A year and a half after the Taliban’s return to power, the hardships of daily life in Afghanistan are becoming dire. Yet, the government’s restrictive policies threaten to block even basic humanitarian aid. What is the way forward?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (00:03):
Just as the basics, the Taliban really need to understand the need of 40 million people in the country and provide that opportunity for paid agencies to be able to help those people.
Tracie Yang (00:16):
Searching for a path forward in Afghanistan, today on InAsia, from the Asia Foundation. I'm Tracie Yang-
John Rieger (00:22):
And I'm John Rieger. A year and a half after the Taliban's return to power, the hardships of daily life in this overwhelmingly aid dependent country have grown increasingly dire, yet the main highlights of the Taliban's rule have been draconian restrictions on women's right to work, to go to school, or to participate in activities outside the home.
Tracie Yang (00:41):
With hunger and poverty threatening a humanitarian catastrophe, the International Development Community seems determined not to turn away as it did in the 1990s, yet the Taliban's restrictive policies could block even basic humanitarian aid.
John Rieger (00:56):
Joining us now to talk about navigating this increasingly pressing predicament is Abdullah Ahmadzai, the Asian Foundation's Afghanistan country representative. Abdullah, welcome to InAsia.
Abdullah Ahmadzai (01:07):
Thank you, thank you, John, for having me, it's a pleasure to be with you on today's podcast.
John Rieger (01:11):
Abdullah, you're an Afghan national and you are also an international development professional. What does the international development community want in Afghanistan and- and what should they want?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (01:22):
Well, there are two major challenges, I think. One is to have the enabling environment so that the development community and the aid agencies are able to help the people of Afghanistan as they are grappling with extreme poverty, lack of basic services, such as healthcare, education, employment, food, and water. As you know, uh, John, the- the U.N. estimates over 97% of the Afghan population suffer from extreme poverty.
John Rieger (01:52):
What is the definition of extreme poverty?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (01:54):
Extreme poverty is basically being unable to feed your family.
John Rieger (01:59):
So, up to and including starvation?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (02:02):
Absolutely. It's extreme poverty translates into starvation, as you said.
John Rieger (02:06):
You know, we're talking 40 million people.
Abdullah Ahmadzai (02:09):
40 million population and an absolute majority (laughs) of them are basically in need of aid. Now, to address these challenges, nongovernment organizations who are there to help the people of Afghanistan must be allowed to function effectively and, uh, I would stress independently where they can hire Afghan men and women to deliver the aid to the men and women, uh, of the country. Uh, any ban on women to work, for example, uh, will make it impossible for the aid organizations to function effective.
Secondly, uh, aid organizations really need donor commitments in funding to be able to continue assisting the people of Afghanistan in these extremely difficult times. There is a commitment of around four billion dollars to Afghanistan, the delivery channel is, uh, mostly, uh, the United Nations, but the Taliban just made a decision in December of last year that women cannot work with international organizations, or the government, or any other institution.
So, just as the basics, the Taliban really need to understand the need of 40 million people in the country and provide that opportunity for, uh, aid agencies to be able to help those people.
Tracie Yang (03:30):
So, uh, let's take a- a- a step back. Abdullah, why don't you tell us a bit about yourself and your family's history in Afghanistan.
Abdullah Ahmadzai (03:38):
I come from a middle class family. My father and grandfather were both business people, but were also tribal elders. My father was the go-to person in our district, Qarabagh, including on issues such as family disputes over land, domestic violence, tribal, uh, rivalries and those sorts of issues. And then my father would basically determine whether it was an issue that could be resolved within the informal dispute resolution, uh, mechanism, or is it something that required the intervention from the formal justice sector.
In, uh, 1979, uh, when I was just barely five years old, my father decided after the sole, the invasion that he will join the mujahideen to fight, uh, the Soviets. So since my childhood, from the late '70s and early '80s, most of what I recall, unfortunately, has been revolutions, Soviet invasion, coups, and civil war, regime changes, uh, in the recent, you know, democratization attempt and, now again, the Taliban's, uh, rule.
