Afghanistan - The West leaves the population to pay the price

Winter 2021

Two decades after the United States and its allies - first and foremost Britain - embarked on the so-called “War on Terror”, with their attack on Afghanistan, they have finally left the country.  A 20-year occupation has ended with them handing power back to the Taliban, the enemy they claimed to have “eliminated” in 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, for its role in harbouring the perpetrators, Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terror group.

    The withdrawal of 2,500 US troops on 1 May gave the impetus to the Taliban’s rapid advance across the country.  As will be recalled, its relatively poorly-equipped forces took over each town in turn, mostly without firing a bullet - with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the generally hated, corrupt and kleptocratic puppet regime of Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, which had only remained in power thanks to western support.  By mid-August, the arrival of the Taliban at the gates of the capital caused the remaining western personnel to flee in panic.  Governments hastily evacuated their own staff, but only very few of the locals who had worked for them were included, leaving them as sure targets for the Taliban’s retribution.

    The West has thus left an Afghanistan devastated by over 4 decades of warfare and occupation and which is today one of the poorest countries on earth.  Aid agencies and NGOs, which provided most health and social care, have also left.  And having decided to wash their hands of all responsibility, they have, de facto, left the population, but particularly its women, at the mercy of one of the most reactionary regimes in the region.

The women’s question 

Women’s rights were the main target of repression under the previous Taliban regime (1996-2001), but their medieval practices were all-pervasive.  They routinely stoned adulterers to death, amputated limbs for theft and conducted public floggings and executions.  Not that these practices are exclusive to the Taliban.  Most of these practices are still commonly carried out in “modern” Saudi Arabia, for instance.

    However, one of their first acts was the closure of girls’ schools, and the placing of extreme limits on the mobility of women.

    Of course, women’s oppression is deeply rooted in this poor and backward country.  The burqa cover-all garment predates the Taliban by centuries.  But the extent of imposition of religious fundamentalism and the brutality of the Taliban regime was unprecedented in the country’s history.

    In fact, suppression of women was one of the means whereby the Taliban imposed its power and control over the whole of the population. And this gave the West an opportunity to justify its continued intervention when justification came to be required.  Never mind the hypocrisy involved, as western governments turned a blind eye to the situation of women in the other countries - like Saudi Arabia, as mentioned already - and the Gulf states, all regional allies of western imperialism.

    More specifically, western presence in Afghanistan has been justified time and again, in terms of opportunities and “progress” made with regards to women’s education.  So, what exactly did this achieve?  Did much change for the vast majority of women?

    It is true that millions of girls started attending school, post-2001, thanks to initial investment by US/Coalition institutions, although the millions of dollars poured into the country mostly found their way into the pockets of its usually very dubious local “representatives”.

    However even the final Afghan parliament under Ashraf Ghani had reserved seats for women and indeed a higher proportion of women - 27% - than even the US Congress, where women have 24% of the seats.  For the British House of Commons, by comparison, the figure is 33%.  By 2020, about a quarter of university students were female.

    Improvement in literacy rates and levels of education are, however, another matter altogether.  In 2017, 16 years after the US-led military intervention, 40% of all schools in Afghanistan were reported not even to have their own dedicated buildings.  Many classes were held outside or on dirt floors in huts or improvised premises.  Accurate statistics on facilities and school attendance are hardly available for the region.  In 2016, it was reported that “the MOE [Afghan Ministry of Education] acknowledged that a large number of children were out of school, but was unaware of how many, who or where they were, or their backgrounds”, which in itself is an indicator of the lack of governmental (foreign or otherwise) interest.

    Even the statistics cited in the latest UNICEF report in 2021, which aims to paint the last twenty years as years of “appreciable progress”, are nothing less than grim.  Today, Afghanistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world.  In 2018, more than half (57%) of the adult population, 15 years and above, could not read and write.  This rate is more than double the number of illiterate adults in South Asia. Moreover, the gender gap is large: 80% of women are illiterate compared to 51% of men.  In rural areas things are much worse, where 90% of women are illiterate.

   In 2015/16, 37% of primary school-age children and 39% of lower-secondary school-age children were not enrolled in school.  This is the highest number of out-of-school children in the region.  Although the figure for Pakistan is also high - at 23% - the percentage of children of primary school age who are out-of-school, and thus excluded from learning, is less than 7% in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.  And of course, Afghan girls are almost twice as likely not to attend school.  In rural areas, the situation for girls gets worse as they grow older.  More than 80% of women are not in education, work or training.  And in recent years, with the re-intensification of war, what few improvements there were, have gone completely by the board.

