventually ‘persuaded’ or ‘gave in’, and the views of the fourth mother were not reported.
One striking feature of the interviews is that none of the fathers who spoke would normally have considered marrying off a young daughter. In all four cases, they felt the pressure to repay their debts was inescapable and there was no other way to find the money. All of them, including the ones who did manage to clear their loans, quickly found themselves again without money or income – no better off than before, but now having married off a young daughter.
The interviews were conducted in July/August 2022, by phone and in person, and have been lightly edited for clarity and flow.
1. Father of six children, 62 years old, Pashtun originally from Ghazni, living in Kabul city: “In our community, people call a bride price the ‘meat of a daughter.’ I’ve been eating my daughter’s meat and soon I will finish it.”
I married my 13-year-old daughter to a 45-year-old mullah from our village in Muqur district in Ghazni province. We’re relatives, but not very close. He’s a wealthy man and already has another wife who’s older than him; he has three children from her. His brothers came to my home and said they wanted me to marry my daughter to their brother. I asked them to give me some time so I could talk their proposal over with my family. I consulted my close relatives, and my wife and son as well. After two weeks, we reached the decision that I should do it and give my daughter to the mullah.
I threw a party and invited the other family. The mullah’s six brothers and some of his other relatives came. I also invited some of my own close relatives, men and some women. At the [engagement] party, I gave my daughter to the mullah. We agreed on a bride price – 1,000,000 Pakistani rupees (about USD 5000). We also agreed that the jahez would be bought by the groom’s family.So they were the ones who supplied all the necessary things for my daughter’s household, not me.
Marrying my girl off at this early age was the most difficult decision I ever made in my life, and to a 45-year-old man who already had a wife. But speaking frankly, I had no other options left. I had been a police officer, first in Dr Najib’s era and then in the Karzai and Ghani eras. I was retired when Ashraf Ghani was president and had been getting at least some of my pension every year, but for the last two years, I didn’t receive any. My son was a police officer in the interior ministry in Kabul. He lost his job too.
I was in debt for eight months of rent to the landlord – a total of about 50,000 afghanis (around USD 550) – and I’d also spent money on the wedding of my older daughter. Shegot married three years ago to a teacher, when she was 21. I only took money from the groom’s family to buy her jahez [so, no bride price] and I spent about 100,000 afghanis (around USD 1150) on the different ceremonies. We have to follow some of our traditions. If you don’t, people will laugh at you. I also owed about 70,000 afghanis (around USD 800) in loans from friends and relatives. I paid off these debts using the bride price I received for my younger daughter.
The wedding was about four months ago. The groom’s family paid the bride price in three steps. They gave me 400,000 rupees (around USD 2000) when the couple was engaged. Two months later, they gave me 300,000 (around USD 1500). I received the remaining 300,000 a few days before the wedding of my daughter.
Recently she came to my home. It was during Eid, she spent four days with us. I think she’s happy because she didn’t complain about her life. In the beginning, after she was engaged, she cried a lot. I was also very frustrated and anxious and I couldn’t sleep for several nights. For weeks, I felt exhausted and my heart didn’t want to speak to anyone. But there was nothing left that we could do, other than marry off my daughter so we could feed the rest of the family.
In the past, people would sometimes marry their daughters while they were still children, but for the last fifteen years or so, I hadn’t heard of any girl being married in childhood – at least not until recently. Now, the practice has increased again and I’ve been hearing about it again.
I never imagined I would marry one of my daughters while she was still a child. And I’ve been spending my daughter’s bride price. In our community, people call this money the “meat of a daughter” because taking a bride price is completely illegal in Islam. But I’ve been eating my daughter’s meat and soon I will finish it.
2. Father of five children, 40 years old, Tajik from Dasht-e Archi district, Kunduz province: “I really made a blunder. I married my underage daughter because of poverty and now I still remain in poverty.”
There are eight people in my family. I have two wives and five children. The daughter who I gave in marriage is my eldest child; she is 11 years old. She doesn’t go to school. My whole family, including my wife and brothers, are uneducated.
I used to have a job in the government where I received 13,000 afghanis as my monthly salary (nowadays worth around 150 USD). I was able to feed my family on this. When the government collapsed, I lost my job. I didn’t have any alternative, except to marry my daughter to someone. I married her to a 20-year-old man. He is the son of one of our villagers, but we’re not relatives. In our family it isn’t a custom to marry small girls, we always waited until puberty. I’m the only one within my family who’s marrying a daughter who’s still a child.
