Women Taliban?

Since the Taliban retook Afghanistan, an avalanche of information has been coming from the occupied country. Among others, the Taliban announced its conditions for reopening private universities which, in reality, make it impossible for women and girls to continue their studies. The Taliban’s official statement from its Ministry of Education says that “Only boys from primary, secondary and high school can resume their schools;” and there is no mention of girls. The Taliban have banned women from working in the positions and jobs that they previously worked in.

In rural areas, Taliban fighters have been summarily killing members of former Afghan security forces and forcing villagers to pay a tenth of everything they possess. In the cities, it is not only poverty and hunger, but the Taliban’s inability to ensure security. In Herat, for instance, the cases of armed robbery and kidnappings are on the rise. As people have flooded into cities like Kabul, Zaranj and other provinces that border neighboring countries, a very high number of civilians are literally on the verge of losing their lives because, while trying to cross the border with Pakistan or Iran, they are pushed back by the border police of those country, and in the Afghan sides of the borders they have no place and possibility of living, first, because of the Taliban, and second because of hunger.

All these things are clearly contrary to what the group previously said about allowing women to take part in education and in public and social life. The Taliban’s summary killing of dissidents and members of former security forces proves that the general amnesty the Taliban announced was absolutely false. The unfolding human tragedy which is expanding very fast under the Taliban indicates that there has never been a Taliban 2.0, and “the Taliban have changed” was one of the biggest lies.

Days after women took to the streets in Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif protesting against the Taliban and demanding equal rights, photos of women strangely covered from head to toe who are reported to have been Taliban supporters started circulating on the internet. Since then, I have been frequently asked if, in reality, there are women who support the Taliban and its misogyny, or were those images photoshopped. While the vast majority of women in Afghanistan, though Muslim, do not approve of the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam and try to fight against the Taliban’s misogynistic and objectifying treatment of women, and despite the fact that in some cases women were intimidated into holding demonstrations in support of the Taliban, the answer is sadly, yes. There are women who support the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban and its ideology. Obviously these radicalized women by no means represent the majority of Afghan women, but they can harm ordinary women who feel suffocated under the Taliban.

The most important question about these women, I think, is what happened to these women covered in black abayas who gathered in southern provinces, including at Kabul University and even gave speeches in support of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate – which largely regards women as less than human. As someone coming from Afghanistan, with years of firsthand experience in studying at madrasas (Islamic religious schools), I try to explain what made the phenomenon of Women Taliban.

First, poring over the Islamic law and tradition, one finds out that for centuries there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality. These groups included unbelievers, slaves, and women. The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the woman was doomed forever to remain what she was.

Despite significant improvement in the condition of women in Islamic countries, there have always been fundamentalist groups who think that the failures and shortcomings of modern Islamic lands only afflict these lands because they adopted alien notions and practices. According to the Islamists, the Muslim world became stagnant because it fell away from authentic Islam and thus lost its former greatness. So, what the fundamentalists have always wanted was to return Muslim societies back to the era of pure Islam, the period of Mohammad, and later the periods of different Islamic caliphates, in which “pure Islam” was practiced, and, among other things, women were subjugated and secluded. The Taliban is one of those groups to which the only acceptable law that can lead the Muslim world to prosperity is the law of Allah – the Sharia.

Now to find out what Sharia has to say about how to rule an Islamic society, one needs to learn Arabic, the language of the Quran in which Mohammad claimed Allah communicated with him. To learn the Quran and other Islamic texts, one needs to go to special places, which are madrasas and other similar centers. Frankly speaking, the Sharia of the Taliban and similar groups, and their interpretation of Islam, is the closest to what Islam really says about women or other issues. After all, it is the Taliban and the mullahs who know the real Islam because they are the ones who study the Islamic texts, including the Quran. The many millions of ordinary Muslims who do not hold the same belief as the Taliban and mullahs on women and other issues is because it is said that ordinary Muslims do not really know the Islamic texts, and therefore their Islam might be good and peaceful but it is not necessarily the real Islam.

