One year ago, there was a mad rush to reach the international airport in the Afghan capital Kabul. The last American troops and embassy staff were headed for the exits after a nearly 20-year presence in Afghanistan, and tens of thousands of Afghans were trying to do the same. Some had worked with U.S. forces and feared retribution; others had similar fears because they had worked for civic organizations, women’s groups or the free and independent media — all of which appeared under grave threat as the Taliban marched into Kabul. On Aug. 15, 2021, the worst fears of all those Afghans — and many more — were realized. And before long, the mass evacuations had stopped.
One year later, Grid is reporting on the fates of Afghans who stayed behind as well as those who have left. And in conjunction with that coverage, Grid hosted a special Twitter Spaces conversation Thursday with Global Editor Tom Nagorski, Deputy Global Editor Nikhil Kumar, and Special Contributor Fatima Faizi, an Afghan journalist who herself became part of the exodus from her country one year ago.
The conversation was the first in the Global Grid series; it has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Nagorski: Nikhil Kumar, one year ago the Taliban, after 20 years as a rebel militant organization, returned to power pledging to be a kinder, gentler version of their former selves. How does Taliban 2.0 — or whatever we want to call it — look today, one year in?
Nikhil Kumar: They did make promises that they would be, as you say, a kinder, gentler version.
And lots of people who were saying that it was time for the U.S. to leave were saying that because they believed the Taliban would be different. But it’s been a year and in that time, if you look at some of the key areas that people were focusing on even before they came back to power, things have not been good.
Take one area — the position and the rights of women and girls. Not long after the collapse of Kabul a year ago, the Taliban banned adolescent girls from going to high school; high-school-aged girls couldn’t go back to classes. Girls and women who were going to college could not go and attend their classes. They made many pledges that they would remedy that situation. In fact, earlier this year, there was a particular day when girls were supposed to go back to school, and that just never happened. Reports from inside the country suggest that there are places where some people might be able to get an education, but the general situation is that girls are banned from going to high school, and that makes Afghanistan, according to the U.N., the only country in the world where girls cannot go to high school.
There have been other restrictions on the rights of women. They are effectively barred from working outside their homes, except for a few professions. They can work for instance in the medical field, but even then there are restrictions on what they can wear. There are restrictions on how far women can travel without a male chaperone, which the Taliban introduced just a few months ago.
And then the broader picture of the country is just an almost total humanitarian disaster. This is because last year, when the previous U.S.-backed government fell, and U.S. troops left and other international troops left — all this also led to a shutdown, almost overnight, of the billions of dollars of aid that used to prop up the Afghan state, the state that the U.S. and its allies had tried to build up over the last two decades. That money just disappeared. Most of the budget of that previous U.S.-backed Afghan government and governments that came before it over the last two decades had come from international aid, and that money just dried up almost overnight.
There continue to be sanctions on the Taliban leadership. And as U.S. troops left and the Taliban came back to power, those sanctions meant that for many people doing any business with Afghanistan, they ran the risk of breaching those sanctions. That led to an almost total collapse of the banking sector. Since then, the U.S. and other countries have issued various clarifications and so-called general licenses, trying to work around the position. But it remains the case that the banking sector is not really working. The economy is not really operating. And that has led to a colossal humanitarian disaster, where something like 90-plus percent of the country’s nearly 40 million people in recent months just haven’t had enough food to eat. In one province in southern Afghanistan, the U.N. said nearly 20,000 people between March and May faced famine-like conditions. It’s a terrible situation. It doesn’t matter how you look at it. Both in terms of the Taliban not keeping their promises and the pledges that they had made, and just the general humanitarian and economic situation which is just getting worse and worse.
TN: Fatima, you are a woman from Afghanistan. If the Taliban were trying to guarantee more engagement, diplomatic relations and funding from donor nations, particularly the U.S. and European nations that had contributed a lot in previous years, the worst thing they could do is what they have done — in terms of breaking all the promises Nikhil just laid out, vis-à-vis the rights of women and education for girls. Help us to understand this. I assume that the issue is so strong for the Taliban that they won’t budge, even if it means billions of dollars, potentially?
Fatima Faizi: So far, the Taliban don’t care about international aid. If you remember, when the Taliban were talking to Americans (in negotiations) in the last couple of years, they never talked about women’s rights. It was never guaranteed. It was never brought up. They didn’t make any commitments. And right now, the situation is just really bad for women. As Nikhil mentioned, girls are not allowed to go to school. If women travel, they have to be accompanied by a male chaperone, and we know in Afghanistan there are women that have lost their husbands during the war, and they don’t have anybody to accompany them.
