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  • Joe Clark

Human Rights in Afghanistan Following U.S. Withdrawal


On August 31, the last US troops departed Afghanistan after 20 years of direct involvement with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. 16 days before, the Afghan government had collapsed and the Taliban seized control of almost all of the country. After the last plane left, Afghanistan mostly disappeared from the American news cycle and the government became publicly uninvolved with most issues within the country. Now, more than one year later, Afghanistan is still suffering, arguably even more than it was before.


“Taliban 2.0”


As the US withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban took power once more, the Taliban claimed they had evolved into a “Taliban 2.0” that was more moderate and would not engage in the internationally condemned behavior they were known for in the 1990s. When they last ruled the country, the Taliban barred girls from going to school and harbored international terrorists. They promised an “inclusive government” which would include and respect the rights of women and ethnic minorities. They also promised a general amnesty for soldiers and employees of the former government, and to not become a safe haven for terrorists.


Unfortunately, one year later, none of those promises have been fulfilled. The Taliban packed their cabinet with hardliners, with very few minorities and no women. That cabinet included the two main factions of the Taliban, the Kandahari faction and the Haqqani Network.


The Khandahari faction, based in the southern city of Kandahar, is made up of religious hardliners who are less concerned with terrorism and ruling and more with enforcing their strict religious laws, such as banning girls from secondary education. This group was responsible for keeping girls' schools closed when they were supposed to open. This was also the group willing to negotiate with the west and is often mistakenly seen as the moderate faction of the Taliban.


The Haqqani Network is a family that has presided over some of the worst Taliban atrocities and attacks. The network is rumored to have connections with Al-Qaeda and its leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, now the Minister of the Interior, has a $10,000,000 bounty on his head from the FBI. The Haqqani Network is also considered by many to be a proxy of Pakistani Intelligence, as Pakistan is the largest foreign material supporter of the Taliban. The Haqqani Network, ironically, is much more realpolitik focused, willing to compromise on some issues such as opening girls schools to win international favor. Disputes between the two factions have sometimes led to armed brawls between the groups.


As for general amnesty and protection from terrorists, the Taliban have also failed. Hundreds of former soldiers and government employees have been kidnapped or killed in brutal Taliban house inspections, which are more akin to lootings. Bombings from the Taliban-opposed ISIS branch have become commonplace, often targeting minorities and Shiites and leaving dozens dead with little to no action from the Taliban. But the most damning piece of evidence for the Taliban’s refusal to uphold their commitments came in July, when Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed by a US drone strike after it was revealed that he had been living in the government district of Kabul with the Taliban’s support. This was not the first US drone strike in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, but it was the first one publicly acknowledged. This was a clear violation of the Doha Accords, the treaty signed between the US and Taliban in 2020, on the Taliban’s part. In the Doha Accords, the US promised to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan so long as the Taliban did not harbor international terrorists among other things.


A Fragile Dictatorship


Although the Taliban have tight control over what is now the ‘least free country on Earth’ per the Democracy Index, many factors are working against them. After their rise to power, Afghanistan’s economy contracted by 40%. Nearly 95% of Afghans are facing food insecurity and, with the dramatic exodus of many highly-educated Afghans and loss of economic activity from groups such as women, people are being forced to work in menial, low-paying jobs to survive.


Due to their harsh rule and low standard of living, the Taliban has created many enemies inside the country. After the fall of Kabul, remnants of the Afghan Army relocated to Panjshir province in central Afghanistan. There, they reorganized under the leadership of Ahmed Massoud, an Afghan politician and son of a former Mujahideen commander. This new militia became known as the National Resistance Front. While the Taliban were initially successful in driving them into the mountains, they have been able to hold out, launching increasing attacks on Taliban forces and coordinating with other resistance cells such as the Afghan Freedom Front.


All attempts by the Taliban to wipe the resistance out have been unsuccessful, with the Taliban usually suffering massive casualties from these western-trained soldiers. Although no country has publicly supported them outside of Tajikistan, the resistance retains large amounts of support from local residents, who refuse to turn their backs on the resistance despite brutal collective punishment. Former warlords and remnants of the republic which still operate in embassies abroad have also voiced their support for the resistance, culminating in a conference in Vienna last month on formulating an anti-Taliban strategy. The resistance has also been joined by Taliban defectors, and the local Taliban in resistance-heavy regions have often refused orders to fight people of their own ethnicity.


Local Events, Global Ramifications


Ultimately, the war in Afghanistan is still in a slow burn and the international community appears to be taking a much more hands-off approach as opposed to the direct intervention or direct support of local forces by various nations which has characterized the past 40 years. But with the increased tension between Taliban factions, the growing resistance, anger among the public, and more and more terrorists using the country as a haven, the future of the country remains turbulent and the US in particular may not be able to ignore it for much longer.


The conditions of present-day Afghanistan are very similar to the years before 9/11 and if the US wants to prevent another attack, they will likely become more involved in the country in the future if the current threat persists. What this involvement will look like will depend on the conditions on the ground and the current administration but what is for sure is that while America may want to be done with Afghanistan, they may not have a choice.


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