In front of a Taliban flag, then-Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, center, speaks at his first news conference, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 17, 2021. (File Photo: AP)
WASHINGTON: One year after the Taliban’s return to power, the Islamist group’s efforts to manage an economy already beset by drought, the COVID-19 pandemic, and waning confidence in the government it toppled, have largely proven fruitless.
In Afghanistan’s final fiscal year before Ashraf Ghani’s Western-backed coalition government collapsed — 2020-21 — 75% of public expenditures from the country’s $5.5 billion annual budget was drawn from foreign aid.
But as the United States exited, international civilian and security aid was abruptly cut off and the new rulers were sanctioned.
The U.S. commandeered the majority of the country’s foreign currency reserves, freezing about $7 billion held in the United States by Kabul’s central bank, linking its release to improvement of women’s rights and the formation of an inclusive government.
While the Taliban and numerous other countries have demanded release of the Afghan-owned reserves, aid initiatives that benefit the Afghan people directly have continued unabated, especially to alleviate suffering caused by food insecurity and natural disasters.
Since April 2020, for example, the number of Afghans facing acute food shortages has nearly doubled to 20 million — more than half of the country’s 38.9 million population.
USAID and other international donors have provided bridge funding in the short term to avoid a complete collapse of Afghanistan’s public health system.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that donors contributed $1.67 billion for Afghanistan humanitarian assistance programs in 2021, of which the United States contributed the largest amount, over $425 million. In January 2022, the White House announced an additional $308 million in U.S. humanitarian aid.
The Taliban, however, have proven surprisingly adept at revenue collection, raising $840 million between December 2021 and June 2022, a large share of which (56%) was from customs revenue collection, as well as through the export of coal and fruits to Pakistan.
According to The Economist, researcher David Mansfield, who has studied Afghanistan’s illicit economy for 25 years, estimates the group made between $27.5 million and $35 million annually by taxing the drug trade and about $245 million at checkpoints along main roads, where Taliban fighters extorted fees from truckers moving food and fuel.
As a result, the Taliban’s budget for the current fiscal year — 2022-23 — amounts to $2.6 billion.
Although U.S. and Taliban officials have exchanged proposals for the release of the billions of dollars frozen abroad into a trust fund, significant differences between the sides remain.
One sticking point is the Taliban’s commitment to secure Afghans’ rights to education and free speech within parameters of Islamic law.
Immediately after taking over, the Taliban sought to assuage international concerns about the rights of Afghan women, insisting the Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of sharia law.
The group’s Ministry of Education promised that girls’ secondary schools from grades 7-12 would reopen at the start of the spring semester in March 2022.
However, the Taliban abruptly shifted course on March 23, citing a need for additional planning time to designate gender-separated facilities.
To date, secondary schoolgirls in most parts of the country are waiting for a decision, while boys’ schools reopened almost immediately after the fall of President Ghani’s administration.
Some families, however, are managing to send their daughters to school. Even as girls’ high schools turned students away in Kabul, some were able to return to classes for the start of the spring semester in the northern cities of Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif.
There were also reports from Nawabad in Ghazni province about lessons continuing at schools run by a Swedish NGO called the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA).
There are also several private undertakings aimed at subverting the governmental ban, such as secret schools run by activists like Pashtana Durrani, who told VOA, “I hold four classes for 400 girls in four different regions in two languages.”
These discrepancies seem indicative of what some observers describe as the new government’s largely erratic policymaking as it struggles to adopt a uniform, nationwide approach to key issues, as well as divisions within the Taliban ranks.
When the Taliban were last in power around 5,000 Afghan girls were enrolled in school. By 2018, the number had jumped to 3.8 million.
There were also UNESCO reports of widespread corruption across the school sector.
Media, other freedoms
In their first press conference after seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban said it would welcome a “free and independent press.”
But over the following month, it issued a series of media directives that critics said, in some cases, amounted to prior censorship.
Female journalists are banned from working at state-run media and those in privately run media outlets can appear only with their faces covered; journalists in some provinces must seek permission from local officials before reporting; and with media companies banned from broadcasting music or popular soap operas and entertainment programs, and sources of advertising revenue cut off, many outlets closed.
Afghanistan dropped to 156 out of 180 countries on the RSF World Press Freedom Index, with Reporters Without Borders saying the return to power of the Taliban “has had serious repercussions for the respect of press freedom and the safety of journalists, especially women.”
Apart from media restrictions, a three-day conference of Taliban leadership decided in March that men who work at government jobs must wear beards and Islamic dress to work, that city parks must be gender segregated, and that woman may not travel by air without an accompanying male relative, or mehram.
The Taliban also ordered shopkeepers to remove the heads of all mannequins, calling them un-Islamic.
The provincial branch of the Taliban’s Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice also banned women from bathhouses in Balkh and Herat provinces. For many of the women in these provinces, their only access to a bath were these hammams.
Foreign relations, internal security
Internally, the Taliban’s greatest threat comes from the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and al-Qaida.
While the number of bombings has dropped across the country since the Taliban seized power, a school bomb blast killed at least six people in April.
There also was a string of bomb attacks in May 2022, some of which the Islamic State claimed responsibility.
A Sikh temple was targeted in Kabul in June, killing two and injuring seven, and a bomb blast at a cricket match in Kabul in July left two dead.
On the international front, the Taliban has not been recognized by any country as yet, but the Taliban leadership was invited to an international conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that included delegates from 30 other countries, including the EU, the U.S. and representatives of the United Nations.
Western governments, however, insist on seeing the Taliban improve its record on women’s and human rights, as well as inclusivity in government, before they can engage in any meaningful way and give the Taliban official recognition.
China has maintained direct communication with the Taliban administration, and both sides have met on several occasions, bilaterally and internationally, to discuss plans for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
Beijing also has been active in various international, multilateral and bilateral talks on Afghan issues with regional governments and international powers.
International organizations like the Aga Khan Development Network continue their work on improving historical structures, parks and structural facilities.
(VOA/This story originated in VOA’s Urdu service)