KABUL: When the Taliban captured Kabul on August 15, 2021, amid the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, the group’s stunning return to power marked the end of two decades of war, which had killed tens of thousands of Afghans on their own soil.
A year later, with the country impoverished and isolated on the world stage under its new leadership, the lives of ordinary Afghans have changed – largely for the worse.
During their first term in power, from 1996 to late 2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, enforcing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced through brutal public punishments and executions.
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Women and girls were removed from public life, prevented from working or receiving an education, and even prevented from leaving home without the wrap-around niqab and a male relative to chaperone them.
In October 2001, US-led forces invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power, accusing the group of harboring Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda held responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States which killed nearly 3,000 people. .
There followed 20 years of bloody fighting between NATO-backed Afghan National Forces and Taliban guerrillas determined to regain power.
Under the Western-backed administration, Afghanistan has made progress with the emergence of an independent media and an increasing number of girls going to school and university.
However, in many areas beyond the major cities, Afghans have known only war, depriving them of the many development projects implemented elsewhere by foreign donors.
Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban have traded guerrilla warfare for day-to-day running of the country, security has improved dramatically.
“We have only seen war in recent years. Every day we lived in fear. Now it’s calm and we feel safe,” Mohammad Khalil, a 69-year-old farmer in the northwest Balkh province, told Arab News. “We can finally breathe.
But the precarious peace comes at a cost.
Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has been in freefall since the Taliban returned to power. Billions of dollars in foreign aid have been suspended and some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets parked overseas have been frozen.
Denied international recognition, aid suspended and the financial system paralyzed, the UN says that Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian disaster. Around 20% of the country’s 38 million people are already on the brink of starvation.
Commodity prices soared as the value of the Afghan currency plummeted. Persistent drought has further aggravated the situation in rural areas.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates that around 70% of Afghan families are unable to meet their basic food needs.
“Most of the time we eat bread and drink tea or just water. We can’t get meat, fruit, or even vegetables for the kids. Only a few people have goats or cows to feed the children with milk,” Khalil said.
In the capital, Kabul, food is widely available, but few can afford a varied and nutritious diet.
“There are a lot of food items on the market, but we don’t have the money to buy them,” Mohammad Barat, a 52-year-old daily wage earner, told Arab News.
The impending catastrophe is not just one of shocking levels of poverty, but also one of lost hope and opportunity.
Tens of thousands of Afghans fled the country for several chaotic days last August when US forces and their coalition partners quickly airlifted Afghans from Kabul airport. Many others, including professionals, have since followed in their footsteps.
“Doctors are leaving, engineers are leaving, professors and experts are also leaving the country,” Abdul Hamid, a student at Kabul University, told Arab News. “There is no hope for a better future.”
Those who worked for the ousted Western-backed administration have been removed from public life, especially women, who are now required to wear face coverings, banned from taking long journeys alone and barred from working in the most sectors beyond health and education.
Education has also been strictly limited for women, even though the admission of girls to schools and colleges has been one of the main demands of the international community since the Taliban regained control of the country.
In mid-March, after months of uncertainty, the Taliban said they would allow girls to return to school. However, when they arrived at schools across the country to resume their studies, those over the age of 13 were ordered to go home.
In a last-minute decision, the Taliban announced that high schools would remain closed to girls until a plan was ready to receive them under Islamic law.
Nearly six months later, the teenage girls fear they won’t be returning to class anytime soon.
“There is no reason to ban girls from going to school,” Amal, a grade 11 student at Rabia Balkhi High School in Kabul, told Arab News. “They just don’t want us to get an education.”
Despite repeated hints from the predominantly Pashtun Islamic fundamentalist group that experience and the passage of time have softened its rough edges, the streets of Kabul increasingly resemble the pre-2002 era ruled by the Taliban.
Since the restoration of the Ministry for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice, which enforces the group’s austere interpretation of Islam, traditional clothing, turbans and burkas have replaced suits and jeans, which only a year ago were considered normal clothes in Afghan capitals.
Key symbols of the nation’s identity are also changing, with the Taliban’s white and black banner now appearing on government buildings and in public spaces, gradually replacing the Afghan tricolor, despite earlier promises it would not be changed.
For some, the replacement of the old national flag is more than symbolic and is indicative of the hijacking of the country by the Taliban.
“He does not represent any government or regime. The Taliban could keep both,” Shah Rahim, a 43-year-old Kabul resident, told Arab News.
“The flag is a representation of our nation, our values and our history.”