So my last job before joining the Asia Foundation in 2012, I was the, uh, chief electoral officer for the independent election commission where I basically managed the, uh, 2010 parliamentary elections.
John Rieger (05:05):
Well, so that brings us to the Taliban. Who, are- are- are they? Are they a religious sect, are they an ethnic armed organization, are they a warlord militia, and- and how representative are they of the rest of Afghanistan?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (05:19):
John, I think it's very hard for me to describe the Taliban in one or two sentences, but generally speaking, uh, majority of the Taliban are basically Afghan refugees who grew up in Pakistan, went to religious madrassas. Um, madrassas are religious, uh, schools, basically, informal religious schools. And, uh, as a result of that hard-line religious, uh, education they received, they created their own ideology, which combines a strict interpretation of the Islamic Sharia law and, uh, the hardliner traditional practices in rural Afghanistan.
They did receive support from various sects of, uh, the Afghan society because they were fed up with the, with the civil war, and poverty was, uh, increasing, and people were not feeling safe, so they did receive support. But post 2021 they took power, but we did not see any evidence of a large-scale general public support for a change of the political system, and that is why I think Taliban are finding it more challenging this time to govern compared to, uh, when they took, uh, power in 1996.
Tracie Yang (06:42):
The Taliban have certainly proven themselves to be, uh, effective fighters, but how are they doing at governing?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (06:50):
Yes, Tracie, that's a, that's a very good point. I think by design, uh, the Taliban have been an effective, but also I would add destructive force with unique fighting capabilities, which includes suicide bombing that killed scores of civilians during the past two decades, but they lack the experience to govern.
They bring in madrassas scholars, uh, or their own fighters to lead government institutions, making it impossible to establish a basic social contract. The Taliban have also proven to ignore the diversity of the Afghan society. We have Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkmens, Uzbeks, Pashayees, quite a number of, uh, ethnic groups that do not see themselves, uh, well represented in this new establishment that they have created.
And they have the entire decision-making and policy-making confined to their own unique circle of Taliban leaders, so a destructive force being capable and more effective does not necessarily mean that they are equally capable to govern.
John Rieger (08:02):
Uh- uh, so, uh, let's get to the West's top hot button issue, women's rights. First, the Taliban government said that young women and girls could continue to go to school, then, step-by-step, they shut it all down. Why the mixed messaging? Is it a deliberate strategy or is there some dissension in the leadership?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (08:22):
John, I would say it's a combination of both, the Taliban political team who were sitting in Doha for several years negotiating a peace deal with the U.S. Were basically giving promises such as, uh, girls' education, women's right to work, and civic liberties, basic rights, almost making, uh, majority of the diplomat community believe that maybe there is a Taliban 2.0 that we are basically dealing with and not necessarily the Taliban of the '90s.
So what happened was that these representatives of the Taliban who are sitting in Doha for several years, negotiating with the U.S. on a peace deal, did not necessarily influence the hard-liner Taliban mindset.
John Rieger (09:18):
You- you're saying the Taliban d- diplomats just aren't listened to by their government.
Abdullah Ahmadzai (09:22):
That's how I would see it. So any commitment the Doha group has made was not necessarily observed or adhered to, uh, when the Taliban took power. Now so far they have been successful in controlling and maintaining their unity, while at the same time we know (laughs) that some of the Taliban leaders are sending their own daughters to universities in Qatar and also in other countries. So I'm sure there is discontent and disagreement from within the Taliban, uh, groups, uh, on- on this particular issue of women's rights to work and women's rights to education, but their differences are not at a level which could influence decision-making, unfortunate.
