Wandering on the deserted streets of Kabul just two days after the Taliban took over the Afghan capital, the only thing clearly visible was uncertainty. People were clueless about the future of the country, and about their personal, financial and food security.
The shadow of the financial crisis
Just like in any other underdeveloped country, the uncertainty for people with low income, and little or no education in Afghanistan is more about food safety. Every morning, they go out of their homes with the aim of earning enough to feed their families, which often consist of more than half-a-dozen children per couple. The stress of earning daily bread overshadows one’s need for basic human rights, including freedom of expression in any form and of course life.
However, in those early days the only matter of concern among the Taliban ranks was establishing control over the country they had taken over just about 40 hours earlier. Like their first chance at ruling this war-ravaged country, the Taliban were still not in control of the infamous Panjshir and there was always a risk of attacks from rival groups, including the ISKP that is mostly based in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangrahar and Kunar provinces on the border with Pakistan.
During the following three weeks, this scribe witnessed a number of important meetings of high and mid-level Taliban elders. There, the uncertainty was about the rapidly increasing financial instability in the country. Seeing it as a priority matter, the Taliban were only focused on securing funds for paying government employees their salaries of many unpaid months, and of course to run the country. The topics of human rights, girls’ education and freedom of expression only popped up in any conversations with the Taliban when questions were asked specifically about these issues. It seemed like these were non-issues as the country swiftly started falling in to financial crisis.
On a bright side, many positive changes, including the disappearance of most checkpoints from the roads, the increase of vehicles on the roads and people, especially women in the markets. However, the most pleasant change was to see small children, including girls returning to schools.
During a meeting with Taliban deputy minister of Information and Culture Zabihullah Mujahid, I asked about the resumption of girls’ education. In response, the deputy minister reiterated the Taliban promise of providing girls with equal opportunities in education. Mujahid also explained the three-step policy educations policy the Taliban wanted to implement across the country.
“We have already started allowing boys and girls of primary classes to go to school. These include children of up to grade five. Students of grade 6-12 will return to schools in the second phase while the higher classes, including college and university will only allow male students until we have a separate system in place for females, including teaching staff, classrooms, common rooms and transportation”, Mujahid detailed.
Zabihullah Mujahid also repeated the Taliban stance about allowing women to work in different fields. “In some professions, like in medical women have a very important role to play. We cannot forget the sacrifices of mothers, sisters and wives who lost their relations in the long-war. Islam give equal rights to women and we will not deprive half of the country’s population of their rights that are guaranteed by Islam. However, making this possible will require time as we have other burning issues to deal with first”, the deputy minister added.
The same narrative was witnessed everywhere, including during a high-profile meeting on 5 September of Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who specifically highlighted the financial constraints as one of the main reasons for the delay in allowing girls back to colleges and universities. And for the same reason, the return to work of women is also seeing a delay as the Taliban cite lack of funds for providing separate, segregated working facilities for women.
The weight of US evacuation
In a different sitting a day later, Haji Ibrahim Haqqani, uncle of the head of the Haqqani Network Sirajuddin Haqqani pointed to the shortage of teachers as another important reason, claiming the American evacuation of Afghans was in fact a brain-drain as thousands of skilled professionals, including doctors, engineers, bankers, and teachers among others were evacuated out of the country till 31 August. “The exact status will be known once we have restored all systems required for managing the country. Besides others, we will also have a shortage of school teachers, particularly female teachers”, Ibrahim Haqqani opined.
Ibrahim also argued that it was too early for the Taliban to deliver on their promises on human rights and women empowerment as they had only come in to power about three weeks ago while fulfilling some, and not all of the expectations of the international community on human rights and girls’ education alone required at least three to six months.
The Taliban want segregated educational and working systems for females in which they will have to study and work separately from males. Similarly, the idea is to provide the females with providing them with separate transportation system. In their proposed education system, the female teachers will teach female students and in case no female teachers were available, especially in the higher-classes; male teachers will then take the responsibility, probably teaching from behind some kind of veil or coverings.
The new Taliban vision
Although, the Taliban elders have repeatedly given clear instructions to their foot soldiers for behaving decently with everyone, particularly women, a number of mishaps took place in the recently held protests by women in Kabul, where Taliban were seen beating women with rubber pipes, or pointing guns at them.
Arguably some Taliban, particularly the ones who have acquired higher education in Pakistan, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey have a softer approach towards many matters that were seen completely unacceptable by the first generation of the Taliban. Similarly, many believe that the Taliban who used to work at the Political Office in Doha have softened their stance on many matters, thanks to their extensive exposure to modern world. In any case, the ‘open-minded’ Taliban are outnumbered by the majority who still want to follow the hardline interpretation of the Islamic Shariah Law.
Another fast-approaching challenge is the harsh winter season in which agricultural products reduce and industry in Afghanistan comes to minimum productivity, forcing people to turn to their savings for surviving through the long winters. This makes the urgent support from financially strong states more important. However, linking any humanitarian assistance to human rights observations or girls’ education could prove detrimental for the nearly 39 million Afghans.
Despite many verbal assurances by the Taliban to the international community about human rights, women employment and girls’ education, it looks like the world will have to wait for longer than a few months, or a year or two to see positive change of attitude towards these basic rights of the people of Afghanistan. For now, the biggest problem faced by Afghanistan, its new rulers and the people is the crumbling financial status. The Taliban and many Afghans blame the powers that invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago for their miseries, and a failure to help Afghanistan now will again make a solid case for another blame on the world.