By Holly Mottram – Regular Contributor
In the past month, the situation in Afghanistan has escalated to arguably the greatest height since international intervention post 9/11. Prompted by the removal of foreign troops in key military bases in Kabul and elsewhere in the country, the Taliban have begun extending their territory, fighting government forces to take power.
Since 9/11 there has been a constant foreign military presence from US, NATO and other troops in a bid to quell terrorist tendencies in light of the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS. However, after almost 20 years of military presence, UK and US troops hastily withdrew from Afghan bases leaving the country vulnerable to further attack. Although a great deal of progress has been made within Afghanistan’s government and military infrastructure, it remains too weak to single-handedly defend itself against Taliban advances.
Since foreign troops withdrew from Afghanistan, the Taliban have been violently and forcefully taking villages and cities under control. With constant clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan military, civilian and government casualties continue to rise. Within a mere few weeks, the Taliban has used force to take even the biggest cities in Afghanistan; Jalalabad and Kabul. The Taliban are well-known for their brutal punishments and power-grabbing tactics, using force and fear to ensure their powerful standing remains.
The Taliban have been a force in Afghanistan for almost three decades, occupying over 70% of the country after emerging as a leading faction in the wake of the Afghan War. During their period of power, they enforced a strict interpretation of Sharia law which often limits the rights and freedoms of citizens and subjects them to fear-mongering tactics. Under Taliban rule from 1996-2001, UN food supplies for starving Afghans were destroyed, massacres were committed against innocent civilians and the Taliban conducted a scorched earth policy. This policy aims to destroy anything that may help the enemy, therefore thousands of acres of fertile land, many homes and power or communications stations were destroyed. This had huge ramifications for local Afghans, many of whom needed these things to survive.
In the past two months, the Taliban have begun a rapid take-over of many government-controlled provinces and have started to enact many of the policies they used during 1996-2001. Their strict interpretation of Sharia law has limited the freedoms of many groups within Afghanistan, subjecting them to many of the restrictions seen in the late 1990s.
Innocent Afghan women and girls are a faction that has arguably been most affected by the rapid Taliban advance in the past two months. It has been reported by the BBC that in some areas women are forced to wear a burkha, clothing that covers the entire body and face, with only the eyes exposed. Women who disobey some of these strict laws are flogged, shamed and in extreme cases stoned to death. In the occupation of many towns, Afghans have said they fear for the girls and women who are often forced into sex and to act as slaves for fighters, washing and cooking for them. Many are reported to have been forced into marriage, with some under 16 at the time made to bear children and act solely in the interest of their husbands who are often much older than them. In all areas controlled by the Taliban, a woman must only leave the house accompanied by a man, and for no other reason, further limiting the already few rights and freedoms they have.
It is not only women that are suffering under this new assault on Afghan society, but children too. During their occupation in the late 1990s, education was almost prohibited for both sexes with hundreds of schools being destroyed and many teachers flogged and made examples of. The only education that is permitted under the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law is the teachings of the Qur’an. Since their loss of control after US and NATO troops were sent in, the number of Taliban-controlled regions had decreased to a mere fraction of what it once was. In many places the harsh restrictions were lifted to some extent, however with the rapid expansion of Taliban-controlled territories, children are increasingly at risk from receiving no education at all with many either forced to stay at home or fight. This is particularly true of girls who are forcefully kept away from any form of education, a policy that harks back to previous Taliban tendencies.
Finally, this resurgence of power comes with the inevitable risk of increased violence, harm and death of innocent civilians caught up in clashes between government troops and Taliban rebels. In a mid-2021 UN report, published just weeks after the start of the Taliban power grab, 1659 innocent civilians were killed in between January and June, a 47% increase from last year. In the five days since that report was published, the New York Times reported a further 58 civilian and 115 government military deaths. Not only does Taliban occupation bring with it worry for the restriction of rights and freedoms for women and children, but it comes with a genuine and reasonable fear of death or harm caused by ongoing assaults from both the Taliban and the Afghan military.
The alarmingly rapid advance by the Taliban over the past two months has been met with much criticism on the international stage, but comparatively little action. Though the trigger point for this surge was the US and UK’s hasty exit from Afghanistan five weeks ago, both countries have done little to remedy the immense cost of their evacuation on the Afghan population. In the past few days, with growing international pressure, US President Biden has defended his decision to remove troops from Afghanistan. This is despite what is arguably a heavy blow to democratic values and freedoms that are now all but demolished under the Taliban regime.
International militaries have deployed troops to evacuate their citizens from Afghan government strongholds in anticipation of further gains from the Taliban. However, the international community has done little to help civilian Afghans during this crisis, despite the trigger point for the surge in Taliban advances coming from the exit of international militaries from Afghanistan. Afghan soldiers, translators and military personnel who have helped British and American operations for the past 20 years are now targets for Taliban troops, and yet little is being done to aid what will be a catastrophic outcome for these Afghans. Chaotic and disturbing scenes are emerging from Kabul International Airport which is still operational, guarded by international troops to allow safe passage for US/UK citizens out of Afghanistan. In one particular video, Afghan civilians run alongside a US military plane leaving the airport in a bid to board and escape.
In a world of international diplomacy, intergovernmental negotiations and the idea of ‘saving face’, innocent Afghan civilians who have experienced unspeakable pain and suffering over the past 50 years continue to live a life cloaked in fear and uncertainty. It is the least the international community can do to help prevent a repeat of history in which Afghanistan is ruled by a totalitarian regime subjecting its citizens to inconceivable violence, restriction of rights and little access to basic necessities. More must be done to help these innocent people who continue to persevere in the face of terror, violence and suffering.
BBC News Asia. 26 July 2021. Afghanistan: Record Civilian Casualties in 2021 UN Reports.
Kermani, S. 11 August 2021. Afghanistan War: Taliban back brutal rule as they strike for power. BBC News.
Hardy, L. & Doherty, B. 16 August 2021. Kabul airport: footage appears to showAfghans falling from plane after takeoff. The Guardian.
New York Times. 5 August 2021. Afghanistan War Casualty Report: August 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/05/world/asia/afghanistan-casualty-report-august.html
United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. (2021). Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Midyear Update 2021.