Tracie Yang (10:11):
Like you said, the Taliban was very effective and destructive at running a military operation, but it's quite different from holding and running, uh, a country. Do you see room for them evolving?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (10:25):
I think it's a matter of time, uh, Tracie, to be honest. Afghanistan, uh, is not, as you know, uh, the only, uh, (laughs) Muslim majority country, there are many- many other countries, but by the way it's being ruled by the Taliban is unique, unprecedented, and irrelevant to the 21st, uh, Century. So when will they come to that understanding that it's a different era and, uh, and, uh, not adjusting to it would mean they'll become more irrelevant to the realities on the ground.
John Rieger (10:57):
Abdullah, just yesterday the New York Times reported the assassination in her own home of female former MP, Mursal Nabizada. It, it's a crime, but it's also a tragedy to rise as she did. This young woman must have been extremely gifted.
Abdullah Ahmadzai (11:15):
Yes, uh, John, I know, uh, Mursal and I was just shocked, uh, with this, uh, incident that occurred. She is one of the very few, uh, Afghan politicians and lawmakers who decided to stay in Afghanistan. I'm pretty sure she had a different dream for herself and for the country, but unfortunately she was brutally murdered.
There are daily, uh, reports of targeted assassinations of former Afghan national defense and security forces, individuals associated with the Intelligence, uh, Bureau, or even on personal rivalries, uh, and that also explains why scores of Afghans, uh, keep leaving the country since August of 2021. A very serious brain drain has been caused.
Tracie Yang (12:11):
Abdullah, do you ever see yourself returning back to Afghanistan?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (12:15):
Absolutely, and I stay, uh- uh, true to my statement, uh, on record. (laughs) If the situation in Afghanistan improves enough where my safety is a- assured and my, uh, daughters can get their education. Three of my daughters are going to university here and I will not compromise on their future, uh, simply because I want to return to Afghanistan. But if the same opportunity is available to my children, in Afghanistan, I will be one of the first, uh, (laughs) few people that would, that would want to return.
John Rieger (12:53):
Of course, the international community does not want to let millions of Afghans starve just because the government is too hard line. But, now, in the most recent development, the Taliban have banned female NGO workers. Why is that such a big deal?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (13:09):
Absolutely. There is a practicality to a delivery of aid. The majority of human losses in the past two decades in Afghanistan were of adult men with families. The female, uh- uh, head of the household should be able to make a living. They either need to work or there should be, uh, delivery of aid ensured to them. Those women cannot interact with men, so once the aid agencies are unable to employ women, there is no possibility for aid to be delivered to those vulnerable women, half of the country's population.
John Rieger (13:52):
This is where I am baffled by the current course of Afghanistan, that seems like such an important practical question. Really, let the women die, uh, it- it, uh, it's unfathomable to me.
Abdullah Ahmadzai (14:07):
Well, first of all, as I said earlier, it's- it's an issue of a very unique interpretation that the Taliban have of the Islamic values and Sharia law. Unfortunately, uh, people who make these decisions do not engage with subject matter experts or the general population in dialogues to be convinced or convince the audience on what those decisions are that they make. It's basically decisions are made by a bunch of people sitting in Kandahar, it's announced and follow for decree by the supreme leader, and then the entire government needs to implement that decision effective the date of the decree.
I mean the previous government, uh, yes there was, corruption was a major issue, it had a lot of performance issues as well, but at least there was an information flow both ways. Uh, people were raising their voice, uh, people were heard somehow, officials were basically engaged in debates and dialogues with the public through mass media engagements.
Under the Taliban, that door has been completely shut. It's a decision and then they, uh- uh, tweet on it or they make a few announcements on TV, and that's their communication [inaudible 00:15:31].
Tracie Yang (15:31):
It's worth noting that Afghanistan is in a pretty tough neighborhood. Who are their international neighbors and how are they getting along?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (15:40):
As we speak, Afghanistan is basically bor-, sharing a border with Pakistan, Iran, China, and three, uh, Central Asian countries, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and, uh, Uzbekistan. One neighbor that have been the most influential, as least perceived as more influential than the others was, uh, Pakistan, and that's naturally believable because majority of these Taliban leaders were living in Pakistan and were gaining support from that country.
