Afghanistan may be largely at peace, but a year after the Taliban retook control, seeing off American-led occupying troops and turning back the country’s clocks by reimposing strict Islamic law, its people are paying a heavy price for that peace.
In rural areas in particular, two decades of roadside bombs, crossfire, airstrikes and military raids have given way to a desperate struggle for existence as hunger and economic collapse, soaring prices and unemployment ravage the country. The UN estimates that gross domestic product fell 20 per cent in 2021 and will shrink a further 5 per cent this year.
Acute food insecurity affects half of Afghanistan’s 40 million people. Taliban leaders have set about remaking Afghan society using police-state tactics like door-to-door searches, arbitrary arrests and torture, imposing draconian restrictions on freedom of speech and ordering women to cover their faces, leave jobs and barring teenage girls from school. They have said they plan to reopen girls’ secondary schools and are preparing a new curriculum, but the delay has led to suspicions they will impose an outright ban on girls’ education. And the promise of an amnesty for members of the former government and armed forces has been violated from the start.
Last month a UN report alleged the Taliban has carried out at least 160 extrajudicial killings, nearly 200 arbitrary arrests, and tortured dozens. Many of the country’s brightest and best remain desperate to leave. There are weak signs of economic upturn. While imports have fallen sharply, the UN expects exports to rise to about €1.8 billion from €1.2 billion in 2019. Afghanistan contains huge untapped mineral wealth. And both cross-border and internal trade has been helped by the Taliban’s drastic reduction of bribes extracted on the borders and now-safe road network. Those green shoots are feeble.
The country desperately needs development aid to refinance its crumbling infrastructure, not least those very roads. International sanctions imposed after the Taliban victory saw €9 billion in foreign currency reserves seized and the cutting off of the aid that made up 75 per cent of the previous government’s budget. Although humanitarian aid is flowing, western governments are holding back development aid whose resumption is largely conditional on the honouring by the Taliban of promises to restore rights to women and girls. Western concerns that renewed aid may fall into terrorist hands have been strengthened by the discovery and killing by a US drone two weeks ago of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in a Kabul suburb.
The Biden administration on Monday ruled out releasing €3.5 billion in US-held funds back to Afghanistan’s central bank anytime soon. A year on, suffering Afghanistan is still moving backwards.