Is Peacebuilding Possible in Afghanistan?

When the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban asserted that the war was over and that they now had control of the entire country. But just a year into Taliban control, an armed opposition front is taking shape, albeit only in a few provinces. Some travel around Afghanistan has become safer, increasing access to many communities. However, a range of factors has made communities more vulnerable to internal conflicts, grievances, and divisions. There is widespread hatred towards the regime, but also towards Pashtuns, as a majority of the Taliban come from this ethnic group. The Taliban have consistently ignored the promises they made in Doha with the U.S. and have brushed off all calls for a broad-based participatory government. Based on experience with peacebuilding in Afghanistan over the last 23 years, including during the previous Taliban regime, this article explores the challenges and opportunities for peacebuilding in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.

The Taliban approach is to use force and torture not only against the armed opposition groups but also against their own local commanders who challenge them and against those raising their voices for basic rights and to those who might criticize the Taliban for their governance, nepotism, discrimination, and corruption at the community level. A growing fear of persecution exists among the population if they speak out on issues of corruption. For example, the Taliban will not tolerate public concerns that some Taliban at the district and provincial level are selling acutely needed humanitarian aid in the market and sometimes allocating humanitarian aid to Taliban soldiers rather than the public. 

For the Taliban, the terms “peace” and “peacebuilding” are militarily and politically loaded. Using this terminology enrages Taliban leaders. Most of the Taliban leaders and members know little about social peacebuilding between groups. Therefore, anyone planning peacebuilding efforts in present-day Afghanistan must first go through many rounds of discussion and explanation with the Taliban, both in Kabul and at the district level, if they plan on implementing projects of this nature. 

Civic space for individuals and groups to voice their concerns and interests has shrunk under the Taliban to the level of non-existence. Dissatisfaction and criticism of Taliban policies are seen as acts of sedition and could be severely punished. Therefore, one has to be careful about what peace initiatives are feasible at the present time. Anything at the national level is difficult, though small community-based peace initiatives could still possibly be carried out. 

NGOs are required to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)  for each project with related ministries. This has turned into one of the most difficult tasks in project implementations, even if the project is humanitarian or development in nature. In the case of peacebuilding, there is no specific ministry or department to approach for an MoU. NGOs would need to use different terminology for peacebuilding programs in order to get an MoU. Furthermore, NGOs will need to have detailed discussions with authorities in Kabul to educate and convince them of the objectives of the program. However, In the current context, a number of small and dispersed programs, with a coherent strategic vision at the national level, would work better than one large national-level program.  A national peacebuilding program will invite Taliban scrutiny, not only from the related ministry but from the intelligence department, which could put the program and NGOs’ staff at risk. 

Community-based Peacebuilding and Governance

The current lack of a coherent, locally adapted strategy for the distribution of humanitarian aid is contributing towards significant harm at the community level. Almost all Afghans are eligible for emergency aid during the current intense food shortage and economic crisis, yet aid organizations either have little time or are unwilling to work with community structures in aid delivery. 

The ideal approach to address this issue would be a “triple nexus” of coordinating humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding. Currently, there are few efforts to foster development. Yet, aid agencies working in Afghanistan today are not linking aid with peace to help develop cohesive communities. At minimum, aid agencies must “do no harm” and avoid undermining existing intergroup relations. If development aid does not appear in the near future, humanitarian aid should be distributed simultaneously with and through peacebuilding processes. The best way to implement peacebuilding would be through a partnership between peacebuilding, humanitarian, and development-focused NGOs to reduce Taliban suspicion of peacebuilding projects. By packaging peacebuilding along with vital aid delivery, it will appear more innocuous to Taliban officials.

International aid agencies desperately need Community Development Councils (CDCs) to partner with NGOs and for transparent aid delivery at the community level. Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Program (NSP) had helped to create CDCs across the country and operated as formal/informal community governance structures. CDCs should not be used as an aid conduit, but rather as community structures and governance bodies that are proactive on issues required to promote cohesive communities. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with aid to Afghanistan up until now. Even the implementing partners of the NSP program who are still active in the areas where they had supported local development prior to the Taliban takeover have abandoned the CDCs and created other structures more suitable to their projects. 

Community elders can play an important role in peacebuilding to reduce ethnic divisions in areas where different ethnic groups coexist. They can serve as living examples to show peacebuilding in practice in their communities by trying to reduce the tensions created by previous warlords and further exacerbated by the Taliban. Peacebuilding led by community elders could not only reduce conflicts on aid distribution, land, and water rights, but also promote harmony among different ethnic and tribal groups. This is particularly important now in the face of the exacerbated divisions created by warring factions and now further entrenched by the Taliban.  

There are a number of Afghan local civil society organizations (CSOs), with a majority working in provincial centers. Afghan CSOs are active in promoting peace and demonstrating accountable governance. Some are experienced in effective advocacy with the government departments pre-August 2021.   Civic space for such local civil society organizations has shrunk and so has the funding for local civil society groups. Some of these groups have developed their capacity over the last 20 years. Funding and support could help to mobilize these CSOs for promoting peace and good governance in their communities. 

These groups could have a check and balance role on the CDCs or any other structure the donor community is considering partnering with for the distribution of humanitarian or development aid. Interactions with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) might be challenging for them, but CSOs can at least keep community elders accountable and reduce tensions that are already created by unfair aid distribution. Peacebuilding efforts could help to develop the capacity of CSOs for peaceful conflict resolution, basic advocacy skills, and efforts to promote transparency and peace at the community level. 

Campaigning against the forces sending divisive massages

Another type of successful peacebuilding effort for Afghanistan could take place in the digital sphere. Social media is full of hatred and divisive messages among Afghanistan’s ethnic groups, particularly among the diaspora. Pashtuns are particularly targeted because most of the Taliban regime are Pashtun. CSOs, particularly youth groups, can at least raise their voices and can launch campaigns to prevent the hatred some people spread on social media. Young leaders from all ethnic groups could be mobilized to stop the warring factions using ethnicity as a battle cry to recruit soldiers. This strategy could be more effective in provinces with diverse ethnic groups to showcase community-level social bonds and promote coexistence.

Four leading Afghan experts with significant experience working to support inclusive political processes, democratic spaces, human rights, and peace processes author each of the articles in this edition of Peace Policy. We chose not to include the names of two of the authors at their request because of our concern for their safety.

Is Peacebuilding Possible in Afghanistan?
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Human Rights Defenders and the Future of Multi-ethnic Democracy in Afghanistan

Minority ethnic and religious groups and women in Afghanistan have led the movement for democracy and human rights. Discrimination and violence against these groups in Afghanistan are not new. But under the new Taliban regime, they suffer the most. 

The human rights situation in Afghanistan and surrounding countries is dire. This article reports on human rights violations identified in research by the Afghanistan Human Rights Coordination Mechanism, a consortium of national human rights-oriented civil society organizations (CSOs) and international organizations. It was established in response to the emerging challenges faced by human rights defenders (HRDs) after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021. The article looks toward a future of multi-ethnic democracy to improve the human rights situation.

Under Taliban rule, minority groups in Afghanistan are experiencing systematic discrimination based on their gender, ethnicity, language, and religion. The Taliban are Sunni Muslims and have a long history of persecuting minority religious groups including Hindus, Sikhs, and Shiites. The Taliban are mainly from the Pashtun ethnic group and speak Pashto. Minority ethnic groups include Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks, many of whom speak Dari. There have been reports of extra-judicial killings of minority groups all around the country. The Taliban are killing members of minority groups, in particular the Hazaras and Tajiks, each day. The Taliban have excluded women from all public roles and restricted girls’ education beyond grade six. 

During the early Taliban rule in the 1990s, there were brutal attacks on minority groups and women. Between 1996 and 1997, for example, the Taliban massacred over 2,000 Hazara people in Kabul and Bamiyan. They carried out a similar massacre and forced migration of Tajiks from the north Kabul (Shamali) valleys.  Another brutal genocidal attack on Hazaras took place in 1998 in Mazar-e Sharif, where more than 5,000 Hazara and Shiite minority members were killed in 48 hours of continuous Taliban attacks on their homes. Since the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, these minority groups and women leaders are experiencing increased levels of public discrimination and are disappearing, being arrested, tortured, and assassinated. Afghan HRDs, especially women human rights defenders from minority groups, have been facing kidnapping, gang rapes and imprisonment, physical and psychological harm, defamation and house searches, arbitrary arrest and torture, and physical threats and violence against their family members by the Taliban. Local HRDs from regions such as Daikundy, Sar-e Pul (Balkhab), Uruzgan, Panjshir, Ghazni, and Andarab in southeast Baghlan are reporting ethnic cleansing, massacres, forced displacement, and war crime incidents that occurred in the past 12 months. 

Other conservative groups such as Hezb-ut-Tahrir, Jamiyat-e-Eslah, warlords, and religious actors build on the Taliban’s position against these minority groups. They view these minority groups as democratic actors in the country.  In this sense, the struggle is between those who desire a multi-ethnic democracy that protects the human rights of all minority groups and genders and those who do want a country run by a small group of conservative men primarily from one ethnic group.

The state of lawlessness in the country has been a major challenge to the safety and security of vulnerable groups.  The absence of a legal protection framework and protection structures is having a widespread impact on human rights and HRD protection in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban takeover, the civic space is strictly controlled by the Taliban, who have canceled the Constitution and turned to a radical interpretation of Islamic jurisdictions. The absence of a judicial system leaves no guarantee or space for citizens to exercise their social and political rights through protest, limits access to information, and controls the press.

Protection strategies for minority groups, women, and HRDs are also limited due to the deteriorating economic conditions in Afghanistan. Afghan HRDs are having a difficult time providing food for their families, and many are facing a loss of future work and financing prospects. The economic downfall of Afghanistan also precipitated a huge migration outflow, crowding asylum and resettlement prospects for HRDs due to the overloading of the foreign countries’ asylum system.  

A majority of Afghan HRDs in neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkey report suffering psychological harm. These originate from harassment by the police, risk of forced deportation, and a lack of access to visas, visa extension, and other basic living provisions. Despite the lower risk of deportation and police harassment in Western countries, HRDs in exile also report high levels of psychological harm and face serious financial problems, as well as the uncertainty of the success of their applications for asylum and the complicated approval processes. 

Within Afghanistan, HRDs report growing hostility against HRDs due to a rise in ethnocentrism, ethnic/religious/gender/age discrimination, increasing religious radicalization, and growing conservatism. This social context exposes HRDs to social ostracization, if not criminal punishment as their human rights backgrounds have been associated with treason, infidelity, spreading immorality, blasphemy, or apostasy. 

A variety of policy recommendations emerge from this analysis

  1. HRDs need access to immediate remedy and legal accountability for the atrocities committed by the Taliban and other armed groups against HRDs, minority groups, women, and people in the general population.  
  2. Vulnerable groups need access to protection services inside the country and access to internal relocation.
  3. HRDs outside the country need a comprehensive coordination platform and network to have collective action and advocacy to address the rapid decline of international community support. This is particularly true for Women Human Rights Defenders and protestors.
  4. Afghans need to continue articulating the promise and possibility of a multi-ethnic democracy with a non-centralized system emphasizing local governance.

Written by a Senior Human Rights Defender from the Shia Community with over 20 years of experience as a civil society leader, using this pen name to avoid retributive threats to family inside Afghanistan.

Human Rights Defenders and the Future of Multi-ethnic Democracy in Afghanistan
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Afghanistan needs a new political process to prevent a renewed phase of armed conflict

Several armed opposition groups launched attacks against the Taliban in multiple provinces over the last year. While these groups may be in their initial stages of formation, the number of casualties they have inflicted on the Taliban is enough to meet the definition of an active conflict according to Uppsala University’s Conflict Data Center. In other words, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan did not result in the settlement of a decades-long conflict in the country. Conflicts do not end simply by one party gaining the upper hand, nor by foreign parties opting out with a hasty exit.

Ending hostilities in Afghanistan requires active efforts on the part of Afghans and the international community. Local, regional, and global stakeholders in Afghanistan should launch a new political process to prevent a full-scale recurrence of violence and aim to build lasting peace.

Why should the Taliban take part in a political process?

During their two-decade-long military campaign, the Taliban anticipated their victory in returning to power through NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Their deal, signed with the United States in February 2020, affirmed their belief in the possibility of a forceful overthrow of the Islamic Republic government.

Now, however, the Taliban face a different set of challenges. They have failed to provide effective governance and revive the collapsed Afghan economy. They are also unable to protect the population against the deadly attacks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-KP).

