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Why some Afghan youth say life has improved with the Taliban in power

‘There can be a thousand advances, but they will hone in on a single flaw.’

 People walking in the streets of Afghanistan's capital Kabul earlier this year. Some young Afghans say they are more comfortable moving around because of a reduction in violence and street harassment of women. Teun Voeten/Sipa USA
People walking in the streets of Afghanistan's capital Kabul earlier this year. Some young Afghans say they are more comfortable moving around because of a reduction in violence and street harassment of women.

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A year after the Taliban returned to power, not all Afghans are fearful of their future under the group’s Islamic Emirate. The New Humanitarian recently spoke to three young Afghans from three different provinces who were glad that what they saw as the corrupt rule of the country’s Western-backed government had ended and who were hopeful for a more peaceful era ahead. 

The perspective they shared may not reflect the majority view, but it is hardly niche. And it is a viewpoint that is often absent in Western media narratives focusing on deteriorating human rights and living conditions in the year since the Taliban returned to power. 

Even before last August, Afghanistan was facing overlapping humanitarian crises fuelled by decades of war, and the country’s economy – heavily reliant on foreign aid – was on shaky ground. In the year since, international sanctions on senior Taliban leadership, significant aid cutbacks, and the freezing of billions of dollars of Afghanistan’s national reserves in banks overseas have all contributed to making the situation considerably worse. 

Now, 70 percent of Afghan households are unable to provide for their basic needs, and around 90 percent of the population – including 3.2 million children at risk of malnutrition – is suffering from food insecurity. According to the US government, more than 900,000 people have lost their jobs in the past year, and many of those who are still employed have seen major pay cuts as the government and private companies struggle to stay afloat. 

Supporters of the Taliban say that these are the struggles of a nascent government operating in a difficult environment, cut off from global support, and that the Taliban deserves credit for introducing anti-corruption efforts, levying new taxes, and boosting coal exports to generate much-needed revenue. 

Some observers argue that Afghanistan’s humanitarian and economic crises cannot be alleviated without the removal of sanctions and the unfreezing Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. And supporters commend the Taliban’s economic moves as a step toward building the country’s economy despite the difficult financial environment.

They also credit the Taliban for bringing long-absent security to the country and putting an end to the street harassment of women – although human rights groups note that there has been a significant backsliding in women’s rights when it comes to access to education, economic rights, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and more. 

“The world turns a blind eye [to the good things the Taliban is doing],” Hemayatullah Ahmadi, a 26-year-old Afghan, told The New Humanitarian. “There can be a thousand advances, but they will hone in on a single flaw.”

A sense of security

Last week, a bombing at a Kabul mosque killed at least 21 people and wounded 33 others. Though no one has yet taken responsibility, it follows a series of attacks in recent months – many claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, a hardline militant group at odds with the Taliban government. 

Overall, however, there has been a steep decrease in general violence since Western troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban assumed power. Between 15 August 2021 and 15 February 2022, the UN documented at least 1,153 civilian casualties, including 397 deaths. That is a sharp reduction from the first six months of 2021, when 5,183 civilian casualties, including 1,659 deaths, were recorded.

Several young men from the provinces bordering Kabul told The New Humanitarian that the change in power in the capital has brought an unprecedented feeling of safety.

Abdul Saboor, 22, spent the majority of his life in Pol-e Alam, the capital of Logar province. Like other young Afghans The New Humanitarian spoke to, Saboor came of age during the US-led occupation. For 20 years, the area where he lives was considered one of the least safe and least developed in the country, despite being located only a 40-minute drive south of Kabul.

While some city residents feel they have to be cautious about their behaviour, never knowing when the Taliban might decide to strictly enforce new restrictions, Saboor said people from remote areas are finally able to travel freely. For years, the short distance between Logar and Kabul was riddled with danger, including Taliban checkpoints, improvised explosive devices buried in the road, and crossfire between Taliban and former-government forces. 

Since the Taliban returned to power, that danger has all but disappeared. “We can go around without fear now,” Saboor explained. 

Saboor said authorities from the previous government would also harass him and his classmates following Taliban attacks. “The authorities came to our madrasa interrogating us about the attack. We had to say, ‘We are talibs [students] of the madrasa, not talibs of the battlefields’,” Saboor told The New Humanitarian, recounting a conversation with two of his cousins who were part of the army special forces under the previous government.

“When I tried to explain to them, they just said, ‘Trust us, the talib who goes to the madrasa will eventually go off to battle’,” Saboor added. 

Ahmadi, who grew up west of Kabul in Maidan Wardak province, and who is planning on becoming a TV presenter on RTA, the government radio and TV broadcaster, said he was happy that “the bloodshed has largely ended”. 