   In other words, access to higher education and employment remain luxuries, available for a tiny minority of women in cities like Kabul or Herat.  In the rural areas, the situation of women hardly improved over the 20 years of western occupation.  Quite obviously for that to have happened, it would have required a lot more than the pumping of dollars into corrupt local authorities and corrupt local officials quite knowingly nominated by the US.  At the very least, it would have needed a social transformation of the village social structure, which for centuries have been dominated by male elders.  And this could not have been imposed from the outside anyway.  In fact the western intervention relied on supporting one local militia or warlord against the other, in the name of fighting the Taliban.  This ended in villagers being caught between warring militias, a situation which intensified in the last few years, making even daily life in the rural areas highly dangerous.  As one woman interviewed by the journalist Anand Gopal, writing in the New Yorker (6 September 2021) about women in Helmand, told him: “They are giving rights to Kabul women, they are killing us here”.  Another commented: “Is this justice?  This is not ‘women’s rights’ when you are killing us, killing our brothers, killing our fathers”.  And yet another: “The Americans did not bring us any rights.  They just came, fought, killed, and left”.

    The return of the Taliban may be terrifying for sections of urban women, but for many, especially in the countryside, opportunities were never gained and so cannot even be lost.  And that is much more of a tragedy.

The return of the Taliban

Soon after the Taliban came to power in August 2021, they declared an all-male government, all of whom belong to one or the other faction of the Taliban, despite promises to the contrary.  In fact, the conservatives - the Haqqani Network and Kandahar-based Taliban group - dominate, as opposed to the Doha group which had been conducting international negotiations.

    So for instance, the Prime Minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is the hardline chief of the Rehbari Shura (council of leaders), formed in the Pakistani city of Quetta.  He originally comes from Kandahar and is on the UN terror-list.  It was he who ordered the destruction of the 6th century Buddha statues in the Bamiyan valley in 2001.  As a sign of things to come, the Women’s Ministry was handed to the Ministry of Preaching, Guidance and Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a rebranded version of the notorious morality police from the last rule of the Taliban.  The Education Minister, Molvi Noorullah Munir, another leader from the previous Taliban government, went on record saying: “No Ph.D. degree, master’s degree is valuable today.  You see that the mullahs and Taliban that are in power have no Ph.D., M.A., or even a high school degree, but are the greatest of all”.

    Even so, this time around younger girls have been “allowed” to attend schools at primary level, but have, for now, been banned from lower secondary education in most provinces.  At universities, young women are allowed to attend, but only in segregated classrooms.

    Most women have so far been banned from returning to their jobs in the government or in aid agencies.  This ban also threatens those employed in the private sector, as the government’s decision has made it more acceptable to throw women out of jobs, in favour of men, in this deeply patriarchal society.

    Deep uncertainties over some of the basic rights of women show that the Taliban in government is functioning under contradictory pressures: on the one hand, the necessity to please Western donors and governments, to prove that they are not the same Taliban as before.  And that they can be “responsible” rulers that the West can rely upon to maintain a certain stability in the country.

    On the other hand, it is clear that the Taliban has been struggling to keep order within its own ranks.  There are pressures to continue hardline measures, given the current composition of the government and significant right-wing groupings and factions within and outside their own ranks, including the local franchise of the Islamic State group, known as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K).

    In fact, since the takeover of the Taliban, there have been multiple instances of lethal terrorist attacks by IS-K, at Kabul airport, at the Military hospital, and in November there was a bombing at Kabul university which killed 22 people.

    What is more, the truce with the West is very hard to digest for many among the Taliban’s own constituency, and this will inevitably encourage defections to IS-K-like groups, especially given the collapse of the economy and impending starvation in the country.

    After 20 years of imperialist intervention in the region, the most basic rights of women hang by a thread.  Women’s “fate” is back in the hands of an Islamic Emirate, which at best, is willing to concede the bare minimum as a bargaining chip to secure international funding and recognition by the Western governments.

Starvation, famine and economic collapse

Since the Taliban’s return the economy has been in free-fall.  The UN has called Afghanistan’s economic meltdown one of the worst in history, even compared to the recent economic crises in places like Lebanon and Venezuela.  What they do not say is that the economic situation was deteriorating for the whole of the last decade, thanks to the devastating impact of the ongoing civil war.  Afghanistan is set to join the rising number of poor countries utterly devastated and then abandoned by imperialist powers, like Iraq and Syria.

    According to the UN’s figures, 23 million Afghans, in a country of 38 million, face acute hunger.  But 95% are in the category of “food poor”.  UNICEF estimated that 3 million children will suffer from malnutrition and 1 million risk death due to starvation by the end of 2021.  Food prices are soaring, up by as much as 50%, in a country which imports most of its foodstuffs, including basics like oil and flour, while at the same time it faces an acute foreign exchange crisis.

    Even those from the tiny middle-class are finding it hard to make ends meet.  A Deutsche Welle interview quoted “Ajmal” (name changed), who used to work for a government agency in the capital Kabul who explained how “former (government) officials are unfortunately begging now, and some others have turned to daily-wage labour”.  Local journalists and NGOs have reported how busy streets are lined with personal possessions, which people are selling to just survive.

    The country’s health infrastructure is collapsing - in the middle of the pandemic.  Prices of medicines are rising amid scarcity even in Kabul, as imports have been blocked.  Pharmaceutical manufacturers have stopped production due to lack of imported raw materials and 34 Covid centres, which were being run under international funding, have closed.  The World Bank, which had committed to fund a coronavirus project in Afghanistan until 2024, has decided to cut it off.

