Wasted opportunity: Taliban busy isolating Afghanistan’s women while existential issues go ignored

Wasted opportunity: Taliban busy isolating Afghanistan’s women while existential issues go ignored

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The Taliban’s worries have increased with no end in sight for a breakthrough. The schoolgirls and women of Afghanistan have had enough, and now prepare for a showdown. A few days ago, to the surprise of Taliban leaders and particularly its Haqqani group, girls in Gardez, Paktia province--the Pukhtoon heartland-- took out a brave procession demanding the reopening of their secondary schools and asserting their right to higher education.

Across the country, including in Kabul, demonstrations were held in which women raised the issue of their education and right to work. This momentum is likely to continue.

The women's protests are only a fraction of the gathering storm that the Taliban will have to deal with. The long drought and floods have added to the unprecedented misery and suffering of the people. In a dire warning, the UN painted a gloomy picture of the economy that is on the brink of collapse. More than half of the country’s 39 million people face food insecurity, six million face starvation. One million children face acute malnutrition and the country is cut off from the international banking system.

The Taliban leadership however, is pathetically oblivious to the widespread discontent that is sweeping across the country. This complacency can be attributable to their lack of experience of handling complex issues of governance and poverty. Little do they realize that their political opponents are not only watching the situation closely, but are in constant contact with their followers, waiting for a chance to begin a campaign to dismantle the current dispensation.

The Taliban leadership is pathetically oblivious to the widespread discontent that is sweeping across the country. 

Rustam Shah Mohmand

The Taliban achieved a historic victory in August last year when they defeated the Afghan army that was supported and sustained by US forces. It was a watershed moment in the country’s history: a rag-tag group of volunteers had succeeded in wiping out resistance, and capturing one province after another to take control of the entire country. The euphoria generated by their advance and occupation of Kabul gave some hope to a  war-weary population that a new beginning was not too far off. But soon, Afghans were overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues they were to confront.

The indifference of the Taliban’s attitude to issues of life and death is inexplicable, and one fails to understand whether there is any method to their madness. The most critical issue in the realm of the Afghan economy is the release of $9 billion of Afghan assets held in foreign banks. Of this huge amount, $7 billion are held in the US central bank, which Washington has refused to release-- making all sorts of ridiculous excuses. To secure the release of this huge amount of Afghan assets, the Taliban should have launched a vigorous effort at all levels. That should have been a top priority for a government that faces near economic collapse.

Instead, we saw only haphazard action at the diplomatic level that did not deliver an outcome. The group should have launched a sustained, forceful effort to seek formal recognition in order to get aligned with the international community to help create a better understanding about the credentials of the new government. Ethnic minorities should have been given fair representation in the cabinet and in the administration of the provinces. This would have given a powerful message about the Taliban’s commitment to safeguard the rights of minorities and helped create the goodwill required for formal recognition.

Sadly, those opportunities are being wasted. Afghanistan today remains isolated regionally and internationally.

All is still not lost. Peace, in large measure, has returned to the country after more than 40 years of conflict, though Daesh continues to kill innocent people whenever they can take advantage of the government’s administrative inadequacies. There is no military challenge to the government. People want an early return to normalcy. In such a situation, where on one hand the country is on the edge economically and on the other, daunting governance challenges persist, it is unwise to generate further hatred and international isolation by closing girls' schools on one pretext or the other. Instead, the group is advised to focus on the macro, existential issues staring Afghanistan in the face.

— Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.

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