Girls in Afghanistan enjoyed big advances in education between the times the Taliban were in power. Photo: AFP / Guillaume Pinon / Hans Lucas

This week saw the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (read Taliban) ban the issuing of driver’s licenses to its female citizens. Before that, in March, the regime prohibited girls from attending secondary schools. And the list of Taliban regression from their promises on gender equality go on and on.

Media continue to report on the Taliban’s ban on women from most paid employment, preventing their free movement, shutting down the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and silencing female journalists.

So when it comes to gender equality, the Taliban of 2022 have increasingly showcased themselves as being no different from the Taliban of 1996-2001.

Indeed, the last nine months of Taliban rule have witnessed irreversible rollbacks on what the Western powers flaunt as their groundbreaking achievements on gender equality in Afghanistan over the two decades of their presence in that country.

But now, the Taliban are unstoppable in spite of all the Western censure and sanctions-driven denial and deprivations inflicted on their leadership. Especially for the last two months, while the world has been busy with the Ukraine crisis, continued suffering of Afghans has been pushed to the periphery, raising serious questions on Western post-exit strategies to redress this catastrophe.

Islamic disunity

Indeed, it is not only Western nations that claim surprise at the Taliban turning their back on the promises they made on their way to capturing power. Their harsh anti-women measures are equally at variance from much of the Islamic world.

However, in spite of their celebrated “Muslim brotherhood” doctrine, even the Islamic world has remained just a silent spectator. 

Among the Taliban’s time-tested funders and mentors, Saudi Arabia had described the Taliban’s takeover last August as a “step in the right direction,” but maintains a rather muted response in terms of sending humanitarian assistance and working through regional stakeholders like Pakistan and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

During the Taliban’s last stint in power from 1996 to 2001, Saudi Arabia was one the three countries formally to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the other two being the United Arab Emirates and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. But this time around, none of those three nations have yet recognized the Taliban regime; nor has any another other sovereign nation recognized Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Indeed, during the last few years of Prince Mohammed bin Salman emerging as its de facto ruler, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – one of the most powerful but also most conservative among Islamic nations – has witnessed a monumental shift in policies allowing its citizens free access to modern technologies, entertainment and leisure, including allowing women to drive and have freedom of movement.

But given their close relations with the United States, which was forced to exit Afghanistan by the Taliban, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have “curiously maintained a distance” from the Taliban regime.

Meanwhile, among the other multiple impacts of the ongoing Ukraine crisis, it has clearly pushed global spotlights away from Afghanistan while leaving hapless masses to their destiny.

In some ways, Ukraine provides an alibi for both the West – which controlled Afghanistan for the last two decades – and much of the Muslim world – which prides itself on a Muslim brotherhood doctrine – to acquit themselves of what is happening to Afghan people, especially women and children.

Western alibis

Most of the Western powers that controlled Afghanistan and supported the governments of Hamid Karzai and and Ashraf Ghani have stopped bothering even about the loyal members of their former local support staff.

Large numbers of those Afghans were promised evacuation by their Western employers. They have since become easy prey for the Taliban’s intolerance often expressed against former local officials and staff of foreign missions, such as former security guards and military interpreters. 

Meanwhile, most Afghan embassies around the world have also become dysfunctional for lack of funds, thus destroying an entire diplomatic service built up over the last two decades. This also means a breakdown of the Taliban’s connections with those nations and leaving Afghan nationals living in those countries without any consular services.

Having lost Afghanistan to the Taliban, Western nations have also kind of pushed the onus on to its neighboring countries that are bound to be immediate targets of any Afghan instability.

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan claims to have 45 embassies and 20 consulates, mostly in Asia and Europe, functioning under Taliban command or in alignment with them. In fact four important neighboring nations – China, Pakistan, Russia and Turkmenistan – recently accredited Taliban-appointed diplomats, even though they have not formally recognized the regime itself.

In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, Russia has handed over the Afghan Embassy to Taliban-appointed Jamal Garwal as their new chargé d’affaires in Moscow.

Likewise, on November 30, 2021, the Saudi Embassy in Kabul resumed its work, and this “profound step” was amply welcomed by the provisional government of Taliban.

But all this has not brought much relief to the Afghan masses.

Situation on the ground grim

Recently released reports raise questions about inefficient and incomplete distribution of foreign aid as well as how sanctions continue creating difficulties for donors attempting to deliver on their promises.

They also raise questions on whether the international community has failed to use its assistance leverage to obtain good behavior from the Taliban leadership. As studies have shown, in any conflict situation, women are not only the last to access aid but are the most vulnerable to discriminations and violence.

The same is true of continued violence in Afghanistan. In spite of the Taliban’s claims of having eliminated the presence of Islamic State (ISIS), bombings have continued across Afghanistan, hitting innocent civilians including schools. 

Even the OIC, which has given two hearings to the Taliban in Islamabad and created a special relief fund for them, has expressed only muted concerns about continued bombings inside Afghanistan, expecting the Taliban to “take a resolute stand against whoever sponsors or orchestras them.”

Though there is little doubt that the Taliban leadership had projected strong central command and control in their removal of foreign forces and continue to be in command of the nation-state of Afghanistan, reports of their being internally at loggerheads with one another have become alarming. 

Even their strongest benefactor, Pakistan, has been warning the Taliban of surgical strikes inside Afghanistan to destroy so-called sanctuaries provide to cadres of Tehreeke-e-Taliban Pakistan and other Baloch militants’ hideouts.

For women in Afghanistan, no relief seems to be yet in sight, unless and until the end of the Ukraine crisis may redirect global spotlights to their plight.

Follow Swaran Singh on Twitter @SwaranSinghJNU.

Swaran Singh

Swaran Singh is visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Calgary, Alberta, and professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.