I was a first-year medical student at Kabul University when, on Sept. 26, 1996, Taliban fighters swept in and seized the capital. It was a Thursday. I remember that clearly because I was rushing to finish schoolwork due by the weekend. Those assignments were suddenly no longer required. By the next day, the Taliban had announced that all women and girls were henceforth banned “until further notice” from schools, workplaces or even appearing in public without a male companion present.
For the next five years, until U.S.-led international forces ended the Taliban’s reign of terror in 2001, an Afghan woman’s view of the world was through the windows of her home. I was crushed. I had dreamed of becoming a gynecologist, hoping to help address Afghanistan’s chronically high maternal mortality rate. I never became a doctor.
That despair is being felt once again by a new generation of millions of Afghan women.
Before completing their reconquest of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban had promised to safeguard women’s rights, along with other pledges of moderation designed to ease world fears and pave the way for the withdrawal of the last foreign forces standing in their way. But since then, they have issued dozens of edicts to deprive women of basic human rights, including last month barring them from attending universities.
It should now be crystal clear that the international community was swindled. Taliban leaders have re-established their brutal fundamentalist Islamic and gender-apartheid regime, reversing the social progress achieved over the past two decades.
Yet the international community, including the United States, still clings naïvely to yet another Taliban fallacy — that it will stamp out the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan — and has maintained political and security-based contacts with the Taliban.
This is a gross misreading of reality that in fact increases the longer-term security threat to the United States and the world.
Taliban leaders are now raising a new generation of violent extremists. They have commandeered the Afghan school system, installing new curriculums that indoctrinate children in their extremist ideology, which endorses violence to advance Taliban objectives. Growing friction within the Taliban will make further radicalization and instability inevitable as factions struggle over ideology and distribution of resources.
The group’s leaders claim that while ISIS seeks a transnational Islamic caliphate, Taliban aspirations are confined to Afghanistan. Yet the Pakistani Taliban has staged intensifying attacks across the border in Pakistan. ISIS has expanded its operations on Afghan soil since the Taliban took over and remains a lethal threat.
During the Taliban’s first spell in power, I was luckier than most Afghan women. I fled to my home in Badakhshan, the only province in Afghanistan never conquered by that earlier regime, and set up an English school for girls. After the Taliban were driven out, I entered politics in the fragile democracy that followed. As an outspoken woman, I was on the Taliban hit list, and was targeted in several assassination attempts, including one in 2020, when I was shot in the arm.
I would later come face-to-face with those who wanted me dead. As the first female deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament, I was among my country’s representatives in peace talks with the Taliban in Doha in 2021. The Taliban delegation promised to cut all ties with Al Qaeda and other extremist groups, form an inclusive government and refrain from threatening other countries. During one meeting, Taliban members looked me in the eye and declared that women would be allowed to engage in business and all manner of social and political life, and to become government ministers, even prime minister.
Instead, they are once again erasing women — barring them from traveling alone in public, seeking employment or pursuing education beyond grade six. The threat faced by women was underlined this week when Mursal Nabizada, a former legislator and one of countless women who were lifted up in the years following the first Taliban regime, was gunned down at her home in Kabul. Despite Taliban promises, Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri, a patron of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was found to be living in Kabul, where he was killed last year in a U.S. drone attack. A humanitarian disaster is now playing out under the Taliban’s chaotic misrule.
International leverage is limited, but to allow the situation to continue on its current course is unconscionable.
Led by the United States, which invested so much blood and treasure in helping the Afghan people claw out of the Taliban abyss all those years ago, the world must cease any further contact with the Taliban and intensify engagement with Afghan opposition groups, especially women’s rights groups. All Taliban offices abroad must be closed, its officials barred from traveling overseas and all remaining foreign revenue streams cut off, including the income from drug trafficking that has long helped sustained them. Legal bodies such as the International Criminal Court should initiate investigations of human rights violations in the country.
Actions like these won’t change things overnight and could endanger the tenuous cooperation with the Taliban needed to ensure continued supplies of badly needed international humanitarian aid. Every effort should be made to ensure that aid supplies are unaffected.
But Taliban leaders have so far enjoyed a sense of impunity. They must be made to feel the same pain that the people of Afghanistan feel until they deliver on every one of their broken promises.
The alternative is to doom the Afghan people to the same nightmare that my generation lived through and to sit back while Afghanistan descends further into chaos and extremism that could soon emanate beyond the region to the shores of the United States.
Fawzia Koofi (@Fawziakoofi77), a former Afghan legislator, was the first female deputy speaker of Parliament in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which was overthrown by Taliban forces in August 2021. She lives in exile abroad.
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