The Taliban has established its oppressive rule in Afghanistan since taking over in 2021. This has resulted in the violation of the fundamental rights of 40 million people and has led to a humanitarian disaster. Additionally, Afghanistan is now at risk of becoming a hub for global terrorism. It is clear that the Taliban’s ideology is driving their draconian rule, and their false promises should not distract the international community from their moral and legal obligation to protect the people of Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s actions have deprived millions of Afghans of their basic rights, leaving them in constant fear of violence, undermining their dignity, and reducing their means of livelihood. The international community must take decisive and strategic action to address the severe human rights violations committed by the Taliban.
Ensuring “freedom from fear” is a fundamental duty of the state. Despite a fivefold decrease in battles, explosions, and indiscriminate violence since the Taliban takeover, violence in Afghanistan persists. Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) reveals that the country has experienced 3,532 incidents of political violence since August 15, 2021. These incidents include 1,375 battles, almost 600 explosions, and 1,505 cases of violence against civilians. ACLED data suggests that in the past two years, the Taliban have carried almost half of incidents of physical violence, followed by the National Resistance Front and Islamic State in Khorasan Province.
After regaining power, the Taliban shifted from indiscriminate violence to more targeted violence. In the first five months of their regime, they executed over 500 military and civilian personnel who served in the previous government, despite promising them amnesty. Former Afghan government officials and security personnel face widespread targeted killings, summary executions, and arbitrary violence. But the majority of the regime’s violence is carried out against civilians. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reports that from August 15, 2021 to May 2023, there were 3,774 civilian casualties, with 1,095 fatalities and 2,679 injuries resulting from deliberate attacks such as IEDs, landmines, and targeted killings. This reality exposes as false the claim that there is no political violence under the Taliban.
Under the Taliban regime, fear and terror are used as tools to maintain power. Their tactics of political violence have evolved from indiscriminate during their insurgency to more deliberate and institutionalized violence, specifically targeting the population, especially women.
Erasing Women from the Public Sphere
Besides inflicting physical violence, the regime has instigated new forms of systematic violence by enacting restrictive social policies. The main targets of these policies are millions of Afghan girls and women who face their holistic removal from the public sphere. In the past two years, the regime has introduced over 50 religious decrees, edicts, and administrative directives that violate women’s rights. This has led to a state of “gender apartheid” in the country.
During the first month of their rule, the Taliban prohibited female secondary education and terminated the employment of many female government employees. They also established strict dress codes and enforced gender segregation in public areas. Later, the regime deprived women of their right to travel by air or road and their right to earn a living. This included banning women from working with both domestic and foreign NGOs and prohibiting them from pursuing higher education. The regime also restricted professional opportunities for women, such as preventing female graduates from taking “the exit supplementary exam.” Additionally, the Taliban denied women’s cultural and collective rights, including their freedom to visit public parks, gyms, and public baths, and closed beauty parlors and salons.
In order to enforce its discriminating gender policies with impunity, the regime dismantled the protective institutional infrastructure for girls and women. These included closing shelters and safe homes for women, decommissioning the Afghanistan Independent High Commission on Human Rights, and dissolving the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
To effectively remove women from the public sphere, the Taliban introduced punitive measures, from sanctions to actions creating an atmosphere of fear and terror. These have included the suspension of the permits of women-led NGOs and others that hired women, imprisonment, forced disappearance, physical abuse, and even sexual violence against female activists. Through collective punishment, the regime forces male family members to impose strict restrictions against their own female family members or face punishment themselves.
The Taliban Regime and Terrorism
The relationship between the Taliban regime and terrorism has been a cause for concern since they returned to power. The Taliban have repeatedly denied any links to terrorist groups like al-Qaida. However, events and reports suggest otherwise. In early 2022, the U.N. reported that the Taliban and al-Qaida had maintained their symbiotic relationship, and that al-Qaida leader al-Zawahiri was believed to be in Afghanistan. It was also reported that Osama bin Laden’s son visited Afghanistan in October 2021 and held meetings with the Taliban. The Taliban denied these claims. The killing of al-Zawahiri by a U.S. drone strike in August 2022 confirmed the Taliban’s ties to terrorism, even though they still refuse to acknowledge his presence in Kabul.
Apart from al-Qaida, the Taliban also has relationships with other terrorist networks like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. The Pakistan military in July 2023 warned the Taliban regime in Kabul against harboring the Pakistani Taliban. A suicide bomber killed dozens and injured hundreds in Bajaur district days after the warning. There are reportedly tens of thousands of Pakistani Taliban living in Afghanistan under the Afghan Taliban’s protection. A recent U.N. Security Council report suggests that the regime has maintained a symbiotic relationships with other regional and global Jihadist organizations, too. The report further indicates that the Taliban have not upheld the counter-terrorism provisions of the Doha Agreement. Foreign militants remain allied with the Taliban.
It is important to not mistake the current silence and apparent inactivity of terrorist organizations in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as an indication of their absence. This calmness is likely a strategic move. During the Taliban’s previous regime in the mid-1990s, there was little concern about Afghanistan becoming a hub for global terrorism until al-Qaida declared its jihad on the United States. They then carried out attacks in various regions, including Africa, and eventually inside the U.S.
