We must not abandon Afghanistan again

By Natalie Gonnella-Platts

Despite the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the West can still improve the lives of oppressed Afghans – if it commits and moves fast. 

A child receiving treatment for malnutrition at Indira Gandhi hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan on August. 13, 2022. (Nava Jamshidi / Getty Images)

Afghanistan today under the Taliban regime is a haunting reminder of the consequences that result from waning U.S. engagement in the world. Just ask an Afghan mother. Since the Taliban returned to power over two years ago, poverty, food insecurity, and oppression have become a daily reality for most Afghan families. The Taliban have shown that they have little concern for the Afghan people or the development of a free and fair society. Instead, they use corruption and brutality to line their own pockets, increase their government’s legitimacy, and oppress women, children, and other minority groups. As the United States and the rest of the international community have focused their attention elsewhere, Taliban leaders have taken advantage of this distraction to enhance their personal wealth, expand their control of Afghanistan, and strengthen their relationships with fellow autocrats and extremists. Despite the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021, the United States can still play a leading role in supporting marginalized Afghans and curbing the oppression of Taliban leaders, but it will require new commitments and swift action.  

Meanwhile, as the United States and the international community remain stagnant in their engagement, Afghan women, children, and other oppressed groups are bearing the brunt of the Taliban’s greed and brutality. Children are dying of preventable and treatable illnesses – at least 167 a day, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Women are banned from most jobs, and many cannot access food aid and other forms of humanitarian assistance. Adolescent girls and young women are prohibited from in-person education. Freedom of speech, expression, and movement are nonexistent, especially if you are female. Isolation, hunger, anxiety, and depression have come to define the lives of women and girls living under Taliban rule.  

This is all part of the regime’s strategy for domination and survival. Women are a vital force for the advancement of free and fair societies, so illiberal actors use their subjugation as a strategic weapon for self-gain and to expand their power. While the United States cannot undo the damage caused by its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, it can still affect the country’s future. Since corruption and exploitation have always been fundamental to the Taliban’s survival, the best way to improve the lives of Afghan civilians is by combating the Taliban’s corruption. And although U.S. leverage has decreased, a wide array of anti-corruption and anti-kleptocracy mechanisms exists to confront and curtail the Taliban’s ability to benefit from the distress and dehumanization of the Afghan people. Depriving the Taliban of the tools they use for their economic gain will help improve the lives of marginalized Afghans.   

A 4-year-old Afghan girl sleeps after work in a brick factory outside Kabul on Aug. 17, 2022. (AP Photo / Ibrahim Noroozi)

Graft as governance

The Taliban use corruption in a variety of ways: to expand their network of loyalists, punish those who stand against them, and exploit the Afghan population and state for their personal gain. They extort bribes and extract record-level tax and customs revenue from both ordinary citizens and businesses. In order to buy loyalty and influence, they reward friends and foot soldiers with government licenses, contracts, and jobs. This often results in the mismanagement and exploitation of state resources and services as qualified civil servants are replaced by Taliban members who lack the expertise and education needed to properly do their new jobs. Despite the Taliban’s repeated pronouncements that poppy cultivation and forced marriage have been outlawed, they continue to profit from the trafficking of illicit goods, including weapons and drugs (like opium, heroin, and methamphetamine); child labor; and forced or early marriage. Since the Taliban’s return to power, impoverished children have been exploited as a critical labor force for key industries – like the coal sector, for instance – where their small size is seen as an asset. As demand for Afghan coal increases – both domestically and from neighboring countries like China, Iran, and Pakistan – innocent children are forced into backbreaking labor in narrow and hazardous mine shafts. Their work directly contributes to the more than 10,000 tons of coal that the Taliban-controlled Ministry of Mining and Petroleum reports exporting daily. 

Not coincidentally, the Afghan economy is on the brink of collapse. Nearly 60% of the Afghan population needs lifesaving humanitarian assistance, and more than 90% of the population faces some form of poverty or food insecurity. Despite these hardships, the Taliban take every chance to embezzle international aid for their own benefit. The government has registered hundreds of hollow nonprofit organizations to siphon funds earmarked for aid into its own pocket. It inserts loyalists into local organizations and subcontractors responsible for aid dissemination and manipulates distribution lists to prioritize Taliban members and key contacts. As a result, the communities most in need – often female-headed households or ethnic and religious minority groups – are denied access to essential services and vital assistance. Women and children are forced to beg outside bakeries and on busy streets. Parents are forced to send their children – toddlers included – to work. Others have to sell their infants, older children, and kidneys in an attempt to avoid starvation. John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, summed it up in his April 2023 testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight Committee: “I haven’t seen a starving Taliban fighter on TV; they all seem to be fat, dumb, and happy . . . I see a lot of starving Afghan children on TV, so I’m wondering where all this funding is going.”  