I did this, even though her mother didn’t agree. But my other wife, who’s the girl’s step-mother, helped me make the mother of the girl agree. Finally, after about a month, she consented. We didn’t tell our daughter at first that we were getting her married. When she found out about it, she cried a lot.
We had a small celebration, in which the father-in-law of my daughter gave me 30,000 afghanis (around USD 350). At the engagement party, we repeated our agreement that my daughter wouldn’t be married until she reached puberty. We’d also decided that the father-in-law of my daughter would pay me the rest of the bride price within six months. The full bride price was 250,000 afghanis (around USD 3000).
But more than six months have passed and he hasn’t given me the remaining money yet.
He’s not a bad man. I thought he had enough money to give me, because he has more land than many of us in the village, but unfortunately it turns out he didn’t have the cash. He’d also made a plan to marry his daughter and I knew he would probably receive more money than me because his daughter was an adult. The bride price for a woman in our area is usually around 400,000 to 500,000 afghanis.
He did get his daughter married – to someone who is not from our village and not even from our tribe. I went to the engagement party. I think the bride price they agreed upon was 600,000 afghanis. But the father-in-law of my girl was only given 50,000 afghanis by his in-laws on that first day. Since then, he has received nothing.
I’m now helplessly waiting for the money he owes me. I really made a blunder. I married my underage daughter because of poverty, but now I still remain in poverty. I believe this happened to me because of the sin I perpetrated by marrying off my small daughter.
3. Father, 50 years old, Tajik from Nangrahar, living in Laghman province: “After I paid off the loan, very little money was left. I’ve now finished all of it.But I’m happy that at least one of my children can find a meal three times a day.”
I married my 13-year-old daughter to a young man of 20. I was indebted to shopkeepers for around 150,000 Pakistani rupees (around USD 750). Some were continuously demanding that I repay the loans. They were even going to my relatives and telling them that I should pay back the money I owed. Finally, I decided to sell my land. After that, I took the money and started a business with another person. We were buying cows and after a few days selling them in the market, making profit on the difference in price. We both invested in the business, but my partner, who was also from Nangrahar, invested more than me.
After two months, we sold six cows with a profit of about 60,000 Pakistani rupees (around USD 300). The buyer took the cows and told us he’d send the money via hawala. We trusted him because we’d sold him cows twice before. But he went away and didn’t send us our money. He just disappeared. We still don’t know where he is. We searched a lot for that man, but we couldn’t find him.
My business partner gave me about 200,000 Pakistani rupees as a loan (around USD 1000), but after we didn’t find the person who robbed us of our money, my partner kept calling me to give him back his money. One day, he came to our home. I offered him tea and my daughter brought it in. When he saw my girl, he suggested I should marry her to his son, instead of paying him back his money.
I was very angry but said nothing. I just laughed, but I felt furious. When he left, I told my wife what the man had said. My wife wept but said nothing. She was also anxious about our economic circumstances. My business partner kept coming and asking me for his money. Finally, my wife said she would go to his home to meet his son and his wife. She went and when she came back, she said she’d agreed to the marriage. She said the boy was a good boy and his mother was a good woman, but I could see that she was unhappy about it.
Finally, we decided to marry our daughter to the son of my partner. We had small celebrations on both the engagement and the wedding day. My partner invited his close relatives and so did I. In our community, we don’t take too high a bride price. It’s not our custom. I only took 200,000 afghanis (around USD 2500).
After I paid off the loan, very little money was left. I’ve now finished all of it. I go to the bazaar looking for work. Sometimes, I can find some, but most of the time I come back empty-handed. When my wife and children see me come home without finding any daily labour work, they become unhappy.
I think my daughter is happy with her new family. And I’m happy that at least one of my children can find a meal three times a day. At least one of my children is fed.
We didn’t consult our daughter because we knew if we talked it over with her, she would cry. And she did weep a lot on the day of her engagement, as did her mother. But we could do nothing else. I was in such a bad economic situation that I had to marry my girl at such a young age.
4. Father of three children, 36 years old, Pashtun from Helmand province: “I used to condemn people who gave their children in marriage. And I really regret what I did, but there was no other alternative.”
I married my five-year-old daughter to a seven-year-old boy in our village. I talked it over with my wife beforehand. She didn’t agree, but I persisted and finally she gave in because she knew there was no alternative.