There is active and growing civil opposition within Afghanistan and fervent advocacy against the Taliban by Afghans living abroad. Under pressure for harboring al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri, who was eliminated by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul in July, the Taliban regime is far from being delisted from sanctions, let alone being recognized as a legitimate governing body by the international community.

Hard-pressed by several simultaneous pressures which will remain and perhaps intensify under current circumstances, the Taliban have two options: continue on their pathway of suppressing rivals and the general public, or enter into negotiations with other Afghan factions to settle the conflict and construct a sustainable and inclusive government.

But if there is not yet a particular group that can pose a serious military challenge to the Taliban regime, who could they negotiate with even if they chose a different path?

Mapping stakeholders for inclusion

The former army is disintegrated, and ex-government officials have lost the public’s trust. The mujahideen groups who are positioning themselves politically are considered warlords. The older generation has a history of escalating conflicts and corruption, and the new generation has no history that proves their leadership capability. Aside from no track record or a lack of credibility, these groups also have not united with each other.

Identifying stakeholders to participate in a political process at local and national levels is complicated but not impossible. Lack of credibility is not unique to non-Taliban factions. The Taliban regime faces a challenge that is worse than other known stakeholders. After all, if a regime that partners and provides safe houses for globally designated terrorists should be part of a political process, then it becomes hard to argue against the inclusion of other factions.

Perhaps the general rule should be to include all sides in such a process. An inclusive process, however, does not necessarily mean that each of the dozens of political parties in Afghanistan’s recent history will be physically present at the table. But every possible ideology should have representation. One way this process could work is for emerging and old political parties, civil society organizations, women, youth, and armed opposition groups to organize themselves around categories of shared visions and each category nominates representatives.

The regimes and governments of Afghanistan, and those who contested or backed them, can be grouped into four broad factions representing different
ideological visions for the country: modernists who constitute most of the new generation of Afghan leaders, fundamentalists such as the Taliban and their likes, conservatives like the jihadist groups, and moderates who have separated or never joined the other three groups but have not yet coalesced into their own group.

In summary, an important step to pave the way for a political process is for Afghan factions to organize around particular visions and develop a mechanism to identify their representatives. This will exert political pressure on the Taliban to consider peace talks. Additionally, the existence and persistence of organized groups will make it harder for the global community to shy away from supporting a path toward peaceful settlement of Afghanistan’s conflict.

Vision for peace

It is important that these groups develop a coherent vision for peace in the country and the steps to reach it. Two mutually reinforcing objectives include agreeing to improve the lives of Afghans so that everyone may live with dignity and peace and launching an inclusive process to prevent another cycle of a full-fledged armed conflict.

The Taliban are unrealistic to operate under the assumption that other forces will accommodate their exclusive hold on power and that the people of Afghanistan will tolerate violence carried out by the regime.

If there is one thing the highs and lows of cycles of armed conflict in Afghanistan teach us, it is that there is no such thing as lasting victory without compromise. The Taliban’s present claim to power is precisely the reason now is the best moment for them to reach out to all sides and actively seek to prevent another full-grown armed conflict.

This is the time to either launch and complete a coordinated and inclusive political process or allow the momentum toward recurrence of mass scale violence to determine the fate of Afghanistan—yet again.

Aref Dostyar is the Senior Advisor for the Afghan Peace and Development Research Program at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He was previously the Consul General of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Los Angeles.

Afghanistan needs a new political process to prevent a renewed phase of armed conflict
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Afghanistan Requires a National and Regional Dialogue Based on the Principle of Inclusivity

The withdrawal of US troops and immediate takeover by the Taliban in August 2021 marked a radical transition from Afghanistan’s status as a republic to an Islamic Emirate system. With this transition, the Taliban maintains the perception that peace has replaced their ongoing war. While radical transitions did not bring positive peace, a temporary reduction of violence has occurred despite unresolved political and social conflicts. The presence of authoritative and religious hardliners has ushered in a new era of human rights violations, including marginalization, widespread discrimination, and atrocities against women and ethnic groups.

The types of insecurities faced by people in Afghanistan provide a context for and are crucial in defining national and local peace. Different groups of people, including the privileged and political classes, often have different narratives of peace. These differing perspectives represent disparate constituencies throughout the country.

In reflecting on the past year and the years that led up to the Taliban takeover, one thing is clear: there was an overarching flaw in the nature of the Doha process and its agreement. At the same time, bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table and accepting their demands at the early stages of negotiations exponentially empowered one party of the armed conflict and allowed the Taliban to gain momentum on the battlefield. The Doha process collapsed without political settlement and failed to create consensus among Afghans through Intra-Afghan negotiations. This failure, along with other political factors, resulted in the Taliban’s forceful takeover.

Now that Afghanistan is an Islamic Emirate ruled by the Taliban void of domestic and international legitimacy, a new phase of resistance, armed conflict, and social and economic crisis has arisen. This has caused political instability, exacerbated ethnic tensions and economic crises, and raised the level of concern among Afghanistan’s neighbors due to the spillover across borders of violence and insurgency and the influx of refugees. Under these circumstances, the country needs a new political process to reignite an intra- and interstate dialogue and negotiations leading to political settlement and reconciliation

For the political process to demonstrate inclusivity, create consensus, and produce outcomes that lead to stability, there must be conditions for social and economic development in place. This process needs to give voice and agency to every community and enable all interested groups to engage and participate in the discourse about how their society should be ruled. The platform for such a process can also address contentious issues among various factions of Afghan society and reduce the magnitude of political uncertainty. The people of Afghanistan want peace and stability. Still, there has not been a political process to deliver it. It is deeply concerning that Afghanistan does not have an effective political process to address people’s grievances and create conditions for reconciliation.

International partners of Afghanistan assume that development aid is the solution to the current economic crisis. While Afghanistan undoubtedly needs money and resources, it is important to remember that social, economic, and political development are strongly interlinked. Development aid will not produce desirable outcomes without a consistent plan for addressing all these issues and when implemented under the shadow of an unstable political system and weak institutions.

To attain peace and stability, the new political process should be based on the principle of inclusivity, which in Afghanistan involves two fundamental issues: domestic and regional processes of inclusion. A domestic process contextualized for Afghanistan could enable conditions that address the grievances of people from different parts of society and instigate dialogue about a political system, governance, and institutions favorable to all Afghans. The second fundamental issue, initiating a new regional negotiations process that requires inclusion of countries in the region with economic and security interests.

Internal Process for Intrastate Negotiations

In Afghanistan, ethnicity is often the basis for political polarization and mobilization. Utilizing a policy that isolates specific groups is likely to divide the population along ethnic lines and create a narrative of “the other” as the enemy. Afghanistan’s ethnic identities and groups are fundamental to the country, and each has clear interests and a strong agency. The common interests of these groups cause collective mobilization, which could lead to unarmed or armed resistance. The current de facto government’s lack of representation has marginalized non-Pashtun ethnic groups, fueled ethnic tensions, and widened the gap between Pashtun and non-Pashtun citizens. Ethnic groups seek national-level political representation, and instability inevitably grows if that representation is denied. The inability to address ethnic crises causes political instability, insurgency, and widespread resistance.

Therefore, an intra-state political process should include dialogue about an appropriate political system for the country based on the principle of inclusion. There has been an ongoing debate among Afghans around the nature of governance in Afghanistan and determining a path towards a political settlement. For instance, some believe that a centralized system of governance would best hold the country together and prevent factions and outside interference. Others have argued that a centralized political system was attempted and failed to bring the nation together or address economic disparities and provinces’ economic and political needs. This approach to governance has caused grievances as basic needs have gone unmet and specific populations experience isolation and marginalization. However, there is growing recognition that a decentralized system can create a balance of power across regions and address each group’s needs and grievances.

Moreover, the ongoing ban on women’s political participation and the denial of the agency of half of the population has raised serious concerns, both nationally and internationally, about the Taliban and their de facto authorities. A political process must also include women’s meaningful participation to address the concerns of women in Afghanistan.

Afghans have been debating the country’s political process for years. More than ever, it is urgent that this process is based on consensus and results in an inclusive government and political system that consists of people from across provinces and ethnic groups who can see themselves represented in all levels of participation. Any ongoing dialogue must be time sensitive and result in a comprehensive agreement. It is possible that such a process could enable conditions for reconciliation. A political process should not only be a place for deal making between parties but also provide open space for people to have in-depth discourse about the type of state and system in which they want to live.

A domestic political process should create the level of discourse needed to settle significant differences about the nature and approach needed to establish good governance and address Afghan’s fundamental differences. Ideally, it would lead to a nationally representative administration, with political positions distributed among different parties, and it would address the political imbalances among different groups in Afghanistan.

External Process for Interstate Negotiations

The next crucial step to engage is an effective political process is to establish external, interstate negotiations and utilize a consistent regional diplomatic platform to provide countries in the region a place to engage in dialogue and address their economic and security concerns and interests. Historically, countries in the region have used proxies inside Afghanistan to address their own security concerns and compete with one another for their interests. Regional processes have been attempted, such as the Shanghai Cooperation OrganizationHeart of AsiaTroika Plus, and one-time forums organized by countries in the region, particularly Dushanbe, Moscow, Delhi, Tehran, and Islamabad. However, none of these processes produced effective outcomes because they failed to address the core political and economic issues of the regional actors. In some instances, countries have been altogether excluded, as was the case for India and Iran during Troika Plus.

Excluding any regional country from the negotiation and dialogue process will likely result in an agreement that the excluded party will sabotage. An inclusive process is necessary to address regional parties’ interests, discuss core
political concerns, and negotiate economic and security issues. If regional actors’ interests are taken care of, they will not need to involve Afghan actors and proxies inside Afghanistan. A consistent regional platform that includes all concerned actors, results in clear agreements, and removes proxies from the equation could lead to real political settlement among Afghans.

Conclusion

Afghanistan’s international allies and partners should commit to a comprehensive political process and identify a country or the United Nations to facilitate the external process by initiating a regional negotiation for peace and security involving the United States, Pakistan, China, Iran, India, Russia, and Central Asian states. Meanwhile, an internal political process must commence with a new generation of Afghans, representatives of political parties, ethnic groups, religious minorities, civil society and community representatives who demand consistency, continuity, investment, and an outcome based on consensus. Acknowledging that the process could be time-consuming and that past attempts at political processes have failed should not undermine the urgency of commencing this essential process.

Dr. Nilofar Sakhi is a Professorial Lecturer of International Affairs, Elliott School of George Washington University. Sakhi is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Kroc Institute for the Fall 2022 semester.

Afghanistan Requires a National and Regional Dialogue Based on the Principle of Inclusivity
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Afghans Adapting to Economic Decline, Social Restrictions

The second round of the World Bank’s “Afghanistan Welfare Monitoring Survey” (AWMS), released on November 22 and covering the June-August 2022 period, includes a representative sample of 5,800 Afghan household heads who responded to a telephone interview. Despite challenges and gaps, the AWMS provides the best available data on Afghan households today. The survey documents that the Afghan people continue to suffer from low incomes, widespread hunger, health problems and pervasive poverty. The country faces another challenging winter, and the outlook for the future remains bleak.

A Continuing Perfect Storm of Pervasive Poverty and Food Insecurity

One-third of all households surveyed have insufficient income to buy the food they need, another nearly one-third enough for food but not other basic necessities. This represents a very small decline from the first-round AWMS covering October to November 2021, but the latest survey covers the post-harvest period — when food and income tend to be more plentiful — so there is nothing positive in the current situation and trends.

Loss of income due to the economic collapse following the Taliban takeover in August 2021 has been the main culprit in worsening food insecurity, exacerbated by a succession of drought-induced poor harvests. Wheat production in the 2021-22 season is expected to be 5 percent less than last year’s drought-affected output, and about 15 percent less than the previous five-year average.

As in the first-round AWMS, households’ coping mechanisms include buying cheaper, lower-quality food; borrowing to buy food; and rationing by reducing portion size, reducing adult food intake in favor of children and reducing the number of meals per day. All these coping mechanisms, except the last one, are reported to be resorted to by a majority of the households surveyed. Though not in the AWMS, there are reports of even more extreme, harmful coping mechanisms in certain cases, such as some families being forced to marry off daughters in order to obtain a bride-price to make ends meet.

Perceptions of Better Security, and a Precarious Low-Level Economic Equilibrium

Perceptions that security has markedly improved comprise probably the only significant “peace dividend” from the Taliban takeover and the end of major fighting throughout the country. More than two-thirds of those surveyed feel much safer or at least somewhat safer than in the months before the Taliban takeover, compared to less than a quarter who feel less safe.

