Onew Year Lema had a good life ago. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in law and political science, the 27-year-old had a stable job in Kabul, the Afghan capital. She trained at a local gym in her spare time. But since the Taliban took control of the country last year, women have been barred from many jobs, from traveling without a male escort and from dressing as they please. Lema lost his job. Her household of 13 parents, siblings, their families, is struggling to get by. Her fiancé also lost his job. His brother’s business went bankrupt. She cannot walk the streets alone. The gym is out of the question.
For Mahmood, a watermelon farmer in Baghlan province, north of the capital, things are looking up. Shortly before the Taliban took over, his house was targeted by government forces, who believed it was being used as a hiding place for militants. They approached the property and opened fire. Mahmood rushed his family to safety at the back of the building. It was not uncommon for farmers to get caught up in the fighting. But since the Taliban returned to power, the guns have mostly fallen silent. True, poor rains have ruined Mahmood’s harvest, his relatives have lost their jobs and his family is broke. But at least he no longer has to worry about his children being shot. In addition, charities again come to his village and distribute money.
The capture of Kabul by the Taliban on August 15 last year capped a meteoric advance across the country. The ease of their victory surprised everyone, including the fighters themselves. The world watched in horror as America botched its withdrawal and desperate Afghans thronged the airport in hopes of fleeing. The Taliban quickly established total control and the country fell into crisis.
The main problems are financial. The economy collapsed when the West cut Afghanistan off from the global banking system and froze its foreign exchange reserves. Between September and December of last year, gdp decreased by a third compared to the same period a year earlier. Most of the country is destitute and hungry. Food and fuel prices were 50% higher in June than a year earlier. Only one in 20 families has enough to eat.
The Taliban are not helping matters. Despite claims that they have changed and promises of “a better future” for Afghans, the new Taliban are behaving much like the old ones, who ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. The Ministry of Virtue and Vice has been reconstituted and its vice squad is out in force, harassing men who trim their beards and women who are not covered from head to toe. And the Taliban still offer sanctuary to their terrorist friends. On July 31, a US drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in central Kabul.
Women are undoubtedly the worst off. In two decades under an American-backed government, many had grown accustomed to a degree of freedom. The female literacy rate more than doubled between 2000 and 2018, but to only 30%. A generation of women got jobs as doctors, journalists and lawyers. Now they are once again driven out of public life. In March, the Taliban reneged on their promise to reinstate girls in secondary schools.
Still, some Afghans, like Mahmood, are better off than a year ago. Villagers who once lived on the front lines of the conflict, in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, are safer than they have been in years. According to Crisis Group, a think tank, violent incidents – armed clashes, drone strikes, suicide attacks – over the ten months to mid-July fell by 87% compared to the same period of the previous year (see map ).
For many rural Afghans, little has changed. Fierce conservatism is nothing new in the villages in the south of the country, which produced the Taliban. The women there are used to covering up and staying at home. Places this far away have never seen much of the aid money that has flowed into the country. As security improved, humanitarian aid began to arrive.
People in these remote areas are rebuilding their lives, planting crops and repairing their homes. In a recent World Bank survey of household heads, the share of rural respondents who reported having a job rose to 81% in the last three months of 2021, from 73% two years earlier. (In the cities, this share has fallen slightly.) They hardly prosper – being employed does not mean earning a living wage, and many will be the sole breadwinners covering the expenses of large families. But they are at least able to work.
Peace cannot last, of course. Afghans have been transformed by 20 years of brutal American-backed democracy. The women, who do not want to live with the fanaticism of the Taliban, take to the streets in protest. Economic hardship breeds discontent. Newly poor Afghans blame the Taliban for mismanagement and foreign powers for cutting them off. “There are still winners and losers,” says Ashley Jackson, an analyst at the Overseas Development Institute, a think tank in London, “and that sets the stage for conflict.”■