“To be honest, I feel like I’m living a nightmare. It’s hard to comprehend what we’ve been through in the last two years,” Maryam Marof Arwin, 29, told DW over phone.
Arwin, who lives in Kabul, founded an NGO called Afghanistan Women and Children Strengthen Welfare Organization, but it was seized by the Taliban two years ago — on August 15, 2021 — as they captured the Afghan capital and ousted the then President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
As US and NATO forces withdrew from the conflict-ravaged country following two decades of war, fighters from the Islamic fundamentalist group made lightning advances, conquering the entire nation in a matter of weeks.
Despite initial promises to respect women’s rights under Sharia, or Islamic law, the Taliban have since imposed draconian restrictions on women and girls, with most of them barred from participating in public life, educational institutions and the labor market.
Warnings even before the Taliban takeover
“I don’t really understand where the hope came from that the Taliban had changed or even become better,” Arwin said, adding: “We always knew that with the Taliban in power, we would lose everything we had achieved.”
“Twenty days before they came to power, we, women activists and civil society representatives in Kabul, organized a press conference to once again make the world community aware of our situation,” the activist pointed out.
“We said, ‘Look at the areas that were already controlled by the Taliban at that time and see how they despise women’s rights.’ But no one would listen to us.”
Even before they seized Kabul, the Taliban had gradually been gaining control of large parts of rural Afghanistan. In the areas under their control, women and girls were confined to their homes and traditional gender roles as daughter, wife or mother — not unlike what it was under their previous rule, from 1996 to 2001. At the time, Afghan women and girls were not allowed to study or work, and only allowed to leave their home when accompanied by male relatives.
Women were often publicly flogged or executed if they violated Taliban rules.
The Taliban of 2021 aren’t very different from the Taliban of the 1990s, Alema Alema, former Afghan deputy minister for peace, told DW.
Before the Taliban took over, the Ministry for Peace was responsible for intra-Afghan peace negotiations. It was dissolved after the group seized power.
The Taliban have merely been more cautious — and more experienced — this time round than during their stint in power, said Alema.
“Since their takeover, they’ve issued 51 bans affecting women, which is more than one ban per month,” she underlined.
“They didn’t announce everything at once because they didn’t want to scare the world community. In Afghanistan, too, they had to act cautiously at first so as not to antagonize society, before they consolidated their power.”
In a hurry to leave the war-torn nation
The US government, under President Donald Trump, had initiated direct talks with the Taliban in 2018.
Alema, who now lives in Germany, believes that the outcome would have been different had the Trump administration involved President Ghani’s government and local experts in the process.
Washington and its partners wanted their talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital of Doha to pave the way for their exit from Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters — since their ouster in 2001 — put up fierce armed resistance to the Kabul government and foreign troops.
The conflict cost the lives of thousands of Afghan civilians as well as foreign troops.
The talks with the Taliban resulted in an agreement on February 29, 2020, setting a timetable for the withdrawal of US and NATO troops.
“The February 2020 agreement called, among other things, for intra-Afghan peace talks in which the Taliban would negotiate directly with the Afghan government,” Alema said.
“We had been preparing for this. In the Ministry of Peace, I had set up various working groups and developed guidelines and support measures with representatives of NGOs from all 34 provinces of the country,” she noted.
“The Taliban, however, showed no interest in talking to us. They knew that the US was leaving Afghanistan. They were not willing to make concessions. And the US had made them presentable, along the lines that the Taliban had changed.”
A deal that demoralized Afghanistan
Direct negotiations with the United States gave international recognition to the Taliban.
At their Doha office, they signed a deal with the US that was supposed to bring peace to Afghanistan.
The agreement weakened the morale of the Afghan army and greatly diminished its resistance to the Taliban’s subsequent advance.
“What happened in Afghanistan in August 2021 was not a military triumph of the Taliban, but the result of a political decision,” said Khushal Asefi, journalist and former managing director of Ariana Radio & Television.
“No one had any insight into the background negotiations with the Taliban. It seemed that Western countries had withdrawn their support for the government of the day,” he underlined.
Asefi had to leave the country after the Taliban takeover, as he no longer saw a future for himself there and feared for his life.
“The developments of the last two years reinforce the feeling that the country has been left to the Taliban. It doesn’t seem to matter what chaos they wreak,” he stressed.
“At best, a critical statement is published condemning the Taliban’s policies. Afghan society is demoralized and exhausted. The economy is down and over 20 million people live below the poverty line. People are struggling just to survive.”
Arwin, the women’s rights activist, also stressed the problems plaguing Afghan society over the past two years.
“Many are only thinking about how to leave the country,” she said.
“I am disappointed that the world community and Afghan society have capitulated so quickly. It is worse than I feared. But Afghan civil society has a strong core that will not give up. This core should not be underestimated. I believe in us very strongly.”
This article was originally written in German.
Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum