Two years ago, when American troops left Afghanistan, and the Taliban returned, Arsalan feared the worst.
As elite Afghans and those with connections to the US military fled the country, Arsalan, a manager at a small Afghan research firm, watched Taliban soldiers drive into Kabul and begin searching for Afghans like him who had worked with the international community. “It was heartbreaking watching the country crumble, all those people rushing to the airport, and the internationals, working for the US, the UN, and everyone else, just vanished, leaving us to deal with the Taliban,” Arsalan described.
After the withdrawal, we filed a Special Immigrant Visa application for Arsalan and Humanitarian Parole applications for his family. We also helped dozens of other Afghans look for ways out of the country. Many of them made it out, but Arsalan and his family remain frozen with thousands of other applications in a slow bureaucratic process that needs urgent reform. Unable to get a visa out of the country, Arsalan, and many others, are stuck. They have to negotiate life under the oppressive new regime. And they have watched how international indecision has made life even more difficult for ordinary Afghans but made many in the Taliban rich, as the group seized assets and rebuilt the government to funnel funds to their members.
The international community, particularly the US government, seems torn, unable to determine how best to interact with the new Taliban authorities. The international community has condemned the Taliban’s restrictions on women, such as shutting down girls’ schools and, most recently, closing beauty salons in Kabul. Yet, many groups continue to send humanitarian aid, which, while saving many lives, has also further propped up the Taliban government. Some UN officials are even pushing for recognition of the Taliban government.
The current approach of neither condemning nor accepting the Taliban authorities is the worst-case scenario for Arsalan and other Afghans. What does the international community want when it comes to the Taliban? The uncertainty has allowed the Taliban to continue with some of their worst practices, which we have documented in our book, “The Last Days of the Afghan Republic.”
A Worsening Situation
The Taliban have used the last two years to enrich their leaders, often at the expense of ordinary Afghans. Much of their income comes from customs revenue and other taxes, in addition to revenues from the opium industry and mining. At the same time, the Taliban are making money off of international aid, which is almost impossible to monitor given the unrecognized status of the government. Taliban officials also routinely skim off the top of humanitarian aid deliveries, making it challenging for charities to provide aid to the neediest. Officials are using donated wheat to pay those working for the Taliban government. Strained relations with neighboring countries mean shortages of both food and high-end goods, like armored cars. The officials who manage border crossings also set the prices of many goods.
The current approach of neither condemning nor accepting the Taliban authorities is the worst-case scenario for Arsalan and other Afghans. What does the international community want when it comes to the Taliban?
The Taliban are also making money off the desire for Afghans to flee the country. For Afghans like Arsalan, who need passports, going to the passport office is hopeless because officials are not processing applications properly or uniformly. However, as Arsalan quickly learned, at each office, there are Taliban fixers who can move an application through quickly. Paying one of these brokers allows one to go straight to the head of the passport office, and with a signature, one can get a passport processed within a day. The price, however, varies based on ethnicity: Pashtuns pay around $1,000 each, while Hazaras, the oppressed minority group, have to pay about $2,500.
The Taliban are also focusing on keeping their supporters employed. They are harassing international organizations and local businesses alike. Taliban ministry officials have come to Arsalan’s organization multiple times to tell them they need to hire more Taliban guards, even though they already have plenty. In many ways, it is the corruption and the inefficiencies that grind Arsalan the most. At first, it seemed that crime had dropped after the Taliban returned, but slowly it crept back up.
At the same time, humanitarian aid is desperately needed. A recent study by an independent Afghan firm looked at a relatively wealthy district just north of Kabul and concluded that most households have sold off goods and livestock, delayed medical treatment, and adopted a range of other strategies. According to Human Rights Watch, 90% of Afghans are not able to get enough food.
A Call for Coherence
Arsalan’s wife, who is well-educated, now must remain at home unless accompanied by a male chaperone. Before the Taliban returned, Arsalan’s sister was a school principal, but now she has been forced to flee the country. The Taliban has allowed Arsalan’s firm to continue their work but under new restrictions: They can no longer hire women. Taliban police have raided the office on multiple occasions, going through papers, trying to find evidence of whether they are all “spies.”
The international community desperately needs a coherent strategy on Afghanistan. The population continues to suffer, and there are concerns that with the growing activity of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, intelligence agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency and others will begin working covertly with the group. The current practice of engaging but not engaging has been a complete disaster, and Afghans like Arsalan continue to suffer.