I owed 100,000 Pakistani rupees (around USD 500) after I bought a cow on credit. I thought I would graze the cow and sell the milk, and use the money to support my family and repay the loan. But the cow died. So, I tried to find a job in Lashkargah and elsewhere in Helmand. but I couldn’t find any work. For a while, I worked with a man in his shop, but then I lost that job too.
Three months after I lost my job, the due date to pay back my loan arrived. The man I owed money to kept coming to my house twice a week, asking for his money. After a month, I decided to shift my family to another district to hide myself from the man, because there was no way for me to find work and make money to repay the debt on the cow. But two months later, the businessman found me. He insisted a lot that I pay him back his money.
When my neighbour found out I was in debt, he suggested that I marry my daughter to his son. We eventually agreed he would give me 300,000 Pakistani rupees (about USD 1,500).He gave me 100,000 rupees in the week after we agreed to the match and said he’d pay the remaining money during the wedding. We agreed that the wedding would take place after my daughter’s 15th birthday, so in about ten years’ time.
After I received the money, I gave it to the owner of the cow. Now I don’t have any money left and I don’t know how to find work. I really regret what I did, but there was no other alternative.
I always used to condemn people who gave their children in marriage. I even tried not to go to their engagement parties. Now I’m full of remorse. I didn’t consult my close relatives at the time, but I hear that my fellow villagers are criticising me a lot, though they don’t say anything to my face. The people castigating me are my close relatives, who I didn’t consult when I was making this decision.
The four child marriages in context
Child marriage, especially of girls, is not uncommon in Afghanistan. Young girls are sometimes married to close relatives to strengthen kinship ties. For example, two brothers living together in an extended family may want to reinforce their bonds and decide not to delay the engagement until a girl has reached puberty. In that scenario, a brother contracts his young daughter to a nephew, but the two would usually not actually get married until she was considered old enough.
There are also darker reasons for giving a young girl in marriage, for example, to end a blood feud. In a so-called bad marriage, the family of the person accused of murder or manslaughter gives a bride to a male member of the victim’s family. Such marriages, always relatively rare, have become rarer in recent years. For example, in the author’s community there have been only three cases of bad marriages in recent decades, all about 35 years ago; two were to settle of cases of elopement and one followed a murder. However, where they do take place, a young bride is often preferred by bride’s family, as she is less likely to object or be able to block the marriage. Young girls also fetch lower bride prices, so her family loses less than if they were to marry an older daughter.
As our four interviews illustrate, a more common reason driving early marriage is economic distress, and the practice, usual in Afghanistan and many other countries, of the groom’s family paying money to the bride’s family in the form of a bride price (walwar in Pashto and toyana and sherbaha in Dari). In general, older girls (but not too old) fetch a higher bride price. However, if a family has no older unmarried daughters and they are in desperate need of money, they might feel forced to consider marrying off a younger girl, especially in times of extreme economic hardship. In Islamic law, the groom should also pay a financial pledge, mahr, to his wife. In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, the mahr payment rarely reaches the bride. She can exempt the groom from paying it, or ‘voluntarily’ give it to her father.
The author has witnessed marriage agreements in his community between close relatives who wanted to strengthen the ties between their families by promising their children to each other, but these engagements rarely involved the payment of mahr or a bride price, because of the close ties between those involved. If they did, the payments were minimal. He has never witnessed the marriage of an underage girl that involved significant payments of money if her family had a comparatively good economic life.
Many Afghans consider the practice of child marriage harmful, saying it ends a girl’s childhood far too early and raises the risk of maternal mortality, as girls who get pregnant during puberty are more likely to die in childbirth. It also takes away the opportunity for girls to have a say in whether, when and to whom they will be married.
The Afghan Civil Law, ratified in 2009 by then president Hamid Karzai, fixed the marriage age at 18 for boys and 16 for girls, although girls who are 15 were allowed to marry if their guardian or the court agreed. Underage marriages, below the age of 15, were banned although the laws forbidding it were never actively enforced. Regardless of the law, the age of first marriage has been slowly rising, at least it was up till 2016-17 when the last major nationwide survey of living conditions was carried out. At that time, nationally, 4.2 per cent of all women had been married before the age of 15 and 28 per cent before the age of 18. The average age of first marriage at that time was 21.6 years for women and 24.4 years for men.