“No matter what the world says, the blood of an Afghan is priceless, and we must do what we can to protect it,” Ahmadi said.

Both Ahmadi and Saboor said they were upset by some of the suicide bombings carried out by the Taliban during its 20-year insurgency, but they didn’t see the group as the only cause of the violence and bloodshed. 

“Yes, the [Taliban] insurgency contributed to the disorder, but there were also other groups who took advantage of the situation to try and discredit the Taliban further,” Ahmadi said, referring to other militant groups and organised criminal gangs. 

Cultural clash

As an educated young woman, Nilofar Hamidi, a 28-year-old Kabul resident with a bachelor’s degree in Islamic Studies from a private university in the capital, might seem like an unlikely Taliban supporter. But she said she had far more grievances with Afghan society under the previous, Western-backed government than she has now. 

Several years ago, Hamidi decided to start wearing the black, full-face niqab in the streets of Kabul after reading and analysing the Quran. According to her, Western influence had led to “moral decay” among Afghanistan’s youth.

Sitting at the Slice Bakery and Cafe, a coffee shop frequented by Kabul’s more well-to-do youth, Hamidi watched as a young man and woman in their early 20s sat down at the table next to her. “Our society had become so corrupted that boys and girls felt comfortable enough to go out alone on dates,” Hamidi said. 

The boy, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and the girl, in black robes and a pink hijab, smirked as they overheard Hamidi’s comment. To a bystander, the interaction was an embodiment of the current state of the Islamic Emirate – a place where two different interpretations of Islam and Afghan culture come face to face.

“The men are scared of the Emirate now; they don’t have the guts to say anything to a woman anymore.”

Previously, Hamidi said that people would heckle her on the street for wearing the niqab and that she was frequently whistled at by men or verbally sexually harassed. “The men got too comfortable – too free to say whatever they wanted to a woman,” she said. 

Since the Taliban came to power, Hamidi feels more comfortable going out on the street. “The men are scared of the Emirate now; they don’t have the guts to say anything to a woman anymore,” she told The New Humanitarian. 

A recent report by Amnesty International says that the Taliban has decimated protections for women escaping domestic violence, detained women for minor violations of so-called morality rules, and contributed to spiralling rates of child and forced marriage. But Hamidi says she has seen examples of the Taliban government supporting women. 

“We had a neighbour who was being beaten by her husband for years, and the Islamic Emirate came to their house and reprimanded the man, saying, ‘Beating your wife is forbidden in Islam’, and threatening him with jail if he does it again,” she said. 

The previous government had a law on the books regarding the elimination of violence against women, but rights groups had long criticised it for failing to properly enforce its provisions.

“This was a matter that would have taken months or even years to resolve in the old court systems, but it was handled in minutes by the Islamic Emirate. We can’t discount that,” Hamidi said, referring to the incident involving her neighbour. 

Acknowledging shortcomings

While supportive overall, the young Afghans who The New Humanitarian spoke to acknowledged that the Taliban government is falling short in several areas – especially when it comes to women’s education and right to work.Public high schools for girls remain closed in most of the country, and most women have not been permitted to return to work in government offices.

“Education and work are rights granted to all men and women by God, the Almighty,” said Hamidi, pointing to the women in Prophet Muhammad’s family as clear examples of how men and women should interact with each other in an Islamic society.

Ahmadi, the aspiring broadcaster, said he has sat down with higher-level Taliban officials and has been pleasantly surprised by their relative openness regarding social issues. “The elders have an open view, but the difficulties are at the lower levels,” Ahmadi told The New Humanitarian. 

“Education and work are rights granted to all men and women by God, the Almighty.”

In fact, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently told a TV journalist he was frustrated about the continued closure of high schools for adolescent girls. “If it was in my hands, the schools would have been opened yesterday,” Mujahid said. 

Ahmadi, the aspiring broadcaster, points out that the situation wasn’t ideal under the previous government either. Despite billions of international aid dollars spent, there were still big gaps in education access across the country. “Boys and girls were studying outside in the dirt; there are still villages across this country to this day that don’t have schools for girls beyond the sixth grade,” he said, referring to so-called “ghost schools” that were established at great cost under the Western-backed Republic – and never opened.

“It was the corruption and fraud that brought on the downfall of the Republic,” Ahmadi added.

For the Taliban government to be successful, Ahmadi continued, it needs to come to a consensus on its governing and social vision and codify that into laws so the Afghan people can clearly understand what is expected of them.

“They need a proper constitution, written laws, and specific job descriptions for their forces so that if they misbehave they can be held to account,” he said. 

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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