This is the same thing that happened last time when they were in power. I was really young. I don’t remember anything about it, but we were hearing about them. We were reading about them. Right now, women in Afghanistan experience that.
It is not just about the Taliban leadership. If you see videos from Kabul and some other big cities, the Taliban foot soldiers decide whether to punish a woman or not. This is what the international community got wrong, because from the beginning of the peace talks, everybody said that the Taliban had changed, but women in Afghanistan were screaming that no, they had not changed.
Before the fall of Kabul, women in Kabul and some big cities were protesting. They were writing and saying that the Taliban had not changed. Women in rural areas were the first to be targeted by the Taliban. They lost their basic rights. As one of the women that I was talking to said, violence against women is legalized now. So far, the Taliban haven’t guaranteed anything regarding women.
TN: The United States, for a lot of the reasons Fatima just outlined, and other countries, have said that none of the money — and we’re talking about some 8 billion dollars — should be released to the Taliban. The Taliban have been branded a terrorist organization in the past. They have sheltered representatives of al-Qaeda, shown this brutality towards women and so forth. On the other hand, the case was made that those are funds that belong to whoever governs Afghanistan, and that withholding the funds could make a humanitarian crisis even worse. What’s the status of all those billions of dollars?
NK: We’re talking about several things. For one, the billions of dollars which were reserves of the previous Afghan government, which were held in as reserves in different central banks around the world, are frozen.
Then there’s the aid that used to come in annually to fund various government functions, projects and so on. And then, because of the way liquidity dried up and the banking sector collapsed, and even though steps have been taken to make that better, it is still very hard to get money into Afghanistan.
Pledges have been made to divert money for humanitarian aid, but actually getting that money on the ground to people in need is very complicated right now because you don’t really have a functioning, or at least fully functioning, banking system. But yes, there is this debate about those reserves, and there has been this debate about what to do with this new regime. The sanctions on the Taliban were introduced a long time ago, in response to the horrific 2001 September 11th attacks, and those sanctions have remained in force — U.S. sanctions, U.N. sanctions and other restrictions.
The really complicated question in the aftermath of the fall of Kabul last year was that the sanctions were meant to restrict a militant group, and this militant group is now also one and the same with the government of Afghanistan. The sanctions don’t actually target the government of Afghanistan, but what do you do when the two entities are synonymous? That has led to this problem, the fallout of which has been hardest on ordinary people in Afghanistan.
TN: Here, as is the case in many parts of the world where there is a vacuum of sorts, it is not unusual for China to step in. The Chinese have not formally recognized the Taliban, but are they stepping in with money?
NK: Yes. We’ve seen reports about what some people have called a Chinese pivot towards Afghanistan, but it remains a complicated situation. Nobody has recognized this Taliban government.
You’ve seen people try and meet with members of this Taliban government. Taliban representatives have traveled, for instance, to Europe, which has angered many Afghans. We’ve seen this on social media and elsewhere. People try to work out a way to work with this government, to engage with the Taliban. But this has been complicated further with the recent news about the killing of the so-called emir of al-Qaeda in downtown Kabul.
It’s a complicated situation, and China appears to be making overtures. It’s still not entirely clear how that will play out. But they are trying to take advantage of the Taliban isolation right now.
TN: You mentioned the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, by all accounts, the mastermind of the 9/11 and other attacks that killed so many Americans. He was found by the United States and others living fairly openly in the Afghan capital and killed in a drone attack [on July 31]. On the one hand, the U.S. can now say they can carry out counterterrorism operations successfully even without soldiers on the ground. On the other hand, the Taliban’s pledge to no longer harbor terrorists in their country doesn’t look so good.
NK: That’s right. Only days before news of that strike broke, [Sirajuddin] Haqqani, who heads currently the most influential faction in the Taliban government, was on Indian television saying that the Taliban worked effectively, that they were sticking to those pledges of not harboring terrorists, and that al-Qaeda was effectively dead. Very soon afterward, we heard of this strike which took place in a part of Kabul right next to the former Green Zone, which is where all the foreign embassies were, where the fortress which was the Presidential Palace and is now the headquarters of the Taliban is situated.
This wasn’t somewhere far away and remote — and this is not my line. I should give credit where is due: Emma-Graham Harrison from the Guardian said the other day that it seemed as if they were running a terrorist Airbnb in the center of Kabul.
