Editor’s note: To mark the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s second takeover of Afghanistan, Just Security is publishing a series of essays on the developments of the last year and the prospects for the future of Afghanistan. The series will continue over the coming weeks, and feature voices from Afghan civil society, U.S. national security experts, international human rights experts, and others.
The recent killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. drone strike on a Taliban-linked guest house in the heart of Kabul brings the disastrous first year of the militant group’s control since August 2021 full circle. Zawahiri’s presence under Taliban eyes (the guest house was owned by U.S.-designated terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban government’s interior minister and deputy to the group’s reclusive Emir) demonstrates that the militants continue to shelter several terrorist organizations. Clearly, they are allowing the territory of Afghanistan under their control to be used for planning and carrying out terrorist attacks in the country and beyond.
With this last blow, the Taliban has demonstrated that it has no qualms about breaking all of its major promises of the Doha agreement, from respect for women’s rights and inclusive governance to a general amnesty for those who worked for the ousted government and a guarantee that Afghanistan won’t again become a safe haven for terrorists. While the Biden administration and international partners were celebrating the elimination of al-Zawahiri, anyone who has become an apologist for the Taliban should be embarrassed at the utter abrogation of an agreement that was supposed to bring peace rather than privation to Afghanistan.
The dramatic events since the fall of the government of Afghanistan to the Taliban on Aug. 15, 2021, is nothing short of a human tragedy. Sadly, the hard-earned progress achieved over the previous two decades with their international partners has been lost, from access to education and health to rights and liberties, freedom of the press, and the foundation of a free and democratic society.
Openly and systematically, the Taliban have sought to erase women and girls from every sphere of public life. The ban on girls’ secondary schools makes Afghanistan the only country in the world where girls are not legally allowed to receive secondary education. Amnesty International recently described conditions for women and girls in Afghanistan as “death in slow motion.” Richard Bennett, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, reports that Afghan women and girls are subject to violations such as forced, early, and child marriages; restrictions on attire and freedom of movement; exclusion from education and public life; and barriers to employment. Decree by decree, the Taliban continue to eliminate women’s rights, with the most recent on May 5 forcing women to cover themselves with the hijab or burqa, and stay home except in the case of an emergency or another urgent matter.
The Taliban also have tightened civic space in general, suppressing essential voices by creating an environment of fear and intimidation. With each passing day, disturbing reports emerge of threats, intimidation, assaults, arbitrary arrests, forced confessions, abductions, torture, enforced disappearances, house searches, and killings of activists standing for their rights in the face of repression and extremism. The latest report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, though not nearly critical enough, outlines the disturbing pattern of human rights violations by the Taliban, despite a drop in civilian casualties since large-scale fighting and suicide attacks ended with the Taliban’s military takeover. In addition to continuing “unacceptable levels of harm as a result of indiscriminate attacks targeting civilians,” mostly by the Islamic State (ISIL-KP), UNAMA “has documented persistent allegations of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and torture and ill-treatment carried out” by Taliban authorities. The organization also cited measures “to stifle debate, curb dissent and limit the fundamental rights and freedoms of Afghans. Women and girls, in particular, have been subjected to severe restrictions,” UNAMA reported.
Access and Accountability
The extent of violations is likely even greater than reported, due to lack of access by monitors to certain locations where so many such violations are likely taking place, including in Panjshir, Parwan, Kapisa, Baghlan, Takhar, Saripul, Samangan, and Nangarhar provinces. Furthermore, accountability for violations is non-existent. Under the Taliban, it has become extremely difficult, even life-threatening, to seek redress, file a complaint, or document abuses in a climate defined by fear, impunity, and untamed exercise of power. A recent and notable victim of the Taliban’s campaign of intimidation was an Australian journalist who was threatened, detained, and forced to confess to conspiring against the Taliban’s “emirate.”
The Taliban are known for implementing discriminatory policies vis-à-vis other ethnic groups, particularly in the central and northern provinces. Alleged resistance to and interference with humanitarian assistance and attempts to exert undue influence over organizations delivering such assistance also is deeply worrying.