The survey, conducted by the Central Statistics Office, illustrated the rising age that Afghan women marry with a graph, reproduced below. A higher proportion of women now aged 35 and over in 2016-17 had been married by age 18, whereas for the younger age groups the percentage married at that age is lower: 58 per cent of those aged 30-35, 50 per cent of those aged 25-29 and 40 per cent of those between 20-24. In other words, the younger generations were, on average, getting married later. The graph also shows that the proportion of much younger girls, 15 and under, who were married had progressively fallen.
What do we know about the current situation?
The current leadership of the Islamic Emirate has not said anything about child marriage. The Taleban supreme leader Sheikh Hibatullah Akhundzada did issue a “decree regarding women’s rights” on 3 December 2021 which said, among other things, that forcing a girl or a widow to marry was illegal. However, he did not put a lower limit on the age at which girls could marry (see this Pajhwok report). According to a Taleban judge, who gave his view to the author but did not want to be named, a girl must in principle have reached puberty to be married. However, if her guardian (wali), her father or grandfather, acts with her well-being in mind and there is “a good match” which could be lost while she grows up, exceptionally, he said, a prepubescent girl could be promised in marriage (kozdhda or shirin khori). The judge said that getting money in exchange for a girl of any age was illegal – haram – under Islamic law: any mahr paid had to go to the bride herself, while bride prices were illegal.
According to a recent report by Save the Children on children’s lives under Taleban rule, more than one in twenty (5.5%) of the 122 girls aged 9-17 whom they interviewed in May and June 2022 had, that year, “been asked to marry… to support their family.” The cases were more common for girls in female-headed households, which the charity said, “are experiencing the greatest financial pressures and gaps in meeting basic needs.” The children in the study said that early marriages were happening:
…because families do not have enough money and are poor. Children recognise that this way of coping mainly affects girls, including very young ones. A few girls mentioned that if a girl in the family gets married, there is more money to take care of, and feed, her siblings. In addition, because older girls are no longer allowed to go to school, some parents believe that getting married instead will give them a chance at a better life.
Since the interviews for our report were only with fathers, they provide only limited glimpses into the feelings of the girls concerned, as well as their mothers. The Save the Children study did get a child’s-eye view of early marriage, although it seemed mainly from their peers, rather than the brides themselves. Girls aged 9 to 14 told the researchers how other girls in their community when they were married had been forced by their parents to give up school and/or move away to other areas. The girls worried that the same thing would happen to them and that “because of child marriage, they will never be able to go to school again, and that they will not have a future.” They said the possibility of having to marry an older man when they were still young was depressing, while they felt “frustrated and powerless” that their parents would not listen to them when it came to marriage.
None of the daughters of the four fathers interviewed had been ‘listened to’ when it came to their marriages. Girls who are engaged at this young age are never listened to. If they were, it is likely they would just cry.
Even so, of the eleven fathers contacted, most expressed shame about what they had done. They did not consider that marrying off their young daughters had been normal or good, but said that that in a situation when they were struggling to provide even food, they had been obliged to sacrifice one of their children to save the others.
The tragedy, of course, is that for most families the short-term injection of cash the marriage provided, while briefly solving the pressure and shame of owing large sums of money, did not solve the underlying problem. Most of these families were left still with no steady means of income and will be incurring more debt again soon.
Edited by Martine van Bijlert
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) told AAN it was not currently measuring child marriage. It had earlier, under the previous regime, been giving technical and financial support for the National Action Plan to End Early and Child Marriage in Afghanistan (2017–2021), developed by the then Deputy Minister for Youth Affairs and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. A UNFPA official in Kabul told the author that the plan was, however, never implemented.
The report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Afghanistan cited a draft document, The UN Rapid Gender Analysis Afghanistan – Secondary Data Review (Draft 3), dated October 2021 (excerpts seen by AAN). It quoted surveys that had found “the overall rate of child marriage has increased in the face of the current economic crisis and humanitarian need, with 6% of households reporting the marriage of daughters earlier than expected.” The prevalence of child marriage as a strategy to cope with economic distress was, the report said, most common in Helmand Province, followed by Kandahar and Faryab. The Special Rapporteur’s report can be found by searching for A/HRC/51/6 on this page, see also AAN analysis here. More survey data can be found in the recent Save the Children report, Breaking Point: Children’s Lives One Year Under Taliban Rule, quoted elsewhere in this report.