This does complicate the picture for the Taliban. It’s pretty clear that the head of al-Qaeda was there in Kabul. And it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next few days, weeks and months about what they say to Western governments and the United States.
Last year, the U.S. said that the terror threat could be managed from afar, but again and again we’ve heard from Secretary [of State Tony] Blinken and others that the U.S. and others were going to hold the Taliban government accountable, and make sure that they do not allow Afghanistan to turn to terror again.
But it’s worth noting that President Biden didn’t use the word Taliban in speaking about the drone strike. We don’t know why, but some people said that’s because the U.S. wanted to leave the door open, to see what they can do next in terms of some engagement with this government.
TN: Fatima, you spoke to a really interesting and broad cross-section of people from Afghanistan, some of whom are still in the country, some of whom are not. As a refugee now from Afghanistan, was there anything in those conversations that surprised you?
FF: I was talking to a guy in Kabul, and he was telling me about every single detail from the day that Kabul fell to the Taliban. It surprised me because he didn’t even attempt to go somewhere safe. He didn’t even try to save himself. Since then, he’s not living a normal life. And that was really surprising. He was a student and was also working part time. He is a member of the LGBTQ community.
Another thing that made me really sad was talking to my own dear friend Rada. Rada is the strongest woman I have ever met. She’s strong, stronger than any of us, but she’s not doing well. As she said to me, she’s not living a normal life.
I follow the situation and every single thing that happens in the country, but sometimes I feel that it is really difficult for me to imagine what people are going through because it is not just about the lack of security or the lack of peace. It’s beyond that. So many other people talk to me, and I know that the situation is worse than what I can think.
TN: I was struck by the fact that nearly everyone we spoke to seemed to go out of their way to tell us how they felt about the U.S. and the Biden administration. And that’s not a pretty picture either, is it?
NK: It’s not at all. I think it goes to something that I’ve certainly heard from a lot of Afghan friends, people who have been forced to flee their homes. Even last year, we all remember those chaotic scenes from the fall of Kabul and the scenes of the airport. And we’ve seen this get worse in all kinds of ways over the last few months and the last year.
This entire project of creating a brand new Afghan state in the aftermath of the 2001 terror attacks wasn’t a perfect project. It was complicated. It had lots of problems. There were all kinds of issues. But the thrust of the project was to create this functioning state, and we’ve talked about the rights of women, but one thing that we haven’t touched on is freedom of the press and the media. Afghanistan over the last many years has stood out for what was a really vibrant media sector, and that has really contracted at a shocking rate over the last year.
More than 200 media outlets, according to one report, have shut down. Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs — most of them women. All these things disappeared overnight. It was always complicated. We saw bombings, we saw all kinds of things. But the project was, again, about building this new state where they were going to enshrine these things and create this society. Fatima is an example that women could get an education, work as journalists, work in offices. It wasn’t perfect, but it all went away. And people blame that on what happened last year, which was based on this decision taken in the White House by President Biden. I think that’s where it goes to, and in so many ways they’re not wrong. Because it did — it just collapsed overnight. Overnight, this whole project disappeared.
TN: Fatima, you are now an Afghan journalist but also an Afghan refugee. How is it feeling for you, one year later?
FF: Everything comes back. Literally last night, I woke up from a nightmare, I was getting killed by the Taliban. For a few seconds, I couldn’t even catch my breath. It’s a year, but it feels much longer than that.
Last year around this time, I was so depressed, I was unable to sleep. I was hoping for a miracle to happen. This year, I feel the same.
It feels surreal because I remember one morning, I was in my office and then around 1 p.m., I came to my apartment. Then my colleagues called me and asked me to pack a backpack and leave the country. We went to Doha [in Qatar] with the U.S. military planes, and then from Doha we went to Mexico, which is a really long flight, about 24 hours. We were in Mexico for eight days. We were still in Mexico when the bombing at Kabul airport happened. Then we went to Texas, and I didn’t know anything about Texas. In Texas, we lived in a motel for three months. After that, we got a house.
It took me really long to get my paperwork done. Social Security, my permit and so on. When I got everything, I was offered a fellowship at Columbia University.
And I am just one example. People are not as fortunate as I am. People are not as lucky as I am. And people are not as privileged as I am. I came to New York — it has been almost seven months, but it doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. I feel my life changing rapidly. One day I was working in Kabul. I was reporting on refugees, and today I am one of them. I remember somebody telling me that when you’re a refugee, you’re just a number like millions of others.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.