Persistent Darkness in Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan continues to be chaotic, with a large proportion of the population living in daily fear and insecurity, threatened by the oppression of the Taliban, on the one hand, and the spectres of poverty, dispossession and hunger on the other.

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Children are pictured in a village threatened by unexploded ordnance left by U.S. forces in Farah Province, Afghanistan, July 26, 2023. (Photo by Marshal/Xinhua)

Puncturing the euphoria created a by section of experts that Taliban 2.0 would be strikingly different from the Taliban regime of 1996-2001, and that things would change for the better in war-ravaged Afghanistan, since their return to power in Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban has kept civilians, especially women and its adversaries, in agony. On March 8, 2024, the International Women’s Day, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) urged the Taliban to end restrictions on women and girls. Roza Otunbayeva, Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and head of UNAMA, observed,

As we mark this year’s International Women’s Day, the global theme of ‘invest in women’ should be a moment when we redouble our efforts to unlock even greater progress. It is heart breaking that we are seeing precisely the opposite unfolding in Afghanistan: a catastrophic and deliberate disinvestment that is causing immense harm to women and girls, creating only barriers to sustainable peace and prosperity.

Similarly, Alison Davidian, UN Special Representative for Women in Afghanistan, noted that “the space for Afghan women and girls continues to shrink at an alarming pace, and with it Afghanistan’s future prospects to escape a vicious cycle of war, poverty, and isolation.”

Earlier, in January 2024, UNAMA had raised deep concerns over arbitrary arrests and detentions of women and girls by Taliban for alleged non-compliance with the Islamic dress code. Roza Otunbayeva, stated,

Enforcement measures involving physical violence are especially demeaning and dangerous for Afghan women and girls. Detentions carry an enormous stigma that put Afghan women at even greater risk. They also destroy public trust.

According to present estimates, more than 12 million Afghan women are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, a report titled A barrier to securing peace: Human rights violations against former government officials and former armed force members in Afghanistan, released by UNAMA on August 22, 2023, covering the period between August 15, 2021 to June 30, 2023, documented at least 800 instances of extrajudicial killing, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and ill-treatment and enforced disappearance carried out against individuals affiliated with the former government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and its Security Forces. This is despite the announcement by the Taliban of a “general amnesty” for former government officials and former members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, noted,

UNAMA’s report presents a sobering picture of the treatment of individuals affiliated with the former government and security forces of Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover of the country. Even more so, given they were assured that they would be not targeted, it is a betrayal of the people’s trust.

Further, in a report released on September 20, 2023, UNAMA announced that it had documented over 1,600 cases of human rights violations committed by Taliban during the arrest and subsequent detention of individuals. The report covered the period from January 1, 2022 to July 31, 2023, with cases documented across 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Nearly 50 per cent of these violations comprise acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

On the positive, however, conflict/terrorism-linked fatalities continued to fall through 2023. 2023 recorded a total of 500 fatalities, including 290 civilians, as against 1,653 fatalities, including 654 civilians, in 2022. In 2021, there were a total of 8,469 fatalities, including 1,122 civilians. A total of 157 fatalities, including 78 civilians, have already been recorded in 2024 (data till March 10).

Significantly, between August 15, 2021, and December 31, 2021, the Taliban was responsible for at least 44 civilian killings. The Taliban was responsible for 129 civilian killings in 2022, 75 in 2023 and 15 in 2024 (data till March 10). The Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP or Da’esh) was responsible for 253 civilian killings in 2022, 62 in 2023 and eight in 2024 (till March 10).

An UNAMA report released on June 27, 2023 noted that Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) remain a significant concern in Afghanistan – despite an overall decline in civilian casualties. Of 3,774 civilian casualties between August 15, 2021 and May 30, 2023, three quarters were caused by indiscriminate IEDs in populated areas, including places of worship, schools and markets. The report noted,

UNAMA’s figures indicate a significant increase in civilian harm resulting from IED attacks on places of worship compared to the three-year period prior to the Taliban takeover. IED attacks on places of worship, mostly Shia Muslim sites, accounted for more than one-third of all civilian casualties recorded during the reporting period.