The perceived improvement in security is greatest in regions which saw the most fighting last year, less marked though nevertheless significant in the central region and urban areas. The west-central region (which includes much of the country’s Hazara minority) and the central region (dominated by Kabul) had the lowest proportions of households feeling safer — 46 percent and 56 percent, respectively.

Partly as a result of better security, the Afghan economy is no longer in free fall and appears to be in a precarious low-level equilibrium. Recent modest positive trends include lower inflation (though still in double digits), exchange rate stability (at around 87 to 89 Afghanis per U.S. dollar), some recovery of imports, a more than doubling of exports, stability or small increases in the demand for labor and wages and Taliban revenue collection exceeding levels in the past two years. However, this degree of economic stability is critically dependent on continuing humanitarian aid flows, including cash shipments by the United Nations totaling $1.8 billion over the past year, stoppage of which would precipitate a human catastrophe. Even with this aid, most Afghans remain poor and hungry — in other words, a “famine equilibrium.”

Moreover, better security does not translate into economic optimism. Sixty-five percent of those interviewed believe the economic state of their household will be a lot worse in 12 months, nearly three times the number who think there will be any improvement. These numbers mark a sharp deterioration since before the Taliban takeover last year and are slightly worse than in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban victory.

Adapting to Adversity: Education and Labor Force Participation

In the realms of education and work, the numbers tell a story of human tragedy and adaptation in the face of draconian social restrictions and economic collapse. Afghan households, facing severe economic hardships and the ban on girls’ secondary education, are responding by increasing youth as well as adult participation in the labor force, almost entirely in self-employment and home-based activities.

The underlying strong Afghan societal interest in education nevertheless is striking: In the sample, primary school attendance by both boys and girls has increased since 2020 (more in rural areas than in urban areas), reflecting recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and perhaps better security. And in rural areas, despite the economic imperatives facing families as well as Taliban restrictions, girls’ enrollment in secondary schools remained unchanged on a seasonally adjusted basis, albeit at a low level of around 15 percent — now very slightly higher than the corresponding number in urban areas. The proportion of households not sending any girls to school — though high at 46 percent — is lower since the Taliban takeover as a result of more primary school attendance in rural areas, perhaps also reflecting perceptions of improved local security.

Unfortunately, the wishes of the Afghan people to educate their children are denied by the closure of girls’ secondary schools, other social restrictions and economic problems that are drastically reducing secondary school attendance, especially for girls in urban areas.

There has been a large increase in overall participation in the Afghan labor force, especially among women and girls — predominantly in home-based and informal activities — probably reflecting a combination of economic necessity and diminished schooling opportunities. Female participation in the labor force jumped from 16 percent in 2019-20 to 45 percent. There was also an increase in female unemployment (i.e., women and girls reported to be seeking but not finding work), but this was equivalent to only one-third of the increase in labor force participation (which includes salaried employment, self-employment and home-based gainful economic activity, as well as people who are seeking but not finding work).

Panel data show great “churn” and what must be traumatic whiplash for Afghan women. Almost half of women who were employed in 2019-20 lost their jobs and became unemployed or left the labor force, though two-thirds of female teachers kept their jobs. On the other hand, more than half of women who were inactive in 2020 entered the labor force, the bulk engaged in home-based activities (agriculture, livestock, textiles, handicrafts, etc.).

The increase in female labor force participation appears to be driven mainly by the dire economic situation faced by households. The collapse of girls’ secondary school attendance in urban areas and the shift in the composition of women’s engagement in economic activities away from salaried and outside employment in favor of home-based activities will be very damaging to Afghanistan’s longer-term economic development if these trends continue much longer, as will be the decline in the number of boys going to secondary school (especially in urban areas). More boys are leaving secondary school to seek work, and more are also working while in school.

Among men, increasing participation in the labor force (from 75 percent in 2019-20 to 83 percent) is associated with a commensurate increase in unemployment (from 6 to 14 percent). More men are looking for work but not finding it, so there has been no net increase in the proportion of men who are gainfully employed.

Key Implications

Afghans appear to be adapting as best they can to the dire situation, but this will not mitigate pervasive poverty, hunger and deprivation. Some of their coping mechanisms will make things worse over the longer term: Reducing the quantity and quality of household food consumption will have adverse health and nutrition consequences. Higher youth labor force participation will make things worse over the longer term by reducing education levels.

In the long run, there is no alternative to sustained economic recovery and growth, led by the private sector and including public investments in infrastructure and other public goods. But in the short run, Afghanistan requires continuing humanitarian help to get through the coming winter and subsequent lean season, and humanitarian aid needs are unlikely to drop sharply after that. This underlines the urgency of not only maintaining humanitarian aid but improving its effectiveness and cost-efficiency.

Increasing use of cash transfers to deliver aid (potentially including digital currency) is a promising approach, because (1) such transfers will be used for food and basic needs as shown in the household survey, (2) they minimize overhead costs of aid, (3) the pervasiveness of poverty and food insecurity in Afghanistan means precise targeting of cash transfers is unnecessary, and (4) they inject liquidity and encourage private sector business activity and trade. These advantages more than offset any risk of leakages from small cash transfers to households.

Given that so much employment, especially for females, is in home-based agricultural and other informal work, aid programs need to support and nurture such activities, especially in the short run.

While the emphasis on aid for basic public health is understandable, Afghans, who suffer from serious health problems (88 percent of households surveyed had at least one member requiring medical services in the preceding month), heavily rely on privately provided health services — around 57 percent of surveyed households did so. Public hospitals in urban areas and basic health facilities in rural areas remain essential, but a broader perspective encompassing privately provided health services is needed.

Outward labor migration and inward financial remittances, which provided an essential “safety valve” for the Afghan people during the past more than 40 years of conflict, drought and economic weakness, must not be shut off by neighboring countries. This topic is not covered in the AWMS, but earlier studies underline the critical importance of labor migration and remittances. Neighboring countries should be encouraged to not prohibit inflows of Afghans facing desperate conditions during the coming winter and lean season, and flows of remittances into Afghanistan must be facilitated, both through the banking system and informal channels.

Finally, looking to the future of the AWMS, continuing reliance on the 2019-20 and 2021 household survey frame and telephone numbers, though useful for analyzing trends for the household panel itself, may become increasingly unrepresentative of Afghan reality on the ground over time. The World Bank should start exploring other options, including possible restoration of an in-person national household survey.

Afghans Adapting to Economic Decline, Social Restrictions
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Obituary for Francesc Vendrell (1940-2022)

Thomas Ruttig

Afghanistan Analysts Network

 28 Nov 2022

An outspoken diplomat who cared about people, principles and peace.

The Afghanistan Analysts Network mourns for the chair of our Advisory Board, Ambassador Francesc Vendrell, who died on the morning of 27 November 2022 in London of severe illness, aged 82. Francesc was a passionate diplomat, a seeker of peace and defender of human rights, not just with lip service but with a drive and ideas for action. As the United Nations Secretary General’s Personal Representative (2000-2001) and then the European Union’s Special Representative (2002-2008) for Afghanistan, he was far-sighted, principled and honest. As Thomas Ruttig writes (with input from Kate Clark), Francesc was also an opera aficionado, a tireless traveller – and rider of trams worldwide – an Anglophile and a proud Catalan.

When Francesc started his mission to Afghanistan in 1999 – AAN’s Kate Clark, then with the BBC, interviewed him in the VIP lounge of Kabul airport on his first official trip in February 2000 – he came with unique experience. His career with the UN had already spanned 31 years and many conflicts, in some of which he contributed to political settlements ending civil wars. Equipped with a BA degree in law from Barcelona University, an LLB from King’s College in London and a MA in modern history from Cambridge University (he had to leave Spain as a member of an anti-Franco students movement), he started his UN work on the Melanesian island of Bougainville, where he ventured after a teaching engagement at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. His next duty stations were El Salvador and Nicaragua, Guatemala, Nagorno-Karabakh, Haiti, Cambodia, again Papua-New Guinea and Myanmar. As deputy head of mission, Francesc played a crucial role in leading Timor-Leste (then Eastern Timor) toward independence. Between 1993 and 1999, he served as the UN’s Director for Asia and the Pacific in New York. By the time Francesc encountered Afghanistan, he had lived many lives. He was also a particular breed of diplomat: principled, engaged and empathic.

As an avid reader and equipped with an outstanding memory, he dived into Afghanistan’s complicated present and past with a passion. He was the seventh envoy in 11 years. His predecessor, Lakhdar Brahimi had resigned in bitter disappointment at what he felt was the negative attitude of the warring factions and neighbouring countries. Francesc had taken on a mission that would have disheartened a lesser man, but he was energised by the intractable nature of the conflict and his mission to bring peace.

He brought together experts on Afghan matters into his team and in consultative meetings before setting out on his mandate to bring the warring Afghan factions of those days to the negotiating table. At that time, the Taleban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan had captured most of the country from the Northern Alliance (aka United Front). However, the Northern Alliance, as the Islamic State of Afghanistan, still held the country’s seat at the UN. Francesc went untiringly from meeting to meeting in in Afghanistan and Pakistan with Afghans from all walks of life and political persuasions. In a contemporary interview (Azadi Afghan Radio, 4 March 2000), he said:

The first thing I learned was the extent of the misery of the Afghan people. My first task will be to help the Afghan people. Above all, that means trying to achieve peace.… So you have to try to bring about a situation where the two main Afghan sides, other Afghans who are fighting for freedom and peace, as well as the regional countries and outside powers cooperate in bringing about a peaceful solution to the Afghan misery.

After eight months of shuttle diplomacy between the Taleban’s power centres in Kabul and Kandahar and the Northern Alliance’s in Faizabad in northern Afghanistan and the Tajikistan capital Dushanbe, between regional and other capitals, he succeeded in taking a big first step. In November 2000, he secured the signatures of Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar (died 2013) and the Northern Alliance/Islamic State of Afghanistan leaders Ahmad Shah Massud and Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani (assassinated in 2001 and 2013, respectively) to enter into a process of dialogue to achieve a political settlement. The agreement included a commitment not to withdraw from the dialogue until the agenda had been ‘exhausted’. That agenda included an exchange of prisoners, the formation of joint Afghan armed forces and other government institutions.

Simultaneously, the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan (UNSMA), with Francesc at its helm, started working on the two parties to accept the involvement of the Afghan diaspora, including supporters of the former King, Muhammad Zaher (toppled and abdicated in 1973, died 2007), in future Afghan government structures.

This attempt was derailed by the Taleban’s refusal to extradite al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden after al-Qaeda’s attack on a United States navy ship in Aden harbour in October 2000. In December 2000, the UN Security Council adopted unilateral sanctions against the Taleban, because it was hosting al-Qaeda. The Taleban believed this was unjustified and withdrew from the UNSMA-facilitated talks.

Over the following year, 2001, Francesc and his mission began a new series of consultations with various Afghan factions and exile groups at the UN in Geneva to probe ways of restarting peace talks. In the face of US demands for the Taleban to expel Bin Laden so that he could stand trial for al-Qaeda’s August 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam, UNSMA suggested a compromise of trying him in front of a court of Western and Muslim judges, a proposal both sides rejected. Vendrell was also involved in trying to rescue the Buddha statues of Bamyan from destruction.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 put a final end to all these initiatives. A new phase in Afghanistan’s long conflict had begun. However, the idea of a peaceful solution involving more than the armed factions became a leading feature in the UN-facilitated Afghanistan conference in Bonn in December 2001 and of the resulting Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions. This made Francesc Vendrell, in practice, the actual architect of the Bonn Agreement – as it was called in short. It set out a series of steps that aimed to put Afghanistan on the path to becoming a democratic nation based on legitimate Afghan institutions.

Weeks earlier, on 14 October 2001, seven days after the US had begun bombing Taleban frontlines, he told the BBC in an interview:

 [A]ny role that we play in Afghanistan must have the full consent of the Afghans. (…) The Afghans must see what the allies are trying to do now as a chance for their liberation. They must not see this as an occupation.

Following meetings in Geneva and Rome where he had lobbied for a political strategy for Afghanistan, Francesc returned to his base in Islamabad, saying the UN Security Council must have clear political objectives. [1] He refused to rule out a political role for any Afghan in the coming weeks, including the armed opposition groups and the Taleban, among whom he said were some decent people, but also stressed that no Afghan could claim sole legitimacy to rule. Rather, a loya jirga should be held to usher in a broad-based government. The US efforts to overthrow the Taleban by force had, instead, been launched with little thought as to what would come next. Washington had in effect already determined the course of regime change when it chose to arm and finance the Northern Alliance and other commanders to fight the Taleban. They were to become the new rulers of Afghanistan.