    Immediately after the Taliban took over, the US government froze $9 billion of the country’s Central Bank assets, triggering a banking crisis.  The World Bank has cut funding to all development projects and the IMF has blocked access to fund sources.  Western governments are presumably aiming to use such policies as a means to force the regime into submission as they now try to establish a modus vivendi with it.  What do western governments care if the population faces mass starvation in the meantime?

    The impact of international sanctions has been so dramatic and instantaneous because the country’s economy has already been ruined by 40 years of warfare.

    In fact, despite trillions of dollars being spent in the name of “reconstruction” and “progress”, all the main social and economic indicators show a decline in the last ten years.  Even if the US (and its western allies) continues to blame the Taliban for the dire economic situation in the country today, it is the US and its allies, first and foremost Britain, who are answerable for this.  For it is 20 years of US/coalition occupation and warfare which has directly shaped the current catastrophic situation.

The run-up to the catastrophe

The US went into the war in 2001, to flex its muscles in the aftermath of 9/11, choosing one of the poorest countries in the world, to show that the mighty US must not be challenged, nor attacked.  Of course, the Taliban soon discovered that they were no match for the US Army.  As its regime collapsed, Western governments established a state apparatus to fill the vacuum - and eventually an army to go with it.  First they propped up the regime of Hamid Karzai, a wealthy exile who they shipped back to Kabul for the occasion.  The first government was drawn largely from the coalition of warlords known as the Northern Alliance, which had opposed the Taliban.  From then on, the imperialists simply bankrolled one section of warlords against the others, to establish a kind of minimal stability.  In the process, they bombed entire villages, carried out airstrikes, large-scale house-to-house searches and raids, and filled up prisons and detention centres.  But by the end of the 2000s the insurgency was back with a vengeance.  And no wonder.

    So the fact that today the Afghan economy is in such dire straits is no surprise.  But this is no sudden development.  The supposedly “high” growth rates between 2002-2012, were seen during a period of intensification of the occupation.  They resulted from the inward flow of foreign funds for the maintenance of foreign security infrastructure and personnel.  As soon as the withdrawal of security forces began, growth rates started to turn negative.  In other words, the US occupation contributed little or nothing to the “development” of the country.  More specifically, the years of US occupation saw almost no change in share of employment in agriculture, which remained around 60%, while the share in industry declined sharply: it fell from 27.5 per cent in 2008 to only 22.7 per cent in 2016.  This is a reflection of the destruction (by war!) of the rudimentary industrial infrastructure of one of the poorest regions in the world.

    In fact, the Karzai regime (2001-2014) proved to be extremely corrupt, arousing deep hostility from the population.  Poverty and its corollary, civil war, were spreading throughout the country already years before the recent takeover.  Unemployment stood at 30% in 2018, the highest recorded anywhere in the world, according to The International Labour Organisation.  Poverty rates have risen, according to The Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey: a joint study by the European Union and Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Organisation, which showed the national poverty rate rising to 55% in 2016-2017 from 38% in 2011-2012.  More than half the population was found to be living on less than a dollar a day by 2018.  Internally displaced people in the country increased from 631,000 in 2004 to 2,993,000 in 2010.  Today another 500,000 are internally displaced and many more have fled to surrounding countries.

The real “cost” of this war

Evidently, the occupation years proved disastrous for the population.  The USA’s Brown University in its “Costs of the War” study, gives an estimate of 241,000 people killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001, adding that 71,000 of those killed have been civilians.  In fact these figures are not even credible.

    The many thousands of people - children, old people, men and women who were never ever counted - killed over these 20 years in the main theatres of war in the countryside (where 70% of the Afghan population lives), would at the very least double these gross under-estimates!

    According to journalist Anand Gopal, who frequently returned to Helmand province, the epicentre of the war, the families he spoke to lost at least 10 to 12 members each over these 20 years.  Deaths were so common that the women he interviewed mentioned deaths caused by drones and bombs in passing, as if these were a normal part of life in what they called the “American war” (in fact for much of the time Helmand was occupied by British troops).  The bloodshed, destruction and displacement they caused over the last two decades has supplied new recruits to the Taliban, and a number of other Islamist groups like the IS-K, who were seen by villagers as fighting a ruthless foreign occupation, which has no regard for the conditions of the local population.  This is why so many in the countryside talked about the “return of stability” with the return of the Taliban.

    Imperialism’s show of strength in the aftermath of 9/11 turned into a bloody quagmire, from which western governments found it impossible to extricate themselves until now.  Remaining western troops and officials may finally have left on 15 August 2021, but what they have left behind is a country more ruined economically and socially than ever before.  The population today is facing one of the worst famines in recent history, while western imperialist governments have decided to block international funding with the justification that they are waiting to see if the Taliban has reformed!  As if these same imperialists have not been backing ruthless and brutal “irreformable” warlords of every stripe who were no less oppressive against the population than the Taliban, for the last two decades.  For now the population can only fall back on its own resources, and hopefully manage to survive until it is possible to start pushing back against the fundamentalists and move Afghan society forward again.

17 December 2021