Stealing aid is bad enough, but the Taliban’s brutality toward and exploitation of vulnerable Afghans – particularly women and girls – have become core tenets of their pursuit of absolute power. Through dozens of edicts, the Taliban have attempted to erase Afghan women from every facet of public life by instituting gender-based persecution and subjugation (essentially gender apartheid). Education, employment, public worship, and free movement are all off-limits for adolescent girls and women in the country. Afghan mothers now face an increased likelihood of avoidable pregnancy complications – a particularly disturbing trend given Afghanistan’s progress in maternal and infant mortality prior to the Taliban takeover. Those who defy the regime face violent reprisals, including beatings, detention, torture, and death. 

Basic infrastructure is also suffering. Medical clinics, hospitals, and schools are underfunded or defrauded in favor of other Taliban priorities, such as security, intelligence, and propaganda. Children in every province face unprecedented rates of malnutrition and treatable illnesses, but the Taliban have made accessing lifesaving services nearly impossible for many of them. At the same time, on multiple occasions since mid-2022, Taliban leaders under international sanctions and travel bans have been granted exemptions by the U.N. Security Council allowing them to go abroad for medical treatment.  

The Taliban have hijacked Afghanistan’s contemporary education system for extremist indoctrination. This includes an ideological emphasis on planting “seeds of hatred against Western countries . . . in students’ minds,” according to analysis from Hasht-e Subh and The Diplomat. Teacher-training centers have been shuttered in numerous provinces. Both public schools and private businesses have been commandeered and repurposed into madrassas. The Taliban also use state funds to proliferate propaganda, expand their ranks, and build and reward new generations of extremists.  

Afghan women demonstrate in Kabul on Aug. 13, 2022. (Oriane Zarah / Abaca / Spa USA via AP Images)

Avenues of accountability 

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has proved that the absence of Western involvement, especially that of the United States, allows rogue actors to hold human rights hostage – and suffer limited repercussions. Meanwhile, the axis of autocracies has seized the opportunity created by the power vacuum. China, Iran, and Russia have entered into multimillion-dollar agreements with the Taliban government which include granting access to metals, minerals, and other natural resources. They also host sanctioned Taliban leaders at bilateral and regional meetings and help legitimize the Taliban government at the United Nations and other influential forums.  

Without a military foothold, U.S. leverage in Afghanistan may seem limited, but there are still ways Washington can hold the Taliban accountable. One avenue is to deter foreign investment in the current Afghan government. To this end, Afghanistan should be designated a Primary Money Laundering Concern under the USA Patriot Act to increase the risk to foreign companies that enter into agreements with Kabul. The Taliban should also be designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department and by other countries, which would deter governments, companies, and financial institutions from recognizing and doing business with them. The Global Magnitsky Act – used by the United States and more than 30 other countries to impose targeted sanctions and visa bans on individuals responsible for corruption, kleptocracy, and human rights abuses – should also be used to collectively designate the Taliban leaders responsible for gender apartheid and other human rights abuses. Finally, the United States and the United Nations should expand the use of sanctions on specific Taliban officials known to be guilty of corruption. Such sanctions would restrict the ability of those officials to widen their influence, increase their assets, and safeguard their personal wealth. 

In order to better expose the horrors of Taliban rule, Washington should increase its support for Afghan-led civil society organizations in the country, as well as data collection efforts like Afghan Peace Watch and the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies (DROPS) and independent media initiatives such as Rukshana Media, Zan Times, and Zawia News. To the same end, U.S. institutions must ensure the inclusion of Afghan advocates and civil society representatives in all forums – including U.S. congressional hearings, U.N. meetings, and the like – that focus on the country’s future.  

The United States may have far less influence on Afghanistan today than it did before it withdrew from the country, but that doesn’t mean it should turn its back on the Afghan people. Much more can be done to support them and to hold the Taliban to account. But no progress will be made without the leadership of a committed and engaged United States.

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