Francesc’s diplomatic efforts might have been too much for Washington – at least, this was the feeling among Francesc’s friends and colleagues when he was sidelined shortly before the Bonn conference. He had not always kept his critical view of US policies hidden. His predecessor as UN envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who had served as foreign minister in his country’s military government that took power following a coup in 1992, was asked to return as a Special Representative, making him Francesc’s superior. (In the UN hierarchy, an SRSG ranked higher than a PRSG.) Brahimi had been working more ‘hand-in-glove’ with the US in earlier UN positions. Francesc resigned, or was eased out – it was never entirely clear. He did continue teaching at the UN University and advising the UN on topics such as Timor Leste and Myanmar, but in effect, this marked the end of Francesc’s diplomatic UN career.

Given the ultimate failure of the US mission in Afghanistan, one could argue that had Francesc stayed in charge at the UN in the decisive ‘golden hours’ after Bonn, crucial political mistakes could have been avoided. As early as December 2003, he said in an interview with Berlin daily Tageszeitung (author’s translation):

We misjudged the behaviour of the international community in Bonn…. Therefore, the warlords‘ militias were not demobilised, which would have been essential for the establishment of a representative government.

In a 28 September 2009 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty he said:

The most crucial mistake was to continue to consort with the warlords and commanders who had brought ruin to Afghanistan in the 1990s and to continue to favour them…

And in 2007:

[F]irst the Americans and then also all others collaborated with those warlords.

Read his December 2011 AAN article, From Bonn 1 to Bonn 2: Afghanistan’s missed opportunities and quotes and statements in a 2010 collection to mark his 70th birthday, Congratulations, Francesc!

Post-2001, Francesc as the EU’s Envoy to Afghanistan

As the European Union’s Special Representative to Afghanistan, a role he took on in July 2002, Francesc worked to keep alive the hopes for a pluralist Afghanistan ruled by a government that served its people. Most European and EU member countries were keen to avoid any criticism of their US allies and never attempted to design an Afghanistan policy of their own that could have focused on the diplomatic-political and made a genuine effort to help build institutions. Even so, as the EU’s envoy in Kabul, Francesc pushed the Bonn agreement’s agenda on human rights, transitional justice and disarmament. He worked closely with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. He supported their mapping of war crimes in the Afghan conflict (never published, it was suppressed by Hamed Karzai, after which, Ashraf Ghani went back on a promise to publish it, made ahead of the 2014 election). He also supported a UN mapping report (published briefly in 2005, and then taken down at the urging of the US and Karzai governments as it mentioned quite a few members of the government or their allies – it can be read here). Francesc earned the respect of many Afghans advocating democracy and human rights, but lacked the practical support of influential member countries to push forward real progress. He increasingly grew frustrated with what had become of Bonn. In 2011, he wrote:

[B]y mid-2002 the course was largely set. Bad governance, large-scale corruption and impunity became the order of the day.… By 2005, the window of opportunity was closing. Western attention had been diverted to Iraq, and fears of a debacle there fed a correspondingly growing appetite for good news from Afghanistan, something that many diplomats, not to mention the military, were only too ready to supply.

By then, he added, the disarmament process had become “a tragic-comic affair in which the Northern Alliance forces handed their oldest weapon to the Ministry of Defense, at the time headed by none other than Marshal Fahim, the most powerful of the [Northern Alliance] warlords.”

In his 2008 valedictory report as EU envoy, he said:

Relying largely on a handful of individuals, we paid too little attention to the building of institutions and have done nothing to foster the growth of political groups with a reformist and pluralistic agenda.

He also said that a UN decision in 2001, driven by Brahimi, “to adopt a ‘light foot-print’” had “deprived the organisation of the tools to undertake the kind of reforms the Afghans desired.”

Finally, criticising the naiveté of the often unprepared diplomats and politicians working in or visiting Afghanistan who easily fell for the charm and hospitality of the soft-spoken warlords, he coined a sentence that has always stuck in the author’s mind: “Yes, Afghanistan has by far the most sympathetic war criminals I have encountered in my career.”

For most of us who worked for Francesc, he was never just ‘the ambassador’. Whether at the UN or EU, or both, he was the boss first, and not always an easy one. Yet, over years of intensive daily cooperation and discussion, living on the same compound, he became a valued colleague, a friend and a mentor for many of us. He was always well-turned out, a sharp dresser, whether in Kabul or London, who loved entertaining and good food. He could be searching and thoughtful, but also irreverent and a lot of fun.

AAN’s Kate Clark, who interviewed Francesc on many occasions, remembers him as easily the most clear-sighted and practically-minded ambassador in Kabul. Journalists like interviewees who tell it as it is and Francesc stuck out as a diplomat who spoke honestly about the problems of the Kabul government and the US-led intervention and who also had workable proposals. Most diplomats favoured policies seemingly based on fantasy assessments of Afghanistan.

Francesc worked almost up to the end. After leaving Afghanistan, he taught as Visiting Professor at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University and Adjunct Professor at the School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), John Hopkins University, Bologna campus. He travelled widely. Apart from advising AAN, he was also active informally, speaking to diplomats and others working in Afghanistan. He remained engaged in thinking about how life for Afghans could be improved.

Que descansi en pau, Francesc. Rest in peace, Francesc.

Francesc Vendrell, born Barcelona 1940, died London 2022.

Edited by Kate Clark

Obituary for Francesc Vendrell (1940-2022)
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How Can a Bird Fly On Only One Wing? Afghan women speak about life under the Islamic Emirate

Fifteen months after the Taleban returned to power, Afghan women have seen their country and their lives dramatically alter, as jobs evaporated, restrictions were announced and families sank into poverty. To better understand how these changes affect the day-to-day lives of women and which changes are at the forefront of their minds, AAN conducted a series of interviews across the country. In this first of a three-part series by Roxanna Shapour and Rama Mirzada, women speak about the impact of Emirate policy that seeks to marginalise women and erase them from public life – the consequences for household economies, their dreams of education and personal and professional growth and the power dynamics within the family. Many have described how their independence has been undermined, along with their sense of self-worth and self-confidence, and how they are now struggling to maintain a sense of personhood.

The findings from our interviews are presented in three instalments. In this first report, we hear from Afghan women as they recount the many changes that have hit them. In the second instalment we focus on the restrictions imposed on women’s movement and attire how they try to navigate the shrinking space that is afforded to them. In the third and final report, we find out what changes they would like to see to the current situation and what actions would make these changes possible.

Research for this report was conducted in June and July 2022 – semi-structured phone interviews with 19 women between the ages of 20 to 42. They were from 15 provinces, Daikundi, Ghazni, Ghor, Helmand, Kandahar, Kunar, Mazar-e Sharif, Nangrahar, Nimruz, Nuristan, Paktika, Panjshir, Samangan, Takhar and Uruzgan, eight living in provincial capitals and seven in rural districts, with four other interviewees from Kabul city. Our interviewees came from diverse communities and ethnicities across Afghanistan – one Baluch, four Hazaras, one Nuristani, five Pashtuns, seven Tajiks and one Uzbek. All interviewees were either currently employed or had been working until the Taleban takeover. This was by design as we sought to find out how the changes and restrictions had affected the lives of women who had previously been active in public life. Two of the interviewees were university students and several had had plans to continue their education, but these plans were derailed by the economic problems they encountered after the fall of the Republic. Four of the interviewees were protestors. See the footnote for the full questionnaire. [1]

The interviews have been edited for clarity and flow. The names used aren’t their real names.

Afghan Women Speak

We asked our interviewees what had changed in their daily lives since the Taleban came to power and which of the changes had affected them most. Their responses help deepen our understanding of how women in Afghanistan have experienced the sudden changes in their lives and which of the restrictions imposed by the Taleban since they came to power have had the most significant effect on their daily lives. In these interviews, they make clear that the new rules aren’t mere restrictions on their movements or sartorial choices, but rather the appropriation of their independence and dignity, the crushing of their sense of self-worth and the shuttering of future options for themselves, their sisters or daughters and for all women in Afghanistan. They repeatedly talked about being relegated to the home, becoming dependent for ‘pocket money’ on their husbands and the increasing use of what they consider to be debasing terms with which women are addressed, such ajeza and siyasar (‘helpless’ and ‘blackhead’) that they said had become less commonly used in the period before the fall of the Republic.[2]

Without exception, all the women we interviewed, including those who initially said that not much had changed or that the changes had been positive, went on to speak in detail about the economic difficulties they were having in their households as well as the financial hardship experienced by their extended families and communities. Almost all the women mentioned the closure of girls’ high schools as a prominent concern, even if they had not personally been touched by it. Depression, anxiety and the loss of hope were also discussed at length by many of our interviewees. It was striking how many of the women expressed their concerns holistically, encompassing the struggles of all Afghan women and grieving the lack of options and the loss of hope not just for themselves, but also for their peers.

Below we provide an overview of the women we spoke to and what they told us about the most significant changes in their lives.

Kamela is a 29-year-old married Pashtun who lives with her husband’s family in Kunar province. She has not been formally fired from her government job, but is no longer wanted at work and although she continues to receive a government salary, it is at a reduced rate. Her husband works for a state-owned enterprise but, when we spoke to her, he had not been paid for five months and her father-in-law had not received his pension since the Taleban takeover. She supports her household of 12 with her salary and is anxious about being fired by the Emirate. She spent a good deal of time talking about the problems of other women and families, something we noticed many of the women we interviewed did.

Economic problems have increased and most women have problems with their mental health. In the past, women could study and pay for [the school fees] themselves but now, due to financial problems, they can’t progress. I have economic problems, so I can’t send my children to school – that’s why they stay home now. After the Taleban came to power, I and other women couldn’t go out to work. Although I receive my salary, I can’t go to the office. My salary has been cut by 2,000 Afs (USD 23.50); it’s now 11,000 Afs (USD 130) a month.[3]

The most important effect [of the regime change] is that girls can’t go to school. If they don’t go, then they will have so many problems in the future. And there are so many restrictions here around the hijab. We must wear either a chadori [burqa] or an abaya. In the past, women could visit [government] offices to solve their problems and women worked in offices that helped women. Now all those offices are closed, for instance, the women’s affairs department and many other offices working for women’s rights. Now there’s no office for women to submit their complaints and help them solve their problems. There’s no one to question people when they violate women’s rights in Kunar.

The fallout from the economic collapse has been sweeping not only for girls’ education but also for boys who have had to drop out of school to support their families. This was the case for 39-year-old married Tajik former civil servant Ghuncha whose three sons left school to go to Iran in search of jobs to support the family. She lives with her disabled husband and two of her other seven children in Ghor province in western Afghanistan. The family had relied on her government income, but she lost her job after the fall of the Republic and the family is now financially dependent on the money her sons send home from Iran. Her anxieties about the future of her sons is a concern she expressed repeatedly during the interview.

First, I should say ‘Ahhh’ and then speak. There are so many changes in my life. Our economic situation has declined and we all are affected mentally. We’re surrounded by the worst problems I have ever experienced in my life. Two of my sons were in grades 10 and 12 and the oldest was studying for the Kankor (university entrance exam). When the Taliban took power, the boys lost interest in studying and went to Iran. My daughter is studying medicine in Kabul. She can [afford to] eat only once a day, but I can’t support her. In the past, when I had a job, I used to take care of my children and solve their problems, but now I can’t because I have nothing. My other daughter is married and works as a midwife. She can help her sister a little, that’s why she can eat at least once a day.

It’s the same at home – we don’t have enough food. We weren’t rich in the past. My salary wasn’t high and I couldn’t save, but we lived on my income and I could pay for all our expenses. We were relaxed because we knew I’d get paid at the end of the month, but suddenly everything changed. My sons are now working as labourers in Iran. Sometimes when I talk to them on video calls, only God knows how bad I feel. We use the 4,000 Afs (USD 47) my sons send us every month to buy rice, flour and oil.

Unemployment, restrictions on women’s movements, needing to have a mahram [a male chaperone], school closures and especially unemployment, have all affected us badly. We wanted our children to become something in the future, but now we have many problems and no options. The high cost of things is also important. On the one hand, there’s no work and on the other hand, the prices are very high. It’s difficult for us to afford things. Because of this, I was forced to send my two sons to another country. If I had the money, I would send them to study. I would prepare food and buy clothes for them and for myself.

35-year-old married Hazara NGO worker Manija lives with her husband, 7-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter in Mazar-e Sharif city in the north of Afghanistan. She also has a married older son. Manija, the family’s sole breadwinner, talked extensively about the difficulties of having to have a mahram to work, which she said was a financial hardship because the NGO she works for does not provide any financial assistance. What she grieved for most, however, was the loss of her personhood and the fact that even the simple pleasures of life now seemed unattainable.

Women were investors, judges and officers in all sectors and we were really proud of that. Now, they address us as ‘ajeza’ and ‘siyasar’ once again, but that’s not what we are. We have names and identities as women. Most importantly, we are human and want to be respected and called ‘women’. We call them Mr and Gentleman, or Uncle, with respect. But they just call us ‘ajeza’ and ‘siyasar’.

We don’t have freedom now. We can’t even go to the Rawza Sharif [the shrine in Mazar-e Sharif] together with our husbands and families because women can only visit on Mondays. In recent years, women understood their rights and their children’s rights, but unfortunately, Afghanistan has returned to the time before 20 years ago, in all points, but most of all with regard to education and freedom. By freedom, we don’t mean doing immoral things, but we can’t even go for a picnic with our family members and our husbands on a Friday to give our children some enjoyment and joy.

Sima is a 28-year-old married Uzbek former teacher from a remote district of Samangan province in northern Afghanistan. She and her three young children are now entirely reliant on her husband’s income and they’re having trouble making ends meet. She said it was becoming increasingly unaffordable to visit her parents, who live about several hours away from her village in another province. She was concerned about their financial situation and that of her siblings who rely on remittances sent by a younger brother who left his university studies after the Taleban takeover and went to Turkey looking for work. Her other siblings, a brother and a sister, have both lost their government jobs.

Everything has changed. I was an independent woman and now I stay home. Women are deprived of all their rights and freedoms. The schools are closed for [older] girls and they can’t study anymore. It is a big loss for women because they will remain illiterate. I was teaching courses, but the Taleban forbade me to teach. I could earn 8,000-10,000 Afs (around USD 103-130 at the time). It has been taken from me. My income was a big help. I could spend the money on my children and use my own money to pay for my travel costs, but now I’m dependent on my husband. He gives me spending money. This regime is really different than the previous one. In the past, no one disturbed anyone’s work. Other women have also been forced to stop doing what they were doing. For instance, the Swedish Committee was running schools for women here, but now women are forbidden to go to those schools. I think when women are left behind in education, they’re left behind in everything else.

The Taleban could have at least allowed us to work. My household is affected financially because I have no job now. I have babies and the prices have reached their peak. The most important effect is on our freedom. The Taleban should let the [older] girls go to school and let women work freely. It’s the worst situation when a woman who works and earns her own money is suddenly forced to stay home all the time – that affects our mental health. Once again, we have become the siyasars of the house. In the past, we felt as strong as men. When I participated in a conference, I was proud of myself. I felt like I was someone.

Some of our interviewees have taken to the streets to demand their rights and advocate for change. All of those who did were civil servants during the Republic; none of them had a background in activism.

32-year-old single Pashtun, Khawga is a former civil servant from Kabul who held a well-paid government position earning a top-tier professional salary which she used to support herself and her family. After the Taleban takeover, her salary was reduced from 175,000 Afs (USD 2,333) to 15,000 Afs (USD 176) until, finally, she was fired from her job as a direct result of her activism. She i anxious about her own security and that of her family members, who are under scrutiny and have been threatened because of her activities as a protestor.

There’s no doubt that my life has changed; everyone’s life has changed since the Taleban takeover. People are the victims of this regime change. Terrible things have happened. We’re no longer allowed to work and we can’t move freely. We don’t even have the right to wear whatever we want. We don’t have the right to protest. Women in Afghanistan are no longer participating in social and political life. There’s abuse and humiliation. The courts and the attorney general are no longer handling gender-related cases and violations against women are increasing every day. Coercive marriages have been increasing. Some women have resorted to prostitution because the economy has collapsed. Sadly, many women who worked in the former government are now begging on the streets of Kabul.

All Afghans are affected, but Afghan women, in particular, are victims of gender discrimination. The situation of women is disastrous and dangerous. Women lost their jobs. I was one of them. After I started protesting, they came to my place of work and I lost my job.

All protestors are in the same situation as me. We are all afraid for our security. We can’t go to hospital, can’t stay in the same location [for too long] and are followed by the Taleban. We have lost our jobs and have many financial problems.

This is our country, our homeland, where we can make plans for our future. A citizen should be able to work step-by-step to achieve their goals. For example, we should be able to study and plan to become government officials and demand our rights because this land is our homeland. I don’t think this is possible for us to do this in other countries. But unfortunately, [gender] discrimination, poverty, insecurity and mysterious killings are forcing women to leave the country.

Khalida is a 38-year-old Tajik married former government employee living in Kabul with five children. She lost her job when the Emirate closed the state organisation she was working for and, with it, she lost her 37,000 Afs (USD 480) monthly salary. Her husband is working in Iran and sends money to support the family. She said the biggest change in her life was that she had ” become a protestor in Afghanistan.” She went on to explain the difficulties she faces and why she finally decided to protest.

My oldest daughter is a high school graduate, but she couldn’t go to university. My older son was in his first year at university, but now he doesn’t go anymore. My second daughter was in grade 10. She can’t go to school – that’s why my son who’s in grade 9 and my youngest daughter in grade 5 don’t go to school anymore, either. They say if their sister can’t go to school, they don’t want to go either.

My husband had a small shop, but he had to close it. My salary was good and I could support my family very well, but I lost my job. My husband went to Iran. He’s working, but everything’s so expensive there. He sends us 10,000-15,000 Afs (USD 117-175) every four to six weeks, which isn’t enough for us to pay the rent and water and electricity bills. Sometimes we have no water and electricity for a week because we can’t pay the bill. Life is so hard now; my son worked in a photocopier shop, but now he’s not working. Now, there’s a lot of hardship and darkness. We’re alive and still breathing only because of the aid that was distributed.

In the past, we were hopeful for our future because our sons and daughters were studying at schools and universities. We were hopeful that they would succeed and have the lives they wanted for themselves. Now we only think about what will happen tomorrow and how long the schools will stay closed. Now I struggle and fight every day to demand justice and equality for Afghan girls and women. That’s the biggest change, that it made me stand up to the Taleban face-to-face to fight for Afghan women. After the Taleban takeover, women lost their rights. They can’t work and their everyday lives were taken from them.

I was a simple person. I was working two jobs to pay for my children’s school fees, one in the private sector and one with the government. But now I can’t work, so I can’t provide them with anything. Schools are closed and whenever my daughters see their books and school bags, they get sad; even when they chat with their friends, they start crying. This is why I protest, to demand the rights of my daughters and all the girls in this homeland. I protest because I don’t want the efforts of the past 20 years, the hardship and studies, to go to waste.

As the oldest child in her family, 25-year-old unmarried Hazara Kowkab supported her family with the 30,000 Afs (USD 353) she earned working for a government ministry in Kabul. She lost her job after the Taleban came to power and is struggling to make ends meet. She is particularly worried about the future of her five sisters and one brother. She told us she can no longer pay for her siblings’ English and computer courses and has had to discontinue her own post-graduate studies. Kowkab, a Hazara, decided to join the women’s protest movement to let the Taleban and the world know that Afghan women would not give in to the Emirate’s restrictions.

My life was good and I had a clear plan. I was working, studying for my master’s degree and at the same time, I was supporting my family. Suddenly we lost everything and we now live an uncertain life.

The other change is that I can’t be like a girl of the 21st century. In the past, I could decide where to go, what to wear and plan for my own future. Now, life is uncertain and we don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We are mentally ill. There’s no hope, no purpose and no passion for working and studying anymore.

42-year-old married Tajik Kobra lost her government job in Badakhshan province when the Taleban came to power. She moved to Kabul with two of her seven children; the rest remained in Badakhshan with her husband. She told us that some of her children have developed severe anxiety and one of her daughters had even attempted to kill herself. Her marriage is breaking down under the strain of the economic problems the family is facing. The only positive thing in her life, she told us, was that she had recently been accepted into a master’s programme at Kabul University.

I was the only wage earner in my family. I have seven children and was living in my own house. I could provide for my children, but I lost my job after the Taleban came to power. Now I haven’t been able to pay rent for the past nine months. I borrow money from friends to pay our expenses and I lie to my parents that I have a job so they don’t get upset….  There’s no work. I tried selling manto (dumplings), but it didn’t work out. I applied for many jobs, but unfortunately, I couldn’t get one. My husband has almost left me – he is Badakhshan and I’m in Kabul.

All my children are affected mentally, I go door to door to my neighbours to borrow money to buy medicine for my children. I could take them to the doctor but couldn’t afford the medicines. They’re ill because our situation is extremely tough and always the people are coming and asking for their money back from us.

One of my daughters tried to throw herself off the balcony three times, but I managed to stop her. She says she doesn’t want to live a life of shame. I took her to the doctor, but I couldn’t afford her medicine. One of my sons now suffers from stomach aches and faints easily. My youngest son is six years old; he is afraid of the Taleban and hides when he sees them. My husband already had psychological problems, but the situation has made things worse. Now he walks around and talks to himself all night.

We have lost everything, our comfort, our children, our homes, our husbands and all our social life. My father tells me to be strong and wait for things to get better.

Sometimes I cry to relax. When I see the situation of other women, I understand them very well. When I see women who have problems, I try my best to help them. Every single one of my neighbours has many problems. One of my neighbour’s sons went to Turkey illegally and was arrested there. He was in prison for 40 days and his mother was always crying. Another neighbour’s husband had a stroke and died. Another one’s husband was threatened by the Taleban because he used to work for the government and had to escape. She was pregnant and lives with her brother now. Sometimes when she comes to check her house, she cries and screams loudly. Others lost their jobs and one has cancer. My neighbour who is from Panjshir was threatened by the Taleban, so they escaped and sent their young daughters to Iran.

30-year-old Donya is a married Hazara social worker. She lives in Daikundi, with her husband and son. Her young family relies on her salary of 15,000 Afs (USD 195) since her husband lost his job. She also helps her mother-in-law and sister’s families. She pays for childcare when she’s at work; the NGO she works for does not provide or help with the cost of childcare. Still, she says, she doesn’t want to raise the issue for fear of losing her job. She told us many organisations are reluctant to hire women with young children because they think the children might interfere with their work.

Everything has changed in my life. Before, I had a high government position and received a good salary, but now I work as a simple employee at an NGO. My husband was also working; now he is at home. There are many changes. People are complaining about poverty and hunger. It’s so difficult to find food and the prices are very high. I’m affected mentally by these changes. We’re trying to find a way to get out [of Afghanistan] because life is getting harder each day. The Taleban announced new orders, for instance, they said that women must not go out without the [strictly prescribed] hijab[4] and must have a mahram. If the men in a family have to go everywhere with the women, then who should work and support the family? It is a big problem. … It is almost a year since my husband lost his job. I pay for all our expenses [from my salary], which isn’t enough, and help my mother-in-law and my sister’s families. I have a baby, so I also pay someone to take care of him when I go to work. Generally, organisations don’t hire women with small babies because they think the baby will disturb their work. When they find out that a female applicant has a baby they don’t interview or shortlist her.

In the past, often several people were working [in a household], but now in many families, no one has a job. When there’s no work, poverty increases. In the past, we used to eat good food during the week, but now we try to manage it in such a way that we’re not dependent on others. The worst impact is that they [the Taleban] don’t accept women in the government at all and might not even consider women to be human. Women are half of society and they’re disregarded. How can a bird fly on only one wing?

Nilab is a 24-year-old single Baluch school principal who lives in Nimruz province with her family. Her district is a farming community that has been hit hard by three years of devastating drought which she blames, mostly but not entirely, for her community’s economic decline. She told us how she uses her 12,000 Afs (USD 141) salary to help members of her family and others in her community she considers less fortunate than herself.

The life of women here has changed, from day to night. Older women had an experience of what it was like under the previous Taleban government. It’s more difficult for younger women and girls. Our freedom has been taken from us. Women can work only in the education sector and life has become difficult because incomes have decreased. In my life, there were so many problems, for instance, in the first few months after the Islamic Emirate took power, I didn’t get my salary and my father’s pension wasn’t paid. My mother doesn’t work and my sister was in grade 11. Food is very expensive. Life is harder now and we have all been affected psychologically.

