On this second anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power, recent reports from Afghanistan’s provinces indicate local Taliban officials are demanding that girls over the age of 10 not be allowed to attend primary school. The accounts demonstrate that the Taliban is rejecting international pressure to reverse — or even ease — their repression of women and girls. In fact, the Taliban are doubling down – girls already had been barred from secondary education after the age of 13. Now the repression is intensifying.

Combined with a succession of Taliban orders barring women from employment in government and international organizations, among a catalogue of restrictions that legal experts have called “gender apartheid,” the international community must finally come to understand that the regime’s oppression of women and girls reflects and is intertwined with its continued coddling of violent extremist groups. The Taliban’s treatment of women and girls is not a separate issue that can be excused by assessments that specifically designated terrorist groups are somehow weakened and can’t threaten the United States or other western countries. In fact, they are one and the same, and the perception of a weakening of terrorist forces overlooks an accelerating radicalization that will have violent impact far beyond the borders of Afghanistan.

The international community’s weak response to these patterns was evident again in a recent two-day meeting of U.S. officials with “senior Taliban representatives” in Doha, Qatar, where they discussed “critical interests,” according to the State Department. The U.S. delegation included Rina Amiri, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights, who tweeted by way of explanation that she joined the meeting because she had “been urged extensively by Afghans & human rights defenders on the need to directly engage the Taliban on human rights, particularly the extreme restrictions on women & girls.” But the meeting drew stinging criticism from Afghan women from all walks of life, including an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed by more than 60 coalitions and networks advocating for the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. “Like the Doha Peace Deal, which failed all of us, today the U.S. government is again meeting with the Taliban and discussing areas of confidence building,” the signatories wrote.

As time passes, the Taliban’s totalitarian regime further cements and spreads its dark vision across Afghanistan. Their morality police, which they call the “Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,” like the thought police of author George Orwell’s “1984,” intrude on people’s privacy with the aim of controlling every aspect of their lives.

Meanwhile, the world issues empty statements asking the de facto authorities to reverse their policies, and nothing changes. The Taliban on several occasions even proclaimed that they do not need the world’s diplomatic recognition or normalization of relations. It seems the peace deal between the United States and the Taliban enormously boosted the Taliban’s confidence that they had defeated a superpower and can now do as they will with Afghanistan and its people.

Gender Apartheid

Amid the Taliban’s despotic policies against Afghanistan’s population at large, their views and policies towards women form the core of their ideology. The ”egregious and systematic violations” against women in Afghanistan, as former Afghan official and civil society leader Nader Nadery described the conditions, is such a grave violation of human rights that it amounts to gender apartheid. As University of Michigan Law Professor Karima Bennoune wrote at Just Security a year ago, “Gender apartheid is a system of governance which imposes systematic segregation of women and men, and excludes women from public spaces and spheres. It involves systemic oppression of women, defining women, as one Afghan rights advocate told me, as being `not as human as men.’” The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls recently described the “relentless issuance of edicts, decrees, declarations and directives restricting [women’s and girls’] rights, including their freedom of movement, attire and behaviour, and their access to education, work, health and justice.” The international community has an obligation to counter gender apartheid in light of the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court.

Such severe repression also poses an international security concern, as such extremism and radicalization spreads. Despite the Biden administration’s prioritization of geopolitical competition and counterterrorism efforts, evidence shows clearly that the Taliban’s extreme domestic policies, including its educational curriculum — for those (boys) allowed to attend school — form the foundation of radicalization and indoctrination of society. Observers and top policy experts have called the return of the Taliban a great risk to U.S. national security. In a recent interview, John Bolton, a former U.S. national security advisor to then-President Donald Trump, called the U.S.-Taliban deal a disastrous mistake for America and for its national security. Analyst Timor Sharan recently cited at Just Security “the Taliban’s shared puritanic vision, which is the total `Islamic’ purification and radicalization of Afghan society, with potential consequences resonating far beyond Afghanistan.”

The New York Times this week reported that former Taliban fighters, tired of what they consider peace within the country, are crossing the border to fight alongside violent extremist groups elsewhere, including in Pakistan. And despite recent dismissive remarks by President Joe Biden defending the 2021 withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan by saying his prediction that al-Qaeda “would not be there” had come true, news media reports and other credible accounts from the ground, demonstrate otherwise. A June 1 report from the U.N. Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, for example, found that:

The link between the Taliban and both Al-Qaida and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) remains strong and symbiotic. A range of terrorist groups have greater freedom of manoeuvre under the Taliban de facto authorities. They are making good use of this, and the threat of terrorism is rising in both Afghanistan and the region. While they have sought to reduce the profile of these groups and have conducted operations against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIL-K), in general, the Taliban have not delivered on the counter-terrorism provisions under the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the United States of America and the Taliban. There are indications that Al-Qaida is rebuilding operational capability, that TTP is launching attacks into Pakistan with support from the Taliban, that groups of foreign terrorist fighters are projecting threat across Afghanistan’s borders and that the operations of ISIL-K are becoming more sophisticated and lethal (if not more numerous).