The jahez are the things needed to run a household, which might include dishes and cooking utensils, bedding and furniture and for richer Afghans, washing machines, televisions and cars. The jahez is traditionally given to the bride by her father. The interviewee added that the bride price is customarily agreed on in Pakistani rupees by those living in southern and southeastern provinces or among people who are originally from these regions.
The interviewee also said: “Before the takeover of the Taleban, the bride price for a woman used to be 1,200,000 to 4,000,000 rupees (USD 6000 to 20,000), but now it’s less, around 800,000 to 1,200,000 rupees (USD 4,000-6,000) for a woman.”The bride price for young girls has always been lower.
The Shia Personal Status Law provided no minimum age, but said that underage girls could be married only if their guardian proved theircompetency and puberty to a court and the marriage would be in the girl’s interest. The extraordinary gazette of the Law on the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) fixed a punishment of not less than two years imprisonment for people marrying or giving in marriage underage daughters. But, as said before, this was not actively enforced.
In urban areas, the percentages of women married before the age of respectively 15 and 18 were lower, 2.1 per cent and 18.4 per cent respectively, and in rural areas, higher, 5 per cent and 31.9 per cent, respectively.
Bad marriages were not mentioned specifically by Hibatullah. However, they were banned by the first Taleban supreme leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar. It was reported at the time that he was prompted by a moving storyline in the popular BBC radio soap opera, New Home, New Life about the plight of a girl who had been given in such a marriage. See this media report and this AAN obituary of one of the show’s actors.
Breaking Point: Children’s Lives One Year Under Taliban Rule, August 2022, Save the Children. The charity said that of all the strategies adopted by households to cope with economic pressure, child marriage was not the only one affecting children. The main strategies were: children being sent out to do paid work, children having to migrate for work (6%), children leaving the household to stay elsewhere (4%), begging (2.5%) and child, early, and forced marriage (2%).
Living in a Collapsed Economy (4): The desperation and guilt of giving a young daughter in marriage
Here’s how to promote projects inside Afghanistan that benefit and empower the people.
The Taliban waged an impressive military campaign and removed the prior government in August 2021. They know how to fight, but they clearly do not know how to run a government. The new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has not been able to get international recognition. Western nations have suspended most humanitarian aid while the World Bank and International Monetary Fund also halted payments. In February 2022, the United States seized the frozen reserves of the Afghan central bank, severely crippling the overall banking system. Just last month, the United States used part of these frozen funds to set up the Afghan Fund at the Bank for International Settlements in an effort to kickstart the economy without financially supporting the Taliban government, which has been systematically diverting international support to its own favored recipients.
The situation in Afghanistan is dire. Saad Mohseni, who has managed media operations in Afghanistan for 20 years, notes that it is difficult to overstate the multiple crises facing the country, including food shortages and sky-high food prices. According to the World Food Program, more than a third of the population is “marching to starvation,” and an astonishing 97 percent of the population risks falling below the poverty line by the end of 2022. Meanwhile, through its profound disenfranchisement of women—girls older than 12 have been banned from school—the Afghan government has become the most gender repressive in the world. Western intelligence experts are also concerned that the country is once again becoming a haven for terrorist groups. In the opinion of UN expert Richard Bennett, reprisals targeting opponents and a clampdown on freedom of expression amount to a further descent towards authoritarianism.
The Taliban have been totally unresponsive to pressures to change their fundamentalist policies despite the steadily worsening internal situation. One result is a growing resistance movement that encompasses the National Resistance Front (NRF) and the Afghanistan Freedom Front. So, the one positive aspect of the Taliban takeover—the secession of fighting—is in danger of disappearing, compounding the already dire situation.
In terms of alternatives, Anna Larson at the U.S. Institute of Peace sees stable democracy as an elusive prospect. Anatol Lieven at the Quincy Institute sees some potential for Taliban pragmatism and recommends that the Biden administration provide basic food and humanitarian assistance while keeping a watchful distance. Both Adam Weinstein and Saad Mohseni recommend sustained interaction with the Taliban to encourage moderating tendencies and help empower the realists.
The Taliban are notoriously fragmented. They had barely consolidated control in late 2021 when reports emerged of friction within the leadership. A more recent assessment notes that many policies still vary greatly from one province to the next as Taliban officials react to local community expectations. Many issues are still resolved via personal connections with influential Taliban figures, regardless of their official position in government. Opportunities abound to influence Taliban policies, not with pressures from outside but from within.