The international community’s response, lamentably, has been exceedingly weak. In April, one of us argued that, while the international community professes outrage over the situation in Afghanistan, it has failed to prevent escalating abuses or to take steps necessary to investigate and collect evidence for future accountability efforts. The result undermines the credibility of any U.S. and international efforts on human rights.
More recently, there have been signs of a renewed international willingness to take action against the Taliban’s violations of fundamental human rights. This was particularly the case with the June decision of the U.N. Security Council to remove a travel-ban exemption for two senior Taliban members and the U.N. Human Rights Council’s urgent debate and resolution on the human rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.
But the measures the international community has undertaken so far cannot lead to effective changes on the ground for the conditions that have deteriorated so precipitously for men, women, and children in Afghanistan. So, what else should be done?
More Action Needed
The international community continues to come across as too hesitant to clearly and unequivocally condemn the Taliban’s crimes and take action. The international community should hold the Taliban accountable for human rights and humanitarian law violations and abuses by employing the measures listed below and applying further pressure on them to comply. It should also make clear to the Taliban that respect for the human rights of all Afghans is indispensable to the emergence of stable and legitimate governance and is the benchmark for any future international engagement, including in the delivery of financial, economic, and development aid.
First, the U.N. Human Rights Council should create a Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law in the context of the Taliban’s unlawful takeover of Afghanistan. The council has established a number of such commissions, including for Ukraine in March of this year, and on Syria in March 2011, for example. Yet, as we noted in April, the Human Rights Council failed to take such a step for Afghanistan either during its Special Session on Afghanistan on Aug. 24, 2021, in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover, or in its 48th regular session in September and October 2021.
Another U.N. mechanism could be an independent fact-finding mission. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said earlier this month that he will set up a fact-finding mission to look into the attack on a Donetsk prison in Ukraine that reportedly killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war. And the U.N. has such a mission for Ethiopia. A fact-finding mission could be assigned to investigate the numerous cases of war crimes committed across Afghanistan. One year after the Taliban’s takeover, it is more and more important to set up a robust mechanism to collect, consolidate, and analyse evidence of violations, document and verify information, identify those responsible, promote accountability and remedies for victims, and make recommendations for effective prevention of further violations.
Second, as Guterres urged a year ago during the Aug. 16, 2021, emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on Afghanistan as the Taliban took over, the international community must unite to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as a platform or haven for terrorist organizations. Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan until his death on July 30 illustrates the criticality of protecting Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. The United Nations should engage the relevant U.N. Counter Terrorism entities, particularly the 1267 Committee that oversees sanctions related to the Islamic State group (ISIL or Da’esh) and al-Qaeda and a monitoring team to visit and monitor the situation inside Afghanistan.
Third, the U.N. Security Council must work urgently to end the waivers of its travel ban for more senior Taliban officials, as it did unanimously for the two education officials in June, and as six former U.S. ambassadors recently urged at the Atlantic Council. These exemptions, originally granted in 2019 so that Taliban leaders could travel for peace talks, now allow these figures to take advantage of the benefit for business-class jaunts to foreign capitals and conferences, with the aim of seeking legitimacy and recognition.
The Taliban’s leaders appear to be hoping the international community has forgotten the people of Afghanistan and that it is ready to abdicate its own principles for political expediency. But the people of Afghanistan, particularly the victims of human rights abuses and their families and members of the country’s debilitated civil society at home and abroad, have high expectations from the international community, including the Office of the High Representative for Human Rights, the U.N. country mission, and the Special Rapporteurs, as the Human Rights Council prepares for its 51st session in September.
In less than a year, the people of Afghanistan and the major regional and international stakeholders have seen Afghanistan go from bad to worst in all social, economic, political and terrorism indicators. Tactical and short-sighted measures are not sufficient to prevent further worsening of the situation. Given the Taliban’s unwillingness and inability to deliver on their expressed commitments, the people of Afghanistan expect the international community to adopt a new approach that meets the moment. In a chaotic and divisive environment globally, determination and creativity under the U.N.’s leadership still could make Afghanistan a locus of international and regional cooperation for the benefit of the Afghan people and the world.