The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has been in existence for one year now, but change has been agonisingly slow; early promises on women’s rights are as yet unrealised; and the closure of schools for teenage girls continues to be a running sore for the international community. The country is in dire straits, but blaming the ruling Taliban is simply lazy journalism, agenda-driven bias and opportunistic politics.
After the Afghan National Army (ANA) collapsed twelve months ago, and greedy ministers from what was freely acknowledged as the most corrupt government in the world looted millions as they fled the country, the flow of aid stopped overnight. The US followed this by isolating the Afghan banks from the global financial system and freezing assets worth billions of dollars belonging to the people of Afghanistan.
I doubt if there is a single government or regime in the world which could survive even a few months under the conditions imposed on the Taliban. And yet, somehow, with humanitarian aid now trickling back into the country, to the movement’s credit it has managed to stay in control.
It was with some degree of incredulity the other day, therefore, that I read a comment from the Afghanistan-based communication and advocacy coordinator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “What’s happening right now is that 38 million people are suffering because a few hundred are in power,” said Samira Sayed Rahman.
Millions of Afghans are on the brink of starvation, Samira, but not because of those in power in Kabul; far from it. The suffering of the nation is down to one man: Joe Biden. The US President was instrumental in ensuring that Afghanistan’s sovereign assets overseas were frozen. Acting as an international bully, the US encouraged other countries to follow Washington’s move and sanction Afghanistan; like puppets, they did.
Biden used his executive power in April 2021 when he announced the withdrawal of US troops by 11 September the same year to end the pointless 20-year occupation. That date was hugely symbolic, of course, but he won’t use that same executive power to bring an end to the suffering of the Afghan people, as I wrote in MEMO recently.
If we want to spread the blame beyond the White House, then we should also take aim at the rulers of the 193 other countries which make up the member states of the United Nations. Not one of them has had the guts, backbone or integrity to recognise the government in Kabul and alleviate the suffering of the innocent people of Afghanistan.
Please don’t believe for one minute that this has anything to do with girls’ education or women’s rights. Afghan women were thrown under the bus many years ago when George W Bush and Tony Blair teamed up with the brutal Northern Alliance and its disparate band of warlords despite the protests of many women in Afghanistan. The blitzing of cities, towns and villages created tens of thousands of widows, while hundreds of thousands of other women were left grieving for their fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and cousins. Remember also the thousands of Afghan women who were liberated to death by the reckless bombing of the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and in later years the hapless ANA, which collapsed and disappeared virtually overnight last August.
What the Taliban has given most of these women living in the rural areas is peace and stability for the first time in two decades. These women have also welcomed other government announcements such as an end to forced marriages, and they no longer see their girls being sold off as child brides. The total ban on the production of the opium crops and the deadly heroin trade has been welcomed quietly by most international NGOs operating in Afghanistan, but they’re too afraid to praise the Taliban publically for fear of a backlash from their own governments back home.
There’s still much to do, but before you call me a Taliban cheerleader or apologist, you should know that I am still critical of some of the movement’s policies especially when it comes to women. Nevertheless, their zero-tolerance approach to corruption should be recognised and applauded.
Apart from the presence of terrorists from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS-K) based in the eastern province of Nangarhar, there is very little trouble in Afghanistan these days. I tested this a few months ago with a couple of guides by travelling through what were once no-go areas without incident. Yes, there were a lot of Taliban checkpoints from Kabul to Kandahar, but security was relatively light and not intrusive. There were certainly no long traffic queues and the soldiers were all courteous and smiling.
However, ISIS-K’s presence is a very real problem yet to be tackled by the Taliban. Just a few days ago, Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani (no relation to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban interior minister) was killed by a suicide bomber. He had argued that Afghan women and girls should be educated, and said: “There is no justification in the sharia [Islamic law] to say that female education is not allowed. No justification at all.” I have no doubt that it was this that made him a target for ISIS-K.
