Adnan R. Khan is a writer and analyst based in Istanbul.
A year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan the country is starting to look frighteningly familiar to long-term observers.
It truly has been a year of rude awakenings in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban conquered the country on Aug. 15 last year, the situation has devolved to a point where we are now seeing the re-emergence of an Afghanistan that existed in the mid-1990s: an emirate of fear where terrorist groups are again allowed to flourish and basic human dignity is denied to most of the population.
That’s not what we were told would happen when the U.S. struck a deal with the Taliban that would allow it to end the longest war in U.S. history.
When the Trump administration signed that deal on Feb. 29, 2020, it promised to help negotiate a settlement that would prevent another civil war and guarantee an inclusive government, ensuring the rights of women and minorities. None of that has happened. Indeed, almost every Afghan I talk to inside and outside the country now believes it is headed for more brutality.
“The Taliban are in a bad position,” one of my contacts, a local village leader from a district near Kabul, told me last week. (The Globe granted my contact anonymity for his safety, because he interacts regularly with Taliban representatives.) “If they loosen their rules, which is what many people want, a lot of their fighters will defect to other groups. But their rules, especially against girls and women, are preventing the economy from improving. As a result, you have angry young men with no money and no work who are also turning against the Taliban.”
When the civil war comes, he added, it will again turn Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists.
But the fact is Afghanistan became that haven the moment the Taliban took over. One of the main groups now in power – the Haqqani network – remains on the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. In their 2013 book, Fountainhead of Jihad, Don Rassler and Vahid Brown chronicle how the Haqqanis almost single-handedly created al-Qaeda and helped it operationalize to allow it to carry out the spectacular attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
If there was any hope the Haqqanis had cut ties to al-Qaeda, it was dashed on July 31 when Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a U.S. drone strike at a Haqqani safe house in the centre of Kabul. It’s unclear what the al-Qaeda leader was doing there, but his presence alone violated at the very least the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement with the U.S.
And the litany of broken promises doesn’t end there. A year ago, the Taliban announced a general amnesty for those who worked for the previous government; today, local commanders continue to hunt down and kill anyone they perceive as traitorous. Immediately after taking power, they guaranteed a free press, then just as quickly began beating and arresting Afghan journalists. Even foreign journalists are now self-censoring, not to protect themselves but to protect the courageous Afghans who work with them. They are the ones who bear the brunt of Taliban wrath when foreigners report critically. Reporting on Afghanistan has, like 25 years ago, fallen silent.
There is one difference, though, but that too only compounds the tragedy. In September, 1996, when the Taliban rolled into Kabul for the first time, the city had been decimated by nearly four years of civil war. They inherited a ruin. Last year, they took control of a bustling, rapidly modernizing metropolis filled with cafés and restaurants, with universities and vibrant youth subcultures experimenting with their hard-won freedoms.
Some kind of peace was beginning to take hold in urban centres, enough at least for development to take place. There were bomb blasts and occasional Taliban sieges, but there were also university graduations, tech start-ups and cultural events. There were young women raising their voices and leading, and children learning the value of critical thinking.
On Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban took over a nation on an upward trajectory, as painfully slow as that was, home to millions of people who had tasted peace and progress. Some managed to escape the country; many more were left behind. Some stayed believing perhaps it could be true, perhaps the Taliban might be different this time around. The faces the Taliban had put forward during negotiations with the U.S. were the faces of the smiling, educated moderates living in Doha, the Qatari capital.
Those negotiators have all been cast aside.
The faces that now rule the country are the hardened ideologues who fought the U.S., NATO and the Afghan army, who adopted suicide attacks and kidnapping and murder as tactics to win their war. A year ago, the U.S. handed over Afghanistan to these people; not surprisingly, a year later, Afghanistan is suffering for it.
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