Pressure the Taliban to protect women’s rights
The loss of their educational rights is a new normal. It can only be reversed if countries involved in the geopolitical churning and evolving new Great Game in Afghanistan revisit and reassess their policies vis-a-vis the Taliban
Since the Taliban stormed to power in Kabul in 2021, the regime has taken one anti-woman decision after another, the latest of which was its move to ban women from universities. After the government announced the decision on December 20, 2022, its cadres fanned out to educational institutions in Kabul and beyond to ensure that the diktat was strictly implemented. This obnoxious move underlines the consolidation of hardliners within the group, and the international community’s shrinking leverage in Afghanistan.
The United States (US) and the international community have used a policy of “non-recognition” of the Taliban regime as a pressure tactic. Cutting off the regime’s finances in the US treasury, using non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to channel humanitarian funds to the Afghans, reliance on over-the-horizon military operations to kill terrorists such as Ayman al-Zawahiri have remained their preferred mode of transaction with the Afghan State. Underlying this detached policy was the presumption that the delegitimised regime will be compelled to script policies that are in tune with the ones that were prevalent in the last two decades. However, far from replacing the Taliban with another set of leaders, the policy kept the Islamic Emirate front and centre, with the expectation that over time it would become inclusive and moderate.
However, the group has shown no signs of becoming democratic. Instead, it has trampled upon the rights of minorities and women, and silenced internal opposition. Even though the Taliban has not shied away from engaging with individual countries, including the US, to primarily seek lifting of the ban on its leaders and release of the frozen bank accounts, the group has iron-walled any move to influence the regime’s policies.
There can be two explanations for this: First, the consolidation of hardliners and sidelining of the pragmatist moderates from policy-making; and, second, the discovery of an alternative business and economic model.
There are several examples that show that crisis-ridden States do not witness the growth of liberal leadership. Mostly, hardliners interpret a crisis as a global conspiracy to become more inward-looking and extremist. Taliban supremo Mullah Haibutullah Akhundzada and his coterie are perturbed by the absence of legitimacy, but have tightened their grip on the organisation and policy-making, sidelining the moderates. What works to their advantage is that the Islamic Emirate has remained more or less functional. Although there was speculation about the regime’s dire financial condition, Kabul hasn’t collapsed. Neither has the Taliban leadership allowed economic impoverishment, poverty and hunger coalesce into any anti-government movement, demanding its deposition; instead, it has underlined that its conservative model is the only viable option to run a country in shambles.
This is partly because of the middle-of-the path policies of China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Turkey and India. None of these nations have recognised the Taliban, but are exploring business opportunities with Afghanistan. China is deepening its economic linkages despite attacks on its citizens. On January 6, the Taliban administration signed a contract with China’s Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co to extract oil from the Amu Darya basin and develop an oil reserve in the country’s northern Sar-e-Puli province. New Delhi, which has restricted itself to providing humanitarian assistance, is also working to improve the country’s banking sector. The Taliban has signed a deal with Moscow for gasoline, diesel, gas and wheat. Afghan-Pakistan trade had shot off to historic heights before being limited by Islamabad’s decision to suspend trade activities in November 2022. Barring token support in international forums, no country across the world has their engagement conditional to the Taliban respecting the rights of women and girls.
Amid such financial and humanitarian crises, what remains unreported is the reverse migration into the economic sector. Hundreds of Afghans travelled out of the country after August 2021, but some have returned to start small-scale ventures, self-help groups and NGOs. The Taliban has not disrupted this. Against this backdrop of the loss of leverage of the international community, there seems to be little hope for women and girls of Afghanistan. The loss of their educational rights is a new normal. It can only be reversed if countries involved in the geopolitical churning and evolving new Great Game in Afghanistan revisit and reassess their policies vis-a-vis the Taliban.
Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is founder and president, Mantraya and visiting faculty, Naval War College, Goa. She has worked for more than a decade in Afghanistan The views expressed are personal