Poverty has had the most impact on our lives. In the past, we earned good money from our land, [we grew] melons, watermelons, wheat. This year, because of the drought, people in my area couldn’t grow even one melon. There’s no water in the wells. If there’s water, it’s brackish. I think the biggest problem here is the economy; there’s no [drinking] water and people buy it at 50 Afs (USD 0.58) for a one-gallon bottle. People can’t afford food. If they buy one thing, then they don’t have money to buy something else. When they get sick, they don’t have money for their treatment. If the government hospital has the medicine, they can take it from there; otherwise, they have no choice but to just pray for their health.

After the Islamic Emirate came to power, my father got sick and we sent him to Iran for treatment. There the doctors said that he has stomach cancer. Now my mother is also sick. My salary isn’t enough to pay for both their medicines and the household expenses. It’s a difficult situation for a young woman to be in. My two brothers are married and live separately from us. Both have lost their jobs. When I get my salary, I give them some money. When someone who works gets paid, everyone waits for her to give them some money. There are martyrs’ families who live in my neighbourhood. They have small children, so sometimes I help them, although it’s just a small amount. My salary, when I get it, is distributed among all of us. My salary is 12,000 Afs (USD 141). Because I’m not a teacher, I couldn’t get the 100 dollars teachers received from an [aid] organisation.[5]

Poverty is also pushing some women to resort to coping mechanisms that are difficult to recover from, such as selling household goods. This is what 28-year-old Najia, a married Pashtun NGO director, had to do to pay for baby formula for her newborn son. She is originally from Laghman. When we interviewed her, she was living with her husband and two children, a son and a daughter, in Jalalabad, Nangrahar province in a household of 18 family members. Since then, she has left Afghanistan.

The first thing that changed in our lives was our economic situation. Also, women don’t have the same rights as before. I don’t have the same freedom. I can’t travel as I did. I used to travel to Kunar [for work] with my babies, without a mahram. Now I can’t travel [like that]. I must have a mahram, so I have to take my father, brother or husband with me. Since the new government took power, we’ve been in an extremely tough economic situation. We didn’t have money to buy formula for my baby and I had to sell my home appliances to buy it. The women I support in Kunar [through her NGO] have economic problems too. They can’t go shopping and their children can’t go to school. The economic situation is so bad that some [families] were forced to sell their young daughters. I saw this with my own eyes. It’s because people have lost their jobs, the cost of food is going up and people have no money. So, to save other household members, people were forced to sell their daughters to buy food.

We didn’t get paid in the first six months after the Taleban takeover. Most of the staff had gone abroad in the evacuations and there was no one to process the payments.

My family has so many economic problems due to unemployment. My salary is 40,000 Afs (USD 470), but I’m not paid regularly. In the past, we were paid on the same day each month, but now we sometimes have to wait up to three months to get paid.

Some interviewees started by saying that not much had changed in their day to day lives. Others, especially those who had lived in areas where the conflict had been fierce, said that things had improved, but even those women described the closure of girls’ schools and economic hardship as problems they now had to deal with.

42-year-old married Pashtun midwife Khadija lives in the Taleban’s historic stronghold, Kandahar, with her ailing husband, two daughters and two sons. She supports her family, including her husband’s medical expenses, with her monthly salary of 25,000 Afs (USD 294), which she earns working two jobs. She was, on one hand, quite upbeat about the current situation, citing improved security and helpful local Taleban, but also kept returning to the high cost of living and all the small ways that inflation affected her life.

There are very few changes in my life [since the change in government]. Security is better than before. But everything is so expensive now. The women who are in contact with me have no work. In the past, women were prioritised for jobs; now, men are getting the jobs. [Otherwise] everything is normal. No one asks us where we go or what we do. When we have a problem, we get help from the Taleban and they help us. Kandahar has hot weather and there are electricity blackouts here. Sometimes we don’t have electricity for two or three days. People have to buy ice; each family buys 100 Afs (USD 1.17) worth of ice daily.

In my own life, there’s no change yet. But of course, the changes have affected us; for instance, my economic situation is getting tougher because I need to provide everything for my children and look after their education. My husband has a mental health problem and is unemployed. He must take his medicine, so I must buy it for him. I must also provide food for my children. When we eat breakfast, we think about our dinner. This is a problem for all the people of Afghanistan, not only mine. The high prices have affected me a lot.

In my neighbourhood, husbands used to work, but now they don’t, so their wives work at people’s houses to earn money. The young boys sell things on the streets or in the bazaars. In the past, rich people were helping the needy, but now all people are in the same situation.

The end of the conflict has brought improvements, particularly to security, for 20-year-old unmarried Pashtun midwife Usha who lives in Uruzgan province with her parents, eight sisters and a younger brother. Usha is the only family member who has completed post-secondary studies (a two-year midwifery course). Usha is engaged to be married, but for the time being, the requirement to have a mahram has presented her with a logistics nightmare in a household with ten women and only two men. Nevertheless, even this young woman, the most optimistic of our interviewees turns to economic problems, unemployment and the closure of girls’ high schools as source of anxiety not only for her own family but also for others.

Until now, there’s no change in my life. I still go to work the same as I did before. Altogether, there’s no change in our life, but the school closures mean my sisters can’t continue their education. In the city, there’s no change. When my mother and I went shopping for Eid, the bazaar was very crowded, men and women were mixed and we could hardly find our way out. It didn’t used to be this crowded. In the past, when the Taleban controlled the roads, neither men nor women could leave their districts because they were afraid of [the fighting between the Taleban and [the former government’s] security forces. Now the Emirate controls the government, so there’s no issue and no fear about coming to the city. I used to wear a chadori before and I wear one still now, but a few women are wearing black abayas now. The only thing that is upsetting and painful for me is the closure of girls’ schools.

I wish there was a private school we could send my sisters to. We would pay even if the fees were very high. We’re nine sisters and have only one brother. My father says: “What can I do with all these daughters if they grow up illiterate? He says if they could go to school, they could make something [of themselves] in the future. I’m the only one [with a higher education]. I’ve have done two years of midwifery. A few days ago, there was fake news on Facebook that the schools would be opened. My father, mother and sisters were amazed, even though they suspected the news was fake. My father gave my little sister 200 Afs (USD 2.35). When my family gets so happy with fake news, imagine how happy they will be when schools finally reopen. My sisters are depressed. They take offence even when we say nice things to them. They don’t do their chores very well and constantly argue with each other.

In the past, we couldn’t travel. There were explosions and magnetic bombs, Taleban checkpoints and government checkpoints and there was always fighting, but now we’re so happy because there’s no fighting anymore. Now I can go anywhere and feel safe. In the past, when my father went to Kabul or Kandahar, we were all worried that he might get caught up in the fighting or an explosion. Now there’s freedom. We’re very happy because the Taleban don’t say anything to the women who are going to work.

Except for the school closures, we have no other problems. Our life is even better than it was. We feel free because there used to be two groups and each one had different rules, so it was difficult for us to decide what to do. Now there’s only one government and even if it is ordering us to observe the hijab, at least we know what we should do. We have some problems like unemployment and expensive food items, but it’s not only my family; many other families can’t afford even a sack of flour.

Pakiza is a 24-year-old unmarried Tajik who lives with her family in a remote district of Paktika province in southeastern Afghanistan where she works for an NGO managing an education project. Not much has changed in her own life since the Taleban takeover, but as a teacher, she is very concerned about the closure of girls’ high schools.

There’s no change for working women in my area. The Taleban didn’t oppose women working in Western organisations here. There’s no change in our clothing; we can wear the same clothes as in the past. There has been no change in my life, I worked for the government [as a schoolteacher] before and now I work for an NGO. There’s no change in my clothing. I meet the Taleban who work here and they help and cooperate with me. The only problem is that girls don’t go to school.

The closure of the girls’ school has affected me personally because the girls call me all the time to ask if their school is reopening.

I talked to the Taleban administrative director about whether they would create problems for the teachers who work under my supervision. He said that if the teachers wear hijab and have a mahram when they travel, the Taleban wouldn’t bother them. I think the most important effect [of the change of government] is that the people’s economic situation isn’t good and the girls’ schools are closed.

26-year-old Nabila, a married Nuristani midwife, is generally happy with her life, but again, unhappy about the closure of girls’ high school. Nabila had big dreams for the future. She wanted to continue her education and serve the people of her province as an MP but now she feels those dreams are unattainable.

The changes in my life weren’t that bad. The only thing that makes me sad is that girls can’t go to school. In Nuristan, security is very good and both men and women have had no problems, not in the past and not now. There are no restrictions on my work. But I don’t only think about myself. I can work, but other women, who have studied other fields are unemployed. Except for the health sector, there are no jobs for women in other fields. When women are educated, they can find solutions to their own problems and even treat themselves. They don’t need a man and can buy whatever they need. Educated mothers raise an educated generation, but illiterate mothers raise an illiterate generation.

After the Taleban takeover, I was in Kabul for three months. I had to attend practical classes at the hospital. I was afraid because I had never seen Taleban before. In the previous government, we could work at the hospital at night as well, but after the Taleban came, we couldn’t. My friends and I feared the Taleban might punish us if they saw us wearing jeans with the hijab. We also saw on TV that the Taleban beat women. During the previous government, we were fearful of insecurity. After the Taliban came, our fear increased, at least in Kabul. Though we changed how we dressed and started wearing long clothes, the Taleban still wanted us to wear a chadori. It was very difficult to change ourselves so suddenly.

I wanted to get my master’s and come back to Nuristan and become a representative of Nuristan in the parliament. Now I think all my dreams have been taken from me. I don’t have the right to do what I want. I could do this under the previous government and change women’s lives here, but my opportunity to achieve this ambition has been taken from me; I don’t think I will have the chance to do this in my life. The one thing I don’t like is that my life was changed by force and that someone else tells us how to live, according to their wishes.

Parvana is a 26-year-old unmarried Tajik schoolteacher from Panjshir province. Most of the men in her area have left for fear of Taleban reprisals, leaving the women to tend the fields and provide for the other family members who remain there. She lives with her elderly parents and an older cousin who has moved in with the family with her grandson. She supports her extended family of 15 with her teacher’s salary. She also grows potatoes, wheat and corn on the family’s land. She was initially reluctant to be interviewed, wondering what good might come from it, but in the end, agreed to talk to us.

For years, people like you said they would convey our messages to the world, but we have never seen any results. These [interviews] are useless for us. Organisations always take the information and never help the women and girls. They all work for their own interests and women’s rights are violated now, just like they were for the past 20 years.

There have been many changes in my life since the Taleban takeover and not only in mine. There have been big changes in everyone’s life in Afghanistan, particularly in Panjshir. All the men and boys older than 17 have left Panjshir. If they had stayed, the Taleban would have punished them and investigated them for no reason. Women work in the fields and look after the livestock, work that was done by boys and our male family members in the past. Only my elderly parents and I have stayed behind in Panjshir; my brothers are all in Kabul. After Eid ul-Fitr [30 April], insecurity worsened and, three times, all of us escaped to Kabul. We stayed with our relatives there. There’s no help for the people who stay here and none for those who have fled to Kabul. People are jobless and have no income.

Ghazal is a 25-year-old single Hazara university student in Kabul, where she lives in a dormitory near the university. She used to support herself by teaching courses at a private institution, but the work dried up after the school’s director left Afghanistan. Now she is concerned her expenses will become an extra burden on her family and worries she might have to halt her studies. Back home in the Jaghori district of Ghazni province in Afghanistan’s central highlands, her father supports her mother and two brothers on his small income.

The Taleban takeover changed my university life. The day when the Taleban took over Kabul, I was at the university. All shops were closed and all the girls were crying. I had started a new job [at a ministry] two weeks before and was also planning to travel to Bamyan and Mazar for my practical assignments. I was also teaching on courses, but it stopped because the director [of the school] left Afghanistan. The Taleban stopped us working and studying, they told us not to go out without a mahram. My cousin and I weren’t allowed to go to our uncle’s house in Kabul because we had no mahram.

Our teachers give us assignments for which we need to visit the ministries, but now girls can’t do the work because women aren’t allowed inside government offices. My girlfriends were in football and volleyball teams, but now they don’t play. I had a bicycle which I used to ride to go from the hostel to the university. My friends also had motorcycles and bicycles, but now we can’t use them. Our lecturers say we have no option but to bear this situation. They have fixed a curtain at the gate to separate male and female entrances. Our hostel is now very strict. We must wear the hijab even inside the hostel. We’re not allowed to take pictures and there are Taleban spies. Every day, Amr bil Maruf(virtue and vice patrols) stand at the hostel gate and tells us to wear long scarves and black clothes. If we don’t follow their rules, they will kick us out of the hostel. I think they’re imposing all these restrictions to get us to stop studying.

