In the 1990s, Afghanistan became one of the most isolated countries in the world. Millions of people had fled. With virtually no functioning telecommunications, severe restrictions on the few remaining NGOs that had stayed behind, and being difficult and dangerous to access for journalists, information was escaping the country only in small snippets. But in 1998, Physicians for Human Rights managed to get a team of researchers into the country, and published a carefully documented report based on a survey of over 1,000 Afghans living in Afghanistan and in Afghan refugee camps, giving the world a small glimpse of what was going on within Afghan borders.
The survey responses, collected from ordinary Afghans, painted a bleak picture of life in a place where people had been stripped of their most basic rights, with a special emphasis on relegating women and girls to the margins of a society so under duress, life itself was becoming increasingly untenable. The dense web of rules under which Afghans lived were being imposed by a regime that only properly described as totalitarian. That regime was the Taliban.
The consequences, as found by PHR’s survey, were a population living through a mental health crisis, where it had become the norm for people to be experiencing severe levels of depression and anxiety, and where an alarming number of people reported having suicidal thoughts. The overwhelming majority of women living in Afghanistan indicated that their declining physical and mental health was directly attributable to Taliban policies.
At the same time, the survey clearly demonstrated that the population was at odds with the ideology of their rulers: Over 90 percent of those surveyed, men and women, said they “strongly supported” rights for Afghan women, and they “overwhelmingly endorsed equal access for women to education and work opportunities; freedom of expression, legal protections for the rights of women and participation of women in government.” They said that women should be able to move about freely and associate with people of their choosing, and they expressed their belief that these rights and freedoms do not violate Islam.
These beliefs eventually became reality for the people of Afghanistan, when the Taliban were ousted in late 2001. But in their wake, they left a society still burdened by trauma. There was no legacy of social or cultural development left by their years in power, only the legacy of a mental health crisis provoked by the harshness of their rule.
Nor did they manage to leave any trace of economic development. On the contrary, their rule plunged the country into deeper poverty: Afghanistan became one of the only countries to significantly regress in human development indicators such as child and infant mortality, unlike elsewhere in the world, where these measures of progress tend to improve over time, sometimes rapidly and sometimes slowly, but usually trending toward improvement. The abominable poverty was entirely preventable. It was encouraged by the Taliban’s policies, like shutting women out of the workforce, when entire sectors such as healthcare depended disproportionately on women. Making half the population economically unproductive brought food insecurity to crisis levels. Infrastructure that provided for basic necessities such as potable water were destroyed, leading to widespread and preventable public health crises.
The shuttering of schools further amplified the dismal state of the economy. Schools are a funnel to livelihoods. Economic growth depends on the availability of a skilled and diversified workforce. The evidence from the world over is undeniable: Countries with lower education and labor force participation among women are poorer as a result, and Afghanistan under Taliban proved this a thousand times over.
Despite an indisputably dismal track record of governance and human rights, together with the lasting damage caused by this in the barely distant past, the same group of extremists is once again poised to seize power. Recent U.S. decisions have set up conditions ripe for enabling the return of an unelected totalitarian entity whose ideology is at odds with the people they seek to rule. The realities of life in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 tell us what to expect from an Afghanistan again ruled by the Taliban. There are commentators who have claimed that the Taliban have changed. Based on the evidence at hand, that is wishful thinking.
In mid-2020, a Human Rights Watch report documented life in areas under Taliban control, and found that girls’ education was typically banned or heavily restricted, such as only being allowed up to the age of puberty. Those teachers allowed to work are taxed and threatened. There is no freedom of expression, TV is banned in many Taliban-controlled districts, and smartphones are forbidden in others. The infamous Taliban Vice and Virtue squad that brutally polices morality is active in areas under their control, tracking the beard length of men, making sure that women are covered from head to toe, and that no one skips prayer time at the mosque.
They continue to inflict corporal punishment on those who break their rules: “Taliban courts have imposed brutal punishments such as lashing on men and women for so-called moral crimes.” In fact, just in the past two weeks, new footage shows the Taliban whipping a woman in a kangaroo court in Herat, and another video shows three men being violently punished, accused of breaking their fast during Ramadan. Another unconfirmed video circulating on social media in Afghanistan shows what appears to be a teenage boy being beaten, again for eating during Ramadan, as he cries out that he had nothing to eat and was hungry.
By all available evidence, the Taliban remain a group of militants whose primary driver is the imposition of their extremist ideology. Utterly inept and completely disinterested when it comes to policy, governance, the rule of law, the management of an economy and social development, they have yet to make a convincing case that they are any less misogynist or hateful as when they ruled previously.
The Taliban have not changed. In truth, they have made no such claims. The sad irony is that those who are betting on an enlightened Taliban, on the idea that to be governed by the Taliban won’t be so bad for Afghans, are the very same people who spent the last 20 years heavily investing — in blood and in treasure — in democractic development, women’s rights, and girls’ education: the U.S. government. No contortions of rhetoric can square the policies behind those investments with the policy now emerging to voice support for an unelected transitional government that includes the Taliban, to leave the country in a security vacuum, and to pretend that the imposition of a theocratic style government — endorsing the Taliban demand for an Islamic council as the government’s supreme authority — is aligned with the interests of Afghans, and that the lives of women and girls will remain largely unchanged. They will change. If there is any uncertainty about that, we need only look to the impact of the Taliban’s rule that ended two decades ago, and to the impact of their rule in the areas they control today.