A Year After The Fall
It’s been a year since the Taliban took over Kabul and returned to the position they held twenty years prior: rulers of Afghanistan. No doubt, you’ve seen any number of print or TV reports on the dubious anniversary and where Afghanistan is today.
Last week, I joined the radio program and podcast Beyond Politics to discuss the anniversary and the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
It was not an uplifting conversation. There is only one way in which Afghanistan is better today than a year ago. Fewer civilians are being killed by conflict between the Taliban and Afghan forces, since of course there are no Afghan forces anymore and the war is over.
Otherwise, every other aspect of life in Afghanistan is worse after a year of Taliban rule. Does that come as any surprise?
As I discussed on the program, the Taliban did not follow the quasi-moderate vision they were selling a year ago. Again, no surprise there. I think people wanted to believe the Taliban’s talking points that women would be able to go to school and work because the alternative was too unpleasant to contemplate.
Yet, the Taliban disappointed the few optimists and grew more repressive. They have dialed back rights and freedoms every few months. Now, women are living under pretty much the same conditions as they faced under Taliban regime 1.0 in the late ‘90s.
The economy is an utter disaster with little private sector remaining and unemployment in the ballpark of 40 percent according to some estimates. Nearly half the population is in desperate need of food aid, and it’s been increasingly difficult for aid to get into the country and reach people.
To make matters worse, the leader of al-Qaeda popped up in Kabul (living in a house a five-minute walk from where I used to live). Fortunately, a U.S. drone strike took him out, but the fact that the leader of the terrorist group behind 9/11 was living in a posh neighborhood in a house apparently owned by the Haqqani family is only going to make things worse.
There are still a lot of open questions about how Zawahiri ended up in Kabul, whether other al-Qaeda members are in the city, and who in the Taliban regime knew and/or aided. For now, it means Taliban efforts to gain legitimacy and have billions in Afghan funds unfrozen will go nowhere. That further punishes the Afghan people.
This gets to the question of what the United States and international community can do at this point to pressure the Taliban and help the Afghan people.
The short answer is not much. There isn’t a military option, so threat of force or violence is a non-starter. Threatening to cut off funding or expelling the Taliban from international organizations won’t work because they aren’t recognized and their funds are already frozen. So, there aren’t many sticks that can be employed.
On the carrot side, there has been a big one dangling for a year: billions of dollars in frozen funds. The international community told the Taliban that if they behaved, then the money could flow. Yet, the money wasn’t enough incentive for the Taliban to change their stripes.
So, what now? I don’t have an answer. There isn’t much leverage. In the short run, the focus needs to be on getting as much humanitarian aid into the country as possible to minimize the suffering. Obviously, that continues to be a difficult task because of the war in Ukraine and the competing needs in Syria, Yemen, and a bunch of places in Africa.
A year after the fall of Kabul, things are worse than even some of the pessimists predicted. I wish I had some sort of silver lining or “but on a positive note” ending for this missive, but I don’t. Things are bad and will probably get worse in Afghanistan. The country hasn’t hit bottom.
So, to change the subject, I have something for paid subscribers. I still have lots of outtakes and deleted chapters from my book. What follows is the chapter I drafted about my reporting trip to Iraq in 2009. It was my second visit to the country.
I was there to report on the effort to train the Iraqi military to function on its own after U.S. forces left at the end of 2011. The second story I was reporting was on the lack of electricity and how poorly things were going in that department. Enjoy.