Shortcuts / 18 August 2022

An update on what’s what in Afghanistan

This week marks one year since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, with the United States and its allies leaving the country soon after. The country’s economy is now in a state of collapse, with the United Nations estimating that almost all Afghans are living below the poverty line and human rights abuses are running rampant, particularly for women and girls. So in this episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we take a look at how Afghanistan got to where it is now, what’s been happening in the last year under Taliban rule, and what’s next for the troubled nation.

Afghanistan is a long way from Australia…
About 11,000 kilometres from Sydney if you’re wondering, so it’s reasonable to ask why this mountainous landlocked country bordering Iran and Pakistan has loomed so large in Australia’s consciousness for the last couple of decades.

Isn’t it because of 9/11?
Yep, everything changed after those 4 hijacked planes were flown into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing some 3,000 people. Although the key figures from the al-Qaeda terrorist group that was behind the attacks weren’t Afghans, the country and its Taliban-led regime were accused of harbouring them, so it became enemy #1 in the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

Then the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan…
They did – at one stage there was a coalition of more than 130,000 troops from 51 countries assisting the US there. And things seemed to be on the up when the Taliban was overthrown and replaced by a more moderate government at the end of 2001. There was hope that that was the end of the Taliban.

But that wasn’t to be… Take me through who the Taliban are.
In short, they are a militant fundamentalist Islamic group that first took control over Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. During that time they imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia or Islamic law and were widely condemned for massacres of Afghan civilians and banning women and girls from school and employment.

So once they were overthrown and the new government was established, was the US starting to think about leaving Afghanistan?
Yep, and the US made that decision in 2009 under then-US President Barack Obama. But it wasn’t until early 2020 under Obama’s successor Donald Trump that an almost peace deal was signed between the US and the Taliban.

What did that involve?
The US said it wouldn’t withdraw its remaining 12,000 troops unless the Taliban cut ties with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The Taliban was also meant to negotiate with the legitimate Afghan Government for a lasting ceasefire and a power-sharing arrangement that never happened.

So what did end up happening?
Despite indications the Taliban wasn’t complying with the agreement, the Trump administration set May 2021 as the date for the final withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. When President Joe Biden came to power, he pushed that date back to 31 August. But the Taliban continued to claim territory across the country, and on 15 August, they captured the capital Kabul, leaving the US and its allies rushing to leave.

It was pure chaos…
It certainly was. It’s hard to forget those traumatic images of people trying to scale the fence of Kabul airport, or desperate Afghans running alongside planes on the tarmac clinging to the wings and undercarriages trying to get on one of the last US military flights out.

So what happened once the Taliban was back in charge?
It made a lot of promises about how it would govern, claiming to be a lot more moderate than in the past and pledging to preserve the rights of women and girls.

Who calls the shots?
The supreme leader is Haibatullah Akhundzada – he’s rarely seen in public but he has ultimate authority over the group’s political, religious and military affairs. As for the government, it’s still calling itself “interim” because it’s not recognised by any country in the world. The full set of laws governing Afghanistan isn’t clear or consistent.

So it has ministers that make decisions?
Yes, but it’s important to note the final say on any laws belongs to the leadership shura, or council, based in the southern city of Kandahar and that’s presided over by a supreme leader called the ‘amir al momineen’, or commander of the faithful.

I’m guessing we don’t know a whole lot about that council?
You’d be right – it’s pretty secretive… But it’s fair to say its members are far more conservative and likely to favour a stricter interpretation of Sharia law than the Cabinet.

What has life been like for the Afghan people since the Taliban’s takeover?
Not great – there’s now a full-blown hunger and health crisis, with the World Food Programme estimating half of the population – which is 20 million people – are effectively starving.

How did it get so bad so quickly?
When the Taliban seized power, most families’ incomes collapsed so they found themselves unable to pay for food or medicine. Thanks to international sanctions, Afghanistan’s banking sector has been cut off by the rest of the world, and a lot of the funds that flowed in for health, education and humanitarian programs have dried up.

Why is that?
The big charities and non-government organisations say they can’t be sure that the money and resources they send wouldn’t be misdirected by the Taliban.

Have there been any negotiations about that?
The US talked to the Taliban about unfreezing foreign reserves for aid after that huge earthquake in the country in June, which killed more than a thousand people. But America wasn’t satisfied by promises that the money will actually be spent helping Afghans. There’s not a whole lot of trust in that relationship.

Which isn’t all that surprising…
Yep – a recent United Nations report catalogued a whole range of human rights abuses committed by the Taliban, including forced disappearances and summary executions of members of the former Afghan army and anyone who served the former government. Journalists have also been arrested and other prisoners have suffered mistreatment.

Not to mention the treatment of women and girls…
Indeed. The Taliban have banned women and girls from going to high school, sacked many from their jobs and issued a decree that women should only reveal their eyes outside, and shouldn’t travel without their husband or a male relative. Afghan women say all their rights have been stripped away, despite the Taliban’s promises to protect them.

So what can be done?
Well, the international community has condemned all of this but doesn’t have many levers to pull in changing the situation. The UN’s top officials have met with Taliban leaders, but they really aren’t offering any hope anything will change.

Are many Afghans still trying to flee?
Yes, but of course, there are many who don’t have the resources to do so. The US and its allies including Australia managed to get about 120,000 Afghans who’d worked with Coalition forces out of the country. But the US estimates more than double that number worked with them during the past 20 years.

What’s happened to them?
So the Taliban said there would be no reprisals against those people, but that’s not how it’s played out. We know some of those people have been kidnapped or killed. Interpreters who worked with the Australian Army have been directly targeted and their families have been calling for more help from the Australian Government to get out of the country.

So what’s Oz doing?
All up 200,000 Afghans have sought humanitarian protection from Australia – but so far only 6,000 have been granted visas. Immigration Minister Andrew Giles says he’s throwing big resources to try to clear the backlog of applications.

How’s the Taliban getting on with the rest of the world?
It says it want’s “peaceful and positive relations” with the international community. But one of the big non-negotiables for most countries before restoring diplomatic relations with the Taliban is a commitment from them to stop harbouring terrorists, and it’s pretty clear that hasn’t happened.

What happened?
Well for one, the US recently killed Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri in a drone strike after they tracked him down hiding in a safe house in Kabul. He was the man who took over after Osama Bin Laden when he was assassinated by the US.

What did the Taliban have to say?
It condemned the attack and said it was going to “damage opportunities” between the two countries – but it’s hard to see how it could get much worse. For his part, US President Joe Biden has vowed he will never let Afghanistan become a safe haven for terrorists to plot against the United States.

What happened to that 2020 peace agreement?
Well, the Taliban maintains it’s sticking to the deal and isn’t allowing Afghanistan to become a base for terrorist attacks on other countries. But experts have warned that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, have found refuge in the country.

So basically, not much has changed since the Taliban was last in power
That’s what the international observers say…. And that’s really hardening attitudes against the country and especially any willingness to contribute foreign aid, which is effectively worsening the economic crisis.

It sounds like Afghanistan is facing a pretty bleak future…
Yep, there’s no sugar-coating that unfortunate reality.

Squiz recommends:

Photo essay on women and girl’s lives under Taliban ruleTime Magazine

Counterterrorism Chief Christy Abizaid on Top Terror Threats to the USIntelligence Matters podcast

Secret girls’ schools in Afghanistan; China’s kangaroo astronaut; mystery caves on the moon; and squirrels that sploot Squiz Kids podcast

Squiz Shortcuts - A weekly explainer on a big news topic.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.