It would be incorrect to assume that Afghanistan is no longer a “hotbed” for terrorism simply because of the current calm. Afghanistan under the Taliban offers a more conducive environment for terrorist activity than in the 1990s. There are now more than 20 terrorist entities with regional and global agendas operating within the country. These groups have become more strategic and calculated in their actions. The lack of visible activity from these groups does not mean they lack capability or are defunct.
Poverty a Blessing in Disguise for the Taliban
The economy of Afghanistan has been heavily reliant on aid for decades, which presents a continuous challenge. In order to prevent potential economic and humanitarian crises, the Afghan government must work closely with the international community. Unfortunately, the Taliban’s irresponsible and erratic behavior has caused the economy to spiral into a dire humanitarian catastrophe. Under the Taliban rule, 87 percent of the population suffers from food insecurity, and nearly 29 million people require humanitarian assistance. By the end of 2022, over 6 million people faced famine-like conditions that demanded emergency intervention.
This disaster most affects the most vulnerable social groups. Almost a million Afghan children suffer from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition, and over 2.3 million kids suffer from acute malnutrition. While over 82 percent of households lost wages due to the regime’s restrictive social policies, the World Food Program reported that almost 100 percent of female-headed households in the country are food unsecured.
The economic conditions in the country are shaped by numerous challenges generated by a combination of chronic and acute political, economic, and natural factors. The regime’s oppressive policies and rogue behavior, however, pushed nearly the entire population deep into destitution and poverty.
Despite the growing humanitarian crisis, the regime appears to be indifferent to the situation. Rather, senior Taliban officials have normalized hunger and poverty. The acting prime minister of the regime in Kabul has left the responsibility of providing food to God, while the regime’s spokesperson has stated that poverty is a normal occurrence in Afghanistan, and no one will die of hunger. The Taliban’s refusal to reconsider the consequences of their harsh rule has worsened the economic disaster. It seems to benefit the regime both ideologically and strategically at the expense of the people’s well-being.
The regime has established hundreds new madrasas, which are religious boarding seminaries, across the country since its establishment. These seminaries provide free accommodation, religious education, and indoctrination. Typically, underprivileged families send their children to such seminaries. The newly established madrasas have now attracted tens of thousands of kids and teenagers under the Taliban. The regime also converted many former secular schools into madrasas in various provinces. These madrasas will train and prepare the next generation of Taliban in the coming years, taking advantage of the widespread poverty in the country to indoctrinated a new generation.
In addition, the global response to the current humanitarian crisis in the country has provided the Taliban with an opportunity to misuse funds and aid as an additional source of revenue for their regime. Concerns about the Taliban’s access to humanitarian funds have been voiced since their rise to power in 2021. Recent reports confirm that the Taliban are systematically redirecting international aid. These reports suggest that the regime views the U.N., responsible for delivering international aid, as a source of revenue through various techniques, including intimidation and coercion. They have successfully gained greater control over these funds. The main issue causing the humanitarian crisis is not the lack of funds or the regime’s incompetence, but rather their unwillingness to address widespread poverty and destitution.
Media Blackout and Brain Drain
The glimpses of despair and suffering caused by the Taliban’s rule only hint at the true extent of their oppressive regime. With a media blackout imposed by the government, the world has been kept largely in the dark about the true costs of the Taliban’s actions. They have limited freedom of speech, attacked journalists, imposed censorship, forcibly disappeared reporters, restricted internet access in areas of political dissent, shut down media outlets, and more, resulting in a near complete media blackout. Over 300 media outlets have been closed, and thousands of journalists and media workers have lost their jobs.
The Taliban’s return has also led to a rapid, unprecedented, and consequential brain drain from the country, with tens of thousands of highly trained and educated Afghans fleeing since 2021. This includes medical personnel, educators, developmental practitioners, public servants, and scientists, among others. Amnesty International has reported that the regime’s extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture, and unlawful detention have created an atmosphere of fear that has forced many to flee the country.
The International Community’s Responsibility
In the past two years, the Taliban has committed severe human rights violations, yet the international community has failed to hold them accountable. In fact, the community’s inaction and undue optimism about diplomatic engagement have only emboldened the regime to intensify its repression. Diplomatic engagement is necessary, but it should not compromise the fundamental human rights of the entire population.
Standing for the fundamental human rights of 40 million people should not be an obstruction for the international community, but instead a cause which the international community has moral, legal, and political grounds to protect. The Taliban regime has proven unwilling to protect Afghans rights, so the “responsibility to protect” falls on the international community.
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine within the international human rights regime offers options for effective intervention. The international community can use diplomatic, economic, and military sanctions to pressure a regime and its political and military leadership. Without feeling the heat, the Taliban leadership is unlikely to succumb to international pressure. Unlike the regime in Iran, which ahs withstood the power of sanctions, the Taliban has limited viable national resources on which to survive at present. The natural resources of the country require long-term investment to be used as revenues for the regime, they are not yet available for the Taliban to reply upon.
Practically, the international community should be able to reasonable agree that Afghanistan under the Taliban poses a common strategic and security threat to neighboring countries, regional powers, and global actors. The emerging geopolitical rivalries should not mislead these actors. The country under the Taliban rule is no one’s strategic depth but turning into a common threat that has strategic consequences – both near and far-reaching. Against the backdrop of the emerging geopolitical competition, Afghanistan under the Taliban provides a unique opportunity for regional and global powers to have a common stance on common moral, legal, and political obligations to protect the fundamental rights of 40 million humans from serious violations by the regime.