However, it is hugely significant that his view was shared by all of the senior government ministers and advisers that I interviewed in May during my visit to Afghanistan. Education does indeed remain a thorny issue and it is cited constantly as the excuse for the international community to impose sanctions or withhold recognition from the Kabul government. That, and the oppression of the LGBTQ community, although I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing about any Pride marches in Kabul under Presidents Hamid Karzai or Ashraf Ghani when the US and its allies were pulling the strings in the Afghan capital.
I truly despair at this further example of Western hypocrisy in international affairs. I’d like to bet that gay rights are not up for discussion in the oil-rich Middle East countries visited frequently by ministers and diplomats from Washington, London, Paris and Berlin. And while just about every Western politician stands up and criticises the Taliban, they are silent over the plight of Muslim schoolgirls in India who have their hijabs ripped off their heads and their schools closed down by Hindu fanatics.
The reality is that these same politicians — nearly all men, of course — will soon throw Afghan women under the bus once again, this time in the rush for the right to mine precious minerals, including lithium. This soft, silvery-white alkali metal is the “new oil” according to billionaire Elon Musk, and there’s an estimated three trillion dollars’ worth of the stuff under the ground in Afghanistan.
Lithium is essential for making high-voltage batteries for electric cars and other products. Industry experts are saying that demand for lithium will far outstrip supply for the foreseeable future, until 2030 at least. Since the start of this year, lithium has doubled in price, and it is has gone up some 500 per cent or more over the past 12 months.
The Russians discovered this untapped wealth during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and then kept quiet as the then Soviet Union pulled out later that same decade. During the US occupation, American scientists stumbled across the old Soviet maps and began investigating the mineral wealth.
By 2010 the Pentagon had produced documents revealing vast mineral deposits far beyond any previously known reserves, including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critically-important industrial metals like lithium. The US government put the value at more than one trillion dollars ten years ago, but today’s estimates are far higher.
These minerals are essential for today’s hi-tech industries and could transform Afghanistan’s economy as potentially the world’s largest lithium exporter. China has already expressed an interest, as has India. I can’t help but wonder if lithium is mentioned in the secret annexes of the Doha Agreement signed between the US and the Taliban in 2020.
The Taliban is already raising much-needed revenue by extracting and selling coal from existing mines and charging taxes by the lorry load. The movement has, remember, been running a parallel government in the south of the country for the past ten years; it has experience of government and is no stranger to working under abnormal conditions.
If Musk is right and lithium is the new oil, I think that the next 12 months will see a softening of attitude by the Biden administration, because it certainly looks as if the Taliban is in Kabul for the long haul. The war in Ukraine, another long-term conflict, is also the focus of attention in Washington and European capitals, virtually ruling out any more ill-advised military campaigns in Afghanistan.
America spent three trillion dollars fighting the Taliban over 20 years, only to see the movement return to power. It may yet have to shell out other mind-boggling sums if mining rights for Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth are opened up to the highest bidder.
The lazy narrative that the Taliban is full of primitive, backward, turban-wearing peasants running around in flip-flops actually suits its purpose. That was the general opinion in Kabul, which is why mass panic broke out when Taliban fighters arrived in the city a year ago. Underestimate the movement at your peril.
It has been a difficult first year in office, but it is foolish to judge the Taliban at this stage. The leadership clearly wants to take the country in a new direction with values that are quite different from those found in Europe and America. Guided by their religious beliefs, Taliban leaders have made it obvious that they will also operate differently from the West, which may not be such a bad thing. Speaking as a long-suffering European woman who has been patronised by largely male politicians for decades, if the West is determined — and genuine — about the focus on women’s rights, then perhaps it would be a good thing for the US and Europe to lead by example.
In a world driven by national interests, the West knows full well that the movement’s leaders will remember who their friends are when the auction for Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth begins. Meanwhile, sanctions should be lifted, because only when there are no externally-imposed restrictions will it be reasonable to judge how the Taliban governs.
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