28-year-old Tajik married primary school principal, Tamana, lives with her husband’s family in Takhar province. She is the only member of the household with a job. Girls’ education was a top concern for all our interviewees, but for Tamana, the closures hit especially close to home. As an educator, she is most worried about the future of girls if they are denied a secondary education. Here again, the loss of independence and sense of self-worth shines through as she told us about the opportunities that are no longer available to her.

Not only my life, but the lives of all people in Afghanistan have changed. Seeing my younger sisters and other students who can’t go to school makes me feel hopeless. They’re waiting all the time for news about [secondary] schools reopening. And all my brothers are unemployed. It upsets me to see them in this situation. Prices have increased and things are very expensive. All this is painful, not only for me but for everyone. In the past, we used to go shopping without fear. I used to participate in seminars, attend ceremonies when they launched projects and speak at conferences, but now, even if I was invited, I wouldn’t be able to participate.

Since I see the pupils every day [at school], the closure of high schools has had the most impact. I have lost interest in doing my job. In the past, I used to read a lot, but now I get tired when I open a book. Banning girls’ schools has made me fearful of the future because everyone wants their children to get an education. We all wish that our younger sisters could get an education and become someone who serves their society. It’s not just me, everyone is afraid that the future will be dark.

Conclusion

The Republic’s collapse and the rise of the Emirate transformed the lives of Afghan women suddenly and for many, catastrophically. The women interviewed for this report have seen the curtain fall not only on their present livelihoods, opportunities and rights, but also their hopes for themselves, their daughters and sisters, families, communities and their country. For many, there was a sudden plummeting into destitution, and with it a loss of their financial independence and ability to help others or even support their children. Restrictions on work, education, and freedom of movement have then, like quicksand, blocked their capacity to try to find ways out of the crisis.

These women’s voices, taken together, provide insight into the emotional fallout of the events since the Taleban’s rise to power. Many are battling anxiety, depression and hopelessness, still trying to push on and find ways to endure and survive their current bleak circumstances. Even so, in the next instalment of this series, we will hear how women are coping with the increasing restrictions on their rights and attempts to remove them from public life, to find ways to assert their personhood and agency.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark

References
1 The interviews were conducted through open-ended questions in a free-flowing conversation that roughly followed the outline of the following questionnaire. Our intention was to allow interviewees to speak about the one or many significant changes in their lives without being prompted. This approach allowed us to first get a sense how they ranked the significance of these changes before exploring the nuances of their experience in greater detail.

1. What has changed in your day-to-day life since the Taleban came to power?

2. Which of the changes has had the most impact, or do you think is the most important effect?

3. How are these changes affecting you personally and your family in general?

4. How are they affecting other women in your extended family and community?

5. What changes are there in the enforcement of the orders/restrictions regarding women since the Taleban came to power?

6. What do your male relatives think of the recent restrictions?

7. How do you feel about the changes?

8. In what ways would you like the current situation to be different?

9. How do you think this can happen?

2 Siyasar (Dari), tor sára (Pashto) made up of siya/tor, which means black and sar/sari which means head, in other words ‘black-headed’. These terms are used across Afghanistan to address an unknown woman in public. For instance, when you get on a bus, the conductor might say, “Brothers, please leave the front seats for the siyasars.” For many women siyasar is controversial when other women address them with it. Various educated women told us they found it demeaning. Similarly, ajeza, meaning helpless,equivalent to the English, ‘the weaker sex’, is one of the most derogatory, non-swear words used to refer to women. The use of these terms to refer to women was reported to have diminished in recent years and many women believe their resurgence to be an indication of their diminished status under Taleban rule and an affront to their independence and personhood (see AAN report What’s in a Woman’s Name? No name, no public persona’).
3 In this report, we calculate the exchange rate as USD 1 = 77 Afs before 15 August 2021 and as USD 1 = 95 Afs after 15 August 2021.
4 Officially, women should wear a burqa/chadori or an abaya with face veil when outside the home. See earlier AAN report on this: “We need to breathe too”: Women across Afghanistan navigate the Taleban’s hijab ruling
5 This is probably a reference to a one-off payment made by UNICEF to teachers earlier in 2022 (see here).

AUTHORS:

Roxanna Shapour

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Rama Mirzada

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How Can a Bird Fly On Only One Wing? Afghan women speak about life under the Islamic Emirate
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‘I had tears streaming’: a sobering film about the last months of the Afghan war

 in Washington

The Guardian
Thu 17 Nov 2022

Acclaimed documentarian Matthew Heineman talks about his often devastating account of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan

A still of Retrograde
‘They didn’t leave winning. They left losing. No matter what your belief sets are, we lost the war’ … a still from Retrograde. Photograph: Film PR handout

Wearing a dark hijab and gripping the wire fence, a young Afghan woman shakes her head slightly, seemingly fights back tears, searches the faces of American soldiers, glances away pensively then looks back in anger, her eyes gleaming like black diamonds.

She writes a novella for us in 36 seconds,” director Matthew Heineman says of the lingering shot that closes his documentary film Retrograde. “I’m curious what you interpreted in her face? To me it speaks volumes.”

The moment was captured in August last year at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, a day before 13 American service members and 170 Afghan civilians were killed there by an Islamic state suicide bomber following the US military’s chaotic withdrawal from the country.

Retrograde conjures an immersive look at the final nine months of America’s longest war through the eyes of one of the last US special forces units deployed there, a young Afghan general fighting a losing battle with the ever-encroaching Taliban, and civilians desperately trying to flee as the government collapsed.

The Oscar-nominated and Emmy award-winning Heineman had made films about citizen-journalists exposing the atrocities of Islamic State, vigilantes taking on Mexican drug cartels and frontline healthcare workers in one of New York’s hardest-hit hospitals at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the bloody exodus through Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate shook even him. “Never in my life have I ever witnessed or experienced anything like that,” the 39-year-old reflects via Zoom from home in New York. “I’ve filmed a lot of sad things my career and certainly witnessed a lot of death in the past couple of years in the work that I’ve done.

“But that feeling of being at the Abbey Gate as thousands of Afghan civilians were packed like sardines in four-foot sewage ditch, as 18-year-old marines who weren’t even alive during 9/11 were making these impossible Sophie’s Choice decisions on who to let and who not to let in, as the Taliban was watching us at gunpoint a hundred yards away, as Isis [the Islamic State] was circling around us with suicide vests waiting to attack, it just was surreal and I had tears streaming down my face, continually having to wipe down the lens, and all I could think about was: what have we done?”

After years of trying to get permission, he and his small team embedded with the Green Berets with the initial intention of giving the world an insight into that special forces unit as it fought what had become a largely forgotten war.

Heineman explains: What I try to do is take these large, amorphous subjects that we’re inundated with stats and headlines and, in some cases, misinformation [about] and try to humanise them, try to put a human face to them, and that’s certainly what I tried to do here. These conflicts can feel so far away and distant and I feel like it’s my job to make them feel immediate, to create an empathetic connection between the audience and these issues that feel so distant and so far away.

“And also to make you feel what it’s like to be there, what it’s like to be a two star general in the Afghan army staving off the Taliban, a US soldier leaving a conflict that you’ve been deployed in countless times and lost numerous friends in, in a Blackhawk helicopter as you’re being shot at by the Taliban. My goal is to put you in these rooms, in these places to make you think, ‘What would I do if I was there?’ or ‘What if that was my brother, my cousin or my sister or my mother?’

He adds: “I do it without context, without interviews. There’s no intent or execution of how we got here or what went wrong, which is obviously very intentional and I get criticised for that but I don’t feel like that’s my job. There’s a lot of other people doing that. My job is to give you a sort of visceral, emotional window into these conflicts in a way that I think ‘traditional media’ isn’t able to do (it’s not a talent thing: I have the luxury of time to be able to sit with a story for months or years).”

Soon it became apparent that tectonic geopolitical plates were moving beneath Heineman’s feet. In April 2021, Biden announced the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan. In July, he denied it would be a repeat of the debacle of Vietnam: “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of a[n] embassy of the United States from Afghanistan,” he told a press conference. “It is not at all comparable.”

Meanwhile the 12-person Green Beret team that Heineman and his team were embedded with were forced to begin to “retrograde” – shipping out or destroying equipment, pulling out and going home. Or as one soldier puts it: “Retrograde means you’re shitting in a trench. That’s just what it is.”

In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, the Green Berets have to break the news to their Afghan comrades – sitting cross-legged and barefooted – that, after 20 years of fighting, nation building and promises, America is done with their homeland.

Matthew Heineman during a Q&A following a screening of Retrograde
Matthew Heineman during a Q&A following a screening of Retrograde. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for National Geographic

A bearded American soldier says: “It’s with a little bit of a heavy heart that I have to tell you this but we’re going to be leaving Afghanistan pretty soon.” His voice catching with emotion, he thanks the despondent men and adds: “I want all of you guys to know we were blindsided with this news very, very recently.”

Looking distraught, an Afghan points out that if he and his compatriots go back to civilian life or work for the Afghan government, none of them will be safe. His own house has been targeted twice already. The man plays some traditional music and the sound is joyful but the expressions of his comrades – Afghan and American – is anything but. Their faces are written with loss.

Heineman comments: “That’s why I love making films this way. Faces never lie and there’s a reason why we hold on faces for so long in this film. It wasn’t just a trick we figured out in the edit room; it was a real methodology of shooting.

“The Green Beret faces, the Afghan faces in that scene spoke more than any 30-minute, two-hour, six-hour interview could ever speak. A feeling on the American side of abandonment, leaving these friends a friendship and a bond that they developed over years or decades; a partnership. They felt like they’re leaving their brothers behind with their arms tied behind their back.

“And then, obviously, on the Afghan side a feeling of of trepidation of what this meant for their personal future, their personal safety, the safety of their families, and obviously the fate of their country. There’s dialogue in that scene but the emotion of that scene is played off of the faces.

Heineman had also been filming with General Sami Sadat, a 35-year-old rising star in the Afghan military working with the Green Berets who emerged as a central figure in the government’s fight against the Taliban. Heineman’s tiny production team shifted its focus to him after the US forces left, watching him lead 15,000 soldiers in the most perilous region of Afghanistan.

“When the US left, I didn’t really have a film; I didn’t know what the film was. We had the beginning of the film, we had the first act of a film but this story surely was not over and so that’s when we reached out to Gen Sadat and asked him if we had come back and embed with him.”

Film still - RETROGRADE captures the final nine months of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan from multiple perspectives: one of the last U.S. Special Forces units deployed there, a young Afghan general and his corps fighting to defend their homeland against all odds, and the civilians desperately attempting to flee as the country collapses and the Taliban take over. From rarely seen operational control rooms to the frontlines of battle to the chaotic Kabul airport during the final U.S. withdrawal, Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s latest film offers a cinematic and historic window onto the end of America’s longest war, and the costs endured for those most intimately involved. (Tim Grucza/OTP)
 Photograph: Film PR handout

Sadat is a graduate of the Defence Academy of the UK and holds a master’s degree from King’s College London. In August last year he wrote an opinion column in the New York Times headlined: “I Commanded Afghan Troops This Year. We Were Betrayed.”

Heineman filmed the general up to 20 hours a day, from shaving in his bathroom to giving orders from his control room, from touring battlefields under fire to scrolling through gruesome images on his phone. Sadat refuses to accept defeat despite insuperable odds and Catch-22-style bureaucracy on his own side (“I can’t fight the Taliban and the administration at the same time,” he says at one point).

Heineman explains: “I found him deeply fascinating – extremely young for the amount of responsibility he had. He had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He felt – despite metaphorically every neon sign saying, stop, stop, give up, surrender, your country is falling – this sort of unwavering belief that maybe, just maybe, if he held on to Lashkargah or Helmand or southern Afghanistan, the country will hold together.

“There’s a thousand reasons why the Afghan army lost to the Taliban. One of them surely is a lack of morale, a loss of morale, after the US left. That was definitely one of the major factors. One of the things that Gen Sadat was forced to do in his role was to instill belief and faith in his men, in the men that he’s recruiting, that they could win and he held this belief up until the final days and moments.”

Sadat says in the film that the Taliban sentenced him to be hanged and the US refused to help him, so he fled to the UK. He is seen in London with a cigar perched between two fingers, his eyes staring into the middle distance. He says: “It was the hardest decision of my life to leave Afghanistan. I left my soul and I feel like I am walking in an empty vessel.”

Having seen Sadat’s never-say-die commitment up close, Heineman takes issue with Biden’s remark that “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves”. But in keeping with his work, the film-maker is reluctant to make overtly political pronouncements on the war and how it ended.