But then Iran basically engages, uh, with the Taliban and, uh, looking at its past history, we don't have any precedent of, uh, cordial relation between Taliban and, uh, in the Iranian government in the '90s. So, one could probably understand the Pakistani support base for the Taliban, but Iran was more of a surprise, to me in particular. Their support was possibly too full, preferring a government in Afghanistan that is not necessarily a U.S. backed state.
Second, Taliban were more effective, or perceived as effective, uh, partners in fighting ISIS. From Russian perspective, or Central Asian perspective, a stable Afghanistan enables a fight against ISIS or any other armed opposition groups, uh, and their trade route with Pakistan was also, and remains to be, quite important for the Central Asian states.
Uh, now each country had its own plan and that's how they implemented it, but our neighbors, I think, are in best position now to engage in dialogues amongst themselves, China, Pakistan, Central Asian countries in Iran, to have a unified strategy on their engagement with the Taliban regime. If they engage with the Taliban based on their own, uh, short-term or mid-term interests while ignoring the, uh, other neighbors, Afghanistan may well fall back into another hotbed of, uh, of violence where one country supports one side and another country another, so that's my fear.
Tracie Yang (18:05):
So how much better could things get for an Afghanistan still under Taliban rule and what has to happen to make that so?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (18:16):
I will, I will give you my personal opinion, uh, and that's ... I am pleasantly surprised, uh, that 16 months after the Taliban's takeover I still see there are opportunities that they could seize, and build on, and- and create a better environment.
Normally, when such a autocratic, kind of, an entity gets to power militarily and has no legitimate process rolled out, or introduced, or committed to, uh, not even a constitution, the number of opportunities that they could have would be very- very limit. But I still see opportunities for the Taliban to remain part of the decision-making and the politics of Afghanistan.
But I think the best way forward for them is to engage with the political actors and the civil society of Afghanistan and come up with a roadmap as to where is Afghanistan going to go in the next, let's say, two years. What kind of a political system will we have, how do we choose our leaders, what will the legislature look like, what will the judiciary look like, uh, how will the basic rights of people be ensured, what is the level of freedom of expression in the country, how representative the government would look like.
I think the starting point is there, but without this process being initiated where Afghans really see light at the end of the tunnel, I really don't see how status quo could continue.
John Rieger (20:04):
So then what is the worst-case scenario?
Abdullah Ahmadzai (20:08):
If the status quo continues, John, it's just a matter of time before Afghanistan falls into another chaotic situation, another civil war. And if our neighbors do not engage more assertively with the Taliban, then each country will end up having their own interest, uh, and invest in certain groups in Afghanistan, and then it- it becomes another- another battlefield.
But, the last point, and I'll leave it, uh, with a positive note, is that the opportunities do exist. I am pleasantly surprised, (laughs) I would say, that the international community did not repeat the mistakes of the '90s when the, uh, Soviet-backed regime collapsed to the mujahideen and a civil war erupted, uh, and the international community abandoned Afghanistan. That abandonment has not taken place yet and, uh, we want more patience.
John Rieger (21:10):
Abdullah, thank you, uh, so much for speaking with us today.
Abdullah Ahmadzai (21:13):
Thank you John and Tracie for having me and, uh, thanks for your time.
John Rieger (21:20):
And that's our show this week.
Tracie Yang (21:21):
We hope you'll make a note in that nice fresh 2023 calendar to join us again in two weeks on InAsia, or you can do as the digital natives do and subscribe, why not?
John Rieger (21:32):
Why not indeed. Until then, I'm John Rieger-
Tracie Yang (21:35):
... and I'm Tracie Yang.
John Rieger (21:36):
... thanks for listening.