At the core of this violent extremism is the subordination of women and girls, which is deeply ingrained in the Taliban’s aim of radicalization and Talibanization of society. Since returning to power, the regime has taken a number of actions to radicalize the country’s systems of schools and higher education, on the basis of an extremely conservative interpretation of Sharia, brutally enforced. Former Acting Minister of Mines and Petroleum Nargis Nehan and co-author Roxanne Escobales recently noted that a new curriculum issued by the Ministry of Education features pictures of the Taliban leaders and teaches “that fighting against non-Muslims is totally fine and that if you do you are going to be rewarded by God.”

Denial of education and abusive gender-power relations can have deep and severe consequence for the fabric of society, including the widespread re-establishment of madrasas to imbue children with the Taliban’s ideology alone, in an effort to reconstruct society’s thinking. The Taliban have a record of recruiting from poverty and from populations where education has been severely restricted. Children as young as 13 years old are susceptible to radicalization and recruitment to extremist groups, and girls are vulnerable to forced marriages.

The Way Forward

Afghans who support human rights, a restoration of democracy, and a positive future for their country are not giving up, either inside Afghanistan or from outside. They are using any opportunity to resist the Taliban’s despotic and misogynistic policies and prevent Afghanistan from descending into further chaos and instability that could reverberate not only regionally but also globally. Providing support and a platform to these “scattered forces opposing the Taliban” is vital for moving forward and preventing extremism, radicalization, terrorism, and even protracted civil war, considering some of the deep divisions even within the Taliban and the tensions between the Taliban and other groups within or outside of Afghanistan.

As a founding and executive member of the Afghan Women Coalition for Change  (AWCC ) working with the coalitions and networks that signed the letter to Blinken, and as a researcher studying and advocating for women’s human rights in Afghanistan, I am struck every day by the unwavering determination, bravery, and leadership of Afghan women. These women work hard to lead and to create a strong political, social, and human rights movement. They pursue various avenues with foreign diplomats and leaders, and simultaneously strongly connect with Afghans on the ground to lead and mobilize democratic and moderate forces. These women think clearly and describe what the future should look like and how they can play an essential role as mediators among different former and current political factions to create a united and firm front where inclusive voices have their say – and are heard.

These women are cognizant of past political mistakes, such as the failure to conduct an effective national process for apology for past abuses, for reconciliation and healing, and for establishing an inclusive government based on the people’s will. Even as they engage in difficult discussions among Afghans within and outside the country, they also campaign for an international legal framework for recognizing gender apartheid as a crime against humanity.

These “forces” do not have suicide bombers or military weapons to fight for power. But that means they should have more legitimacy than the Taliban in the eyes of the international community and thus offer stronger prospects for a sustainable future for Afghanistan. To realize these efforts, though, will require international support for a threefold approach;

  • Accelerating political and social mobilization inside and outside Afghanistan to press for a legitimate and inclusive government. In addition to financial and technical support, advocates need political support via recognition and engagement. For instance, in meetings such as the U.N. Secretary-General’s gathering of special envoys on Afghanistan in May, Afghans and specifically Afghan women activists should have been present. That also goes for meetings when there is a possibility of meeting Taliban representatives.
  • More robust, urgent, and unified engagement by international allies and friends of Afghanistan with Afghan rights advocates, based on international legal and moral obligations and on the feminist foreign policies that certain allies and friends espouse. On March 10, 2023, for example, activists, NGO leaders, former policymakers, and other friends of Afghanistan delivered an open letter to U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak applauding his government’s interest in hosting an international conference on the plight of women and girls in Afghanistan. Such conferences can improve coordination and understanding among various stakeholders and pave the way for a more unified stance by U.N. member States. This should happen on two levels – among Afghans and among the international community – to identify common interests and develop a coherent strategy.
  • Comprehensive efforts to reduce Islamophobia, especially in the West, as more Afghans flee their country and seek international protection from Taliban persecution.

Any failure to see the links between violations against women and girls in Afghanistan and the dangers the Taliban and its terrorist associates pose to regional and global stability risks ignoring an unprecedented security challenge. The United States and international policymakers, thus, must prioritize the protection and advancement of women and girls in Afghanistan in their policies and actions, as a moral obligation – and a security imperative.

IMAGE: Afghan burqa-clad women hold placards as they protest for their right to education, in Mazar-i-Sharif on August 12, 2023. (Photo by ATEF ARYAN/AFP via Getty Images)