Asked how the Green Berets felt about Biden’s decision to withdraw, he replies that was not the intent of the film. “In making films that are pointedly apolitical, it makes people uncomfortable. People don’t know how to interpret without being spoon-fed information and I love doing that because it forces you to come to your own conclusions and beliefs.

“What’s interesting is that both the war in Afghanistan and the end of the war in Afghanistan do not break down according to like clean ideological lines. People on the left think it was horrible and awful and we should have stayed and kept fighting; people on the right think we should have gotten out of there, what are we doing, we’re wasting taxpayers money. It’s a complex topic and issue and war.”

Heineman adds: “But to actually answer your question, I think the general feeling was: we are abandoning our friends and was there a better way to do this? They didn’t leave winning. They left losing. No matter what your belief sets are, we lost the war and so, when you’ve lost friends and trillions of dollars have been spent, that doesn’t feel good.”

  • Retrograde is out in US and UK cinemas now
‘I had tears streaming’: a sobering film about the last months of the Afghan war
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Afghan needs, global priorities, and the treasures of Mes Aynak

Nadia Ahmad

Al Jazeera

Since it assumed power in Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban has faced the formidable task of undertaking the reconstruction and development of a country devastated by decades of war. The new government is attempting to turn a new page, but Western sanctions are suffocating its economy. An agreement to lift the sanctions has been elusive so far.

As the government tries to break its international isolation to receive financial support, it is also considering other sources of revenue, including developing its mineral deposits, some of which may be key for the world’s energy transition. According to a Brookings Institute report, Afghanistan sits on some 2.3 billion metric tonnes of iron ore and 1.4 million metric tonnes of rare earth minerals.

More significantly, the country is estimated to possess some 30 million metric tonnes of copper. In fact, one of the most important copper deposits in the world is located in an area called Mes Aynak in Logar Province.

This resource may not only bring significant funds to the country to help pursue its development goals, but can also help the rest of the world with its struggle against climate change and poverty. Copper is a critical component of advanced renewable energy technologies. There is a growing demand for it, as the world goes through its green energy transformation and tries to meet the seventh UN sustainable development goal – to provide access to affordable and clean energy to all.

Building an electric vehicle requires 2.5 times as much copper as an internal combustion vehicle. Solar farms use two times more copper per megawatt of installed capacity than gas or coal-powered electricity plants; for offshore wind installations, the amount is five times bigger.

At the same time, 733 million people globally are without access to electricity. This means that poor countries, which try to expand their energy production and electric grids, have to compete with rich ones for copper, as growing demand is pushing up the price. Mining Mes Aynak would have a significant global impact, helping meet demand for copper and perhaps lowering the price so poorer countries can better afford it.

In this context, developing the deposits at Mes Aynak is in the interest of the whole world, as well as in the interest of Afghanistan. And there is a way to develop these resources that is acceptable to the Taliban and to the foreign powers, which have imposed sanctions and financial restrictions on the group.

Our organisation, Sustainable Development Strategies Group took a look at the requirements for the development of Mes Aynak a few years ago at the behest of ARCH International, an organisation working to protect world cultural heritage.

The development of this site would be challenging and require the construction of new sources of electricity, transmission systems, transport systems and water supply routes. It would also necessitate setting up processing plants.

The revenues from the project could improve significantly the lives of Afghans. The country would benefit not only from newly built infrastructure, but also from employment opportunities and investment. Community development agreements could be drawn up to allocate funding for schools, hospitals, roads, and other infrastructure for the benefit of nearby communities.

Developing Mes Aynak would require capital investment, technology sector development and mining expertise, which the Taliban government does not have and cannot access because of Western sanctions and restrictions. That is why, achieving this would require an agreement between the Taliban and at least some of its foreign critics, namely the United States.

A deal can see international recognition of the government and the lifting of sanctions and financial restrictions on the basis of the UN framework for human security in exchange for the Taliban’s flexibility on education and recognition of women’s rights.

Both sides stand to benefit from such an agreement. For the cash-strapped Taliban government, developing the copper deposits can provide much-needed funds to tackle the deepening humanitarian crisis in the country, where 92 percent of the population faces food insecurity.

For the US, greater copper supply on the global market can lower the cost of its own green transition and stimulate its economy. Taliban concessions on key human rights issues would also be a policy win for Washington.

In the absence of any agreement, there are at least two major dangers in trying to develop this project. One would be an attempt to generate quick money by skimming the highest-grade ore and trucking it away for processing abroad, perhaps to China. While this might generate some quick cash, it would come nowhere near fulfilling the potential of this site.

It would be settling for short-term benefits, for pennies, when the value of a properly developed project would be enormous and its benefit – long-term. The employment and infrastructure benefits of a fully developed project would be lost.

Furthermore, exploiting the site for a quick profit would most likely hurt the environment. Water aquifers near the mine that supply water to Kabul and beyond would be at risk of severe contamination from mining activity. This would also affect farming in the region, killing the livelihoods of local communities.

The other major danger brings an unhappy parallel with the past. Twenty years ago, the Taliban destroyed the ancient Buddha statues of Bamiyan, which caused international outrage and further motivated foreign powers to isolate the group.

Today, the important Buddhist heritage site at Mes Aynak is in peril if its resources are improperly exploited. The Buddhist monastery complexes are located on, over and in the copper deposits. It seems that the earlier inhabitants of this area worked as miners, producing copper. These buildings, tunnels and relics are all part of world historical heritage, and mining at this site should not damage or destroy them.

Our earlier review of this site for ARCH International seems to indicate that with care, the deposit of copper can be exploited with only limited damage to part of this priceless archaeological complex, which has yet to be fully explored, studied and understood.

The Taliban government has indicated that it is committed to protecting and preserving this cultural heritage. This could best be achieved if the development of the site occurs in close consultation with international archaeological organisations and the cultural authorities of the United Nations. It can even be developed as a cultural heritage tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world.

Illegal mining in Afghanistan has already been a problem for years. It has not only deprived the state budget of much-needed revenue, but it has also enriched warlords and undermined security and stability in the country.

If the Taliban and the US strike a deal to lift the sanctions, there is a much higher chance that Mes Aynak would be developed in a way that guarantees transparency, environmental protections and local development. This is because the UN and international financial institutions would be involved and would require accountability for investments and observance of environmental and developmental standards.

We hope the Afghan government would also show commitment to transparency in how the revenues from any exploitation of Mes Aynak would be spent. They should be dedicated to improving health, education and infrastructure.

If these conditions are met, Mes Aynak could set an example for other mineral resources to be developed and managed to the benefit of the Afghan people. However, if that does not happen, Afghanistan risks joining a long list of countries where the exploitation of mineral resources has resulted in environmental devastation, impoverishment, and wealth plunder.

We suggest that the potential for seeking an agreement that allows the development of Mes Aynak, and the investment flows necessary for that end should be explored with vigour.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Luke Danielson is President and co-founder of Sustainable Development Strategies Group. He is an attorney, professor and consultant on mineral policy, national development strategies, and environmental and social performance in the mining and oil and gas industries.

Afghan needs, global priorities, and the treasures of Mes Aynak
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US Needs Afghanistan Watchdog, Experts Say, After Biden Admin Obstructs Accountability Efforts

MICAELA BURROW

REPORTER

Daily Caller News Foundation
Quincy Institute

The Biden administration is stonewalling the independent Afghanistan watchdog organization authorized by Congress in 2008, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

  • Executive agencies argued that their efforts fall outside of SIGAR’s mandate, but experts disagreed, saying the organization is vital for accountability.
  • “The bottom line is that institutions don’t like to be held accountable, but the American people deserve oversight,” Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft who served in Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine, told the DCNF.

The U.S. still needs the Afghanistan watchdog organization despite recent Biden administration efforts to thwart ongoing investigations into the White House’s military withdrawal and ongoing assistance to the country, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The watchdog’s latest quarterly report alleged the Biden administration agencies refused to comply with requests for information, threatening to nullify the organization’s mission to provide oversight of past and ongoing reconstruction projects. However, the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, will remain vital until the U.S. ceases sending aid to the Taliban-controlled country, experts told the DCNF.

“The Biden administration is attempting to bypass SIGAR, without a doubt,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow Bill Roggio told the DCNF, adding that Biden’s ongoing push to reengage with Afghanistan is “politically unpopular, so it’s tempting to hide.”

The administration is “invested in continuing to cover up the true costs of their disastrous withdrawal last year. This could be an important stepping off point for hearings and investigations by the new Congress,” Simone Ledeen, former senior U.S. Treasury representative to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said to the DCNF.

Executive agencies, particularly the Treasury Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID), refused to provide requested documents related to $1.1 billion in humanitarian aid distributed to Afghanistan since the Biden administration’s withdrawal in Aug. 2021, SIGAR claimed in the report. The State Department complied with a limited number of requests, concealing key details.

Congress authorized SIGAR in 2008 to account for waste, fraud and abuse relating to millions in aid sent to rebuild Afghan society during the U.S.’ 20-year war against the Taliban.

The executive agencies’ decision to obstruct the desired information release violates SIGAR’s congressional mandate and undermines the American people’s interests, watchdog head John Sopko said in the preface to the report.

The agencies are “only going to release information that makes them look good, and they’re going to hide information that they don’t like,” Daniel Davis, a researcher at Defense Priorities who served in Afghanistan and blew the whistle on senior military leaders’ misrepresentation of the war’s progress, told the DCNF. “No matter what the reality was, the message to all the American people would get would be, ‘This is great, it’s going good, everything’s working and it’s a success,’ and we’ll have no way to independently verify that.”

Top Republican lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee on Monday called on SIGAR to shed further light on State Department and USAID obstruction efforts in a letter. Among other things, the lawmakers requested SIGAR come forth with comments it claimed to have received from a State Department official that the agency prohibited staff from communicating with investigators without approval from the State Department’s legal advisers.

“The Biden Administration is seeking to avoid transparency, and therefore, accountability for its deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Ranking Member James Comer and National Security Subcommittee head Glenn Grothman wrote in the letter.

The Biden Administration’s ongoing obstruction is unacceptable and potentially illegal,” the lawmakers added.

SIGAR is complying with the requests made in the letter, a SIGAR spokesperson told the DCNF.

A USAID spokesperson argued that any donations since fall outside the realm of “reconstruction” assistance SIGAR was stood up to monitor.

“Nonetheless, since August, USAID has continued to cooperate and provide information to SIGAR, with upwards of 25 evaluations, audits and other engagements,” the spokesperson said.

As part of the 2022 budget process, SIGAR requested an expansion of its mandate from “reconstruction” to “reconstruction, humanitarian, and other development assistance” for Afghanistan, a State Department spokesperson told the DCNF.

“That expansion has not been enacted into law and, as such, activities involving humanitarian and development assistance remain outside SIGAR’s current mandate,” the spokesperson said.

Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft who served in Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine, told the DCNF he did not believe the Biden administration had pressed on an organized campaign to nullify SIGAR; however, “the bottom line is that institutions don’t like to be held accountable, but the American people deserve oversight.”

“I’m sure you can keep working and find productive ways to spend the taxpayer dollar and find out about the stuff and put it on paper for a long time to come. The problem is not so much [Sopko] or the statute or his mission; it’s the fact that nobody really cares,” Gil Barndollar, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities who also deployed to Afghanistan as a Marine, told the DCNF.

Barndollar said he harbored concerns the Republicans in Congress, particularly if they achieve a majority in either house, will wield SIGAR’s post-withdrawal findings to stir up opposition to the Biden administration.

Congress also created the Afghanistan War Commission in 2021, a bipartisan coalition tasked to review the decisions in the 20 years leading up to the Afghanistan withdrawal, legislated through the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.

However, SIGAR should continue to hold the administration accountable as long as the U.S. is contributing financially to Afghanistan, multiple experts told the DCNF.

“I think there is still a lot for SIGAR to dig into,” said Weinstein. “Shutting it down now would be akin to sweeping a lot of waste, incompetence, and corruption under the rug. Furthermore, it is still looking into current events.”

The Biden administration plans to return billions in frozen assets through a special Swiss-based “Afghan Fund” for eventual transfer to the Afghan Central Bank, according to a joint statement from the U.S. Treasury Department and State Department. Officials have expressed concern the Taliban would seize the funds the U.S. says belong to the Afghan people.

SIGAR is “vitally important because that’s our only advocate, if you will, to find out what the hell’s going on” with U.S. aid to Afghanistan, said Davis.

The White House did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

US Needs Afghanistan Watchdog, Experts Say, After Biden Admin Obstructs Accountability Efforts
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