No international actor is interested in promoting new warfare in Afghanistan. The United States withdrew its troops. Russia is distracted by its intervention in Ukraine. China is involved in trade with Kabul but is not in any way promoting insurgency. Pakistan is presently overwhelmed with natural disasters. Turkey has been supportive of efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and promote development. There is some friction with Central Asia, especially low-level fighting on the Tajik border area, but none of these states has any interest in promoting the renewal of active hostilities.
On the contrary, there remains strong international interest in stabilizing Afghanistan. UN agencies and other international organization are working hard to prevent the country from slipping back into war and chaos.
The United States and the international community want to support the Afghan people but without providing legitimacy to the repressive Talban government. There are no easy ways to help people at the bottom without helping the government at the top. The challenge is to develop projects that provide direct support to the Afghan people with a maximum impact at the lowest levels. These projects must be compatible with the Taliban’s basic principles and, where possible, satisfy the Taliban’s general interest in overall economic development. At the same time, these projects must meet international standards of transparency so that external support does not get diverted to the Taliban’s preferred projects.
Agriculture, the main component of the Afghan economy, is badly in need of basic improvements. One obvious possibility is providing better seed stocks, increasing crop diversity, and returning to traditional crops in areas where they have been deemphasized. Water usage is also a challenge as increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall impact many areas of Afghanistan. This may require introducing more resilient crops, but even simple measures making water usage more efficient can provide significant benefits. Urban agriculture with hydroponic or aquaponic systems could also be introduced into Afghanistan, with facilities run entirely by women, which would be compatible with Taliban restrictions.
Agriculture needs a smoothly functioning support system. At the operational level, this means creating a network of reliable equipment providers and professional maintenance operations at the village level. This local network has to connect to reliable supply chains, both in supplying key ingredients such as fertilizer and in providing a route from farmer to customer, including export markets. At the high end, the support system needs to include agricultural processing. It is distressing, for example, that Afghanistan produces so much wheat but, because it has to send it abroad for processing, ends up buying foreign flour.
Opium remains a serious challenge. The previous Taliban government forbade it, but it became an important source of funds during the time of insurgency. Now that they have returned to power, the Taliban has officially condemned the drug, although practically it is difficult for them to destroy production. Fifteen years ago, there was a concerted efforted to turn opium into legitimate pharmaceutical products that are badly needed in the region. But both the U.S. and Afghan governments were against giving any legitimacy to opium, so the effort collapsed. But a new version of this approach to opium could be very attractive to sections of the current Taliban leadership as well as to international supporters.
Power generation remains a major challenge for the government, with almost total dependence on imported electricity. The most cost-effective approach is to reduce power use through increased efficiency in cities and in industries. Although earlier efforts to promote distributed local hydropower in Nangarhar province gradually faded away, the project could be revived. Solar, too, is a promising alternative for large sections of the country, as is biofuel, with a whole range of possible applications.
Education also provides a wide range of possibilities. Two are of particular interest. Afghan Education for a Better Tomorrow (AEBT) is an organization that links professors in the United States with universities in Afghanistan to provide classroom instruction at a professional level. AEBT and the Raqim Foundation also provide tele-medicine support with a satellite connection.
Transport is another area of potential foreign investment, particularly railroad expansion. A rail connection from Uzbekistan to Mazar-e-Sharif was established with help from the Asian Development Bank in 2010, but it was little used and associated rail developments languished. In 2020, another short rail link, this time from Iran into Herat, was established. Other efforts include a Five Nations Railway Corridor in the northern part of Afghanistan.
There is a huge potential for projects that would directly benefit Afghans, be acceptable to the Taliban, and serve to empower local leaders and managers. The necessary starting point is assembling a local project team to identify specific projects. This team needs to discuss potential projects with local authorities and then build out a business plan, Then the team can discuss the project with potential supporters, including NGOs and international organizations. This effort needs to provide specific project outlines in some detail and with a clear route to implementation.
Watching Afghanistan slip into greater poverty, hunger, and war is not the only alternative for those outside the country. In fact, outsiders can still partner with Afghans themselves in promoting development projects that provide concrete benefits to the population but also help to empower them to pressure the Taliban for internal change.
Ed Corcoran is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He was a strategic analyst at the U.S. Army War College, where he chaired studies for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Operations.