In addition to attacks on Shia places of worship, the report stated there were at least 345 (95 killed, 250 wounded) casualties as a result of attacks targeting the predominantly Shia Muslim Hazara community in schools and other educational facilities, on crowded streets and on public transportation. Further, the majority of civilian casualties resulted from attacks carried out by the self-identified Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP). The number of civilian casualties as a result of IED attacks carried out by ISIL-KP significantly increased in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021. Suicide attacks, carried out both by ISIL-KP and other actors, were the leading cause of IED-related civilian harm.

Clearly, Da’esh (Islamic State) remains a major security concern for civilians, as well as a challenge for Taliban fighters. Da’esh killed 21 Taliban fighters and lost 42 of its own cadres in 2023, while in 2022, these numbers were at 140 and 112, respectively. In 2024, IS-KP has killed three Taliban fighters without suffering any loss (till March 10).

According to the UN Secretary General’s report released on March 6, 2024, Da’esh “maintained its focus on targeting Shi’a civilians and the de facto authorities while continuing to call for attacks on the international community, including the United Nations, in its propaganda.” The report further noted that Da’esh “also continued its efforts to recruit from regional countries and, in its propaganda, promoted the involvement of foreign nationals in its attacks.”

Moreover, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR’s) latest quarterly report released in January 2024 noted that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has “benefited from the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, and that the frequency of TTP attacks against Pakistan, especially along the border, continues to climb.” Indeed, according to the report the TTP “poses the most serious regional threat.” The report also observed that “Al Qaeda and its affiliates, particularly al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, also remained intent – but lacked the ability – to directly attack the United States from Afghanistan.” Al-Qaeda’s ‘general command’, believed to be based in Afghanistan, released three press statements calling for attacks on United States, European and Israeli embassies and buildings globally, in response to the Israel-Hamas war.

Meanwhile, the ‘turf war’ between the Resistance Forces and Taliban continued. In 2023, the Resistances Forces killed 112 Taliban fighters, in addition 1,239 killed in 2022. 69 Taliban fighters have already been killed by these forces in 2024 (till March 10). On the other hand, the Taliban has killed two Resistances Forces fighters in 2024. 13 Resistance Forces cadres were killed in 2023 and 208 in 2022.

Amidst these developments, the Taliban government’s main focus remains on cultivating radical Islamist values. Indeed, on January 26, 2024, the Taliban Minister of Education Habibullah Agha issued instructions to all provincial Departments of Education, outlining curriculum changes and teaching guidelines for the next school year, commencing March 21, 2024. Accordingly, subjects such as civic education, calligraphy, life skills, and foreign languages other than Arabic are to be reduced or removed, in favour of Islamic studies. There is also an emphasis on prioritizing the teaching of Islamic subjects over other subjects and on hiring religious scholars to teach in schools. The Taliban, meanwhile, has reiterated that its governance is consistent with sharia law.

There are, however, some indications of economic stabilization. The estimated number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has decreased from 28.3 million in 2023 to 23.7 million in 2024. Further, the Taliban have eradicated opium production by 86 per cent according to Alcis, a British geographic information service, and by 95 per cent according to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Nevertheless, according to the latest SIGAR Quarterly report published in January 2024, headline inflation (a measure of the total inflation within an economy, including commodities such as food and energy prices) remained negative at -8.1% as of November 2023, due to a continued economic weakness and depressed aggregate demand. Moreover, Afghanistan’s trade deficit widened in 2023, compared to 2022. Taliban revenue collection in Financial Year (FY) 2023 increased by 3.1 per cent compared to FY 2022, but total revenue fell short of its target by AFN eight billion. These economic struggles have increased unemployment and pushed half of the population into poverty, with 15 million people facing food insecurity. Acute food insecurity is predicted to affect 15.8 million people by March 2024, an increase of 500,000 from 2023.

The situation in Afghanistan continues to be chaotic, with a large proportion of the population living in daily fear and insecurity, threatened by the oppression of the Taliban, on the one hand, and the spectres of poverty, dispossession and hunger on the other. With the Taliban unshakeably committed to its antediluvian ideology, there is little hope for any dramatic improvements in the foreseeable future.

Ajit Kumar Singh

Ajit Kumar Singh, is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Conflict Management

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