From the moment when scores of Afghans were filmed clinging to an American aircraft in a desperate bid to escape Taliban rule to the day of the departure of the last American soldier, international attention was trained almost exclusively on Afghanistan—until it wasn’t. By mid-September, just weeks after the Taliban took control of Kabul, the sense of crisis that had galvanized the world’s focus began to wane. Today, Afghanistan has all but disappeared from daily headlines.
This is the opportunity that the Taliban has likely been waiting for. In the initial days and weeks that followed the group’s recapture of Kabul, it reaffirmed its commitment, set out in a 2020 peace deal with the United States, to leave its old way of doing things in the past. The Taliban pledged that under new leadership, women, who were once subject to some of the group’s most hard-line restrictions, would have their rights respected (albeit within a strict interpretation of Islamic law). The press would not be inhibited from doing its work so long as it didn’t go against “national values.” Those who had worked with the former Afghan government, or alongside the U.S. and other NATO forces, would not be subject to reprisals.
Such promises were expedient then, when foreign militaries were in the process of leaving Afghanistan—a departure that the Taliban was keen to see happen without delay. They were also welcomed by the U.S. and others, who seemed to believe that the group could be pressured into keeping its word.
But now that the Taliban is back in charge, and now that international attention has largely diverted elsewhere, the group has been free to show its true, all-too-familiar, colors. Women have been discouraged from returning to work and school, seemingly indefinitely. Ethnic minorities have faced persecution and violence. Public hangings have returned to Afghanistan’s central squares.
Zarifa Ghafari has seen this all play out before. Though she was only 7 when the Taliban fell from power following the 2001 American invasion, the former Afghan politician and women’s-rights activist still remembers certain aspects of life under the group’s rule: the Taliban patrolling in large vehicles, her underground English classes (the education of women and girls was strictly prohibited at the time), and food being scarce at home. Like many other Afghan women of her generation, Ghafari has spent the past 20 years pursuing opportunities that would have been unthinkable during the five years that the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, such as attending university and attaining public office. In 2018, she became the youngest mayor in the country—a position that earned her international plaudits and death threats.
Ghafari was never under any illusions about what the return of the Taliban would mean for her country, or for people like her. “They never changed,” she told me from her new home in Germany, where she and her family fled shortly after the fall of Kabul.
“If anybody believes that the Taliban have changed,” she added dryly, “please have a small amount of them as a guest for your countries. We Afghan people would love to give them as a gift. We don’t mind at all.”
Of course the Taliban hasn’t changed. Despite its savvy public-relations operation, few believed that it actually would. But leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere had expressed hope, perhaps naively, that maybe the group’s priorities had. If the Taliban of 2021 was so intent on seeking international legitimacy, the logic went, then the West could feasibly retain a degree of leverage over it, which in turn could be used to ensure that certain basic rights—particularly those of women, members of ethnic minorities, and other vulnerable populations—would be maintained.
This theory hasn’t come to pass. In the months since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan, it has overseen a steady return to the pre-2001 status quo. Women, who previously made up a little more than a quarter of the country’s Parliament and 6.5 percent of its ministerial posts, have been excluded from the Taliban’s interim government. And despite assurances that women would still be allowed to work and study, many have yet to be invited back to their offices and classrooms, as their male peers have. In perhaps the most ominous sign of things to come for Afghan women, the building that was once the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been repurposed to house the reestablished Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Taliban’s morality police.
The Taliban hasn’t just reneged on its promises relating to women’s rights. According to a recent report by Amnesty International, the Taliban has gone back on virtually every reassurance it has made since its return to power. Among Amnesty’s findings is that the group is threatening and intimidating human-rights defenders and journalists, as well as their families. While the majority of the country’s journalists have stopped working, those who continue to do so run the risk of being arrested or beaten. Reports of revenge attacks against those who worked for the former Afghan government have also become commonplace.
“The Taliban ideological framework, the hyper-conservative standpoint—that does not seem to have shifted over the last 20 years,” Agnès Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, told me. “The pretense is gone and the reality is settling in, and it’s a very tough reality.”
This isn’t to say that the U.S. and its allies have lost sway over the Taliban. Their hold over the group’s central-bank reserves and international aid remain powerful leverage. But as Callamard sees it, that leverage hasn’t necessarily been used to prioritize human-rights concerns. “I am fearful that the international community’s political capital is being spent on demanding that the Taliban do not return to supporting terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and trying to prevent massive migration,” she said, noting that though the humanitarian situation is on the agenda, it’s “only on position three.” (Indeed, in a readout of this week’s emergency G20 summit on Afghanistan, the White House noted that President Joe Biden and his fellow leaders discussed the crucial need to focus on counterrorism efforts and ensuring safe passage for foreign nationals and Afghan partners seeking to leave Afghanistan. Humanitarian assistance, and the promotion of human rights for all Afghans, was listed third.)
Even this limited leverage could wane, especially if Russia and China come to the Taliban’s assistance. Both countries have been willing to engage with the Taliban—so much so that a spokesperson for the group told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica last month that Beijing would be the Taliban’s “main partner” for investment (though not much beyond China’s pledge of $31 million in emergency aid seems to be forthcoming). Moscow has also committed to supplying aid, though details have been scarce.
To avert a large-scale humanitarian crisis, the G20 (excluding Russia and China, whose leaders did not dial in) acknowledged this week that cooperating with the Taliban might be inevitable—though, as Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister and current rotating chair of the G20, clarified, “that does not mean recognizing them.”
When I asked Ghafari what she thought the international community could do to help Afghanistan, she urged world leaders to “please not recognize [the Taliban] without the guarantee of human, and in particular women’s, basic rights.
“I don’t want the world to forget us the same way they did in the ’90s.”