The question of how some women and girls ended up being ideologically Taliban has to do with the Taliban’s evolving strategy in the last few years. In fact, since 2005, the Taliban have gone through a number of changes. They have sacrificed religion for victory. Unlike their time in power, when the Islamist group practiced and imposed strict Sharia and “pure Islam,” in the battlefields, they sacrificed their culturally and religiously-rooted beliefs and taboos for survival and success. They recruited transnational jihadists and criminals as fighters. They used suicide bombers as one of its main fighting tactics. Taking advantage of the Afghan State’s flexibility and corruption, this Islamist group also got engaged in the drug industry and illegal mining, which enabled it to continue its jihad against the international and Afghan national forces. Despite being extremely technophobic, the neo-Taliban have vastly been using every possible means of technology to spread their propaganda. One could justifiably argue that without the internet, a Taliban victory would not have been this easy.

Further, one of the most horrible things the Taliban and their sympathizers did was to establish madrasas for women and girls. While previously madrasas were only for men and boys, in the last few years dozens of female madrasas were opened. For example, Ashraf-ul Madaris, a women madrasa with its main branch in Pakistan, had 14 branches and more than 6000 female students by 2014 in Kunduz province alone. Of the over 1300 madrasas across Afghanistan, a good number of them have only enrolled females. What has happened is that these madrasas have really been successful in radicalizing women, as well as the men. Sadly, because of these madrasas Women Taliban are real, and like their male counterparts, women Taliban are dangerous. They have a great capacity of harming the millions of ordinary women who don’t want to adapt to Taliban rule.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that after being radicalized in a madrasa, it is the “pure Islam,” which the life-blood of a radicalized person, who is eager to force others to do follow the dictates of “pure Islam.” Once radicalized, a person is no longer a normal, but someone steeped in a toxic form of religiosity, empty of spirituality, capable of causing incalculable harm to ordinary people, particularly women. What makes it all worse is that it is not easy to de-radicalize a person after they are indoctrinated. On the other hand, self-deradicalizing is in many ways like self-destructing, and thus extremely difficult.

Even before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the country was one of the worst places for women. According to the study, “Women, Peace and Security Index 2019/20,” carried out by Georgetown University, in cooperation with Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Yemen and Afghanistan were the worst countries for women among 167 countries that were studied. Similarly, the World Bank’s “Women, Business and Law” (LWB) score of Afghanistan, in 2020, was 38 out of 100, a score much lower than the regional average (62.4) in South Asia. What this means is that even before the Taliban’s occupation of the country in 2021, women faced serious legal restrictions in different areas. Now with the Islamist group in power, the plight of women is far bleaker.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the consequences it is having on millions of people is one of the worst tragedies of the 21st century. What is equally tragic is to see women becoming radicalized and ideologically Taliban; women who not only justify subjugation of themselves and other women, but also take part in doing so. What all that means is that the Taliban have become more dangerous and are able to do unimaginable harm to women and girls.


Gabriel Vilanova is the pseudonym of a young Afghan scholar whose memoirs, Afganistán: Una república del silencio. Recuerdos de un estudiante afgano, have recently been published in Spain.


The featured image shows, “Farkhunda,” by Latif Eshraq; painted in 2017. (Farkhunda Malizada was killed by a mob in 2015, in Kabul).

A Letter From The Women Of Afghanistan: “Please Do Not Forget Us!”

An Introduction To The Letter

In February 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed an agreement, in which it was agreed that the U.S. and NATO forces would leave Afghanistan, the Taliban would reduce violence, cut ties with Al-Qaeda and engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban have not been committed to any reduction in violence or cutting ties with other terrorist groups in the region, nor have the peace talks resulted in peace. In April 2021, president Biden announced the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a decision that made other NATO members also withdraw their forces. The withdrawal of the American and NATO forces is almost complete. This further emboldened the Taliban.

Since April, Afghanistan has seen an alarming rise in conflict and violence, the result of which has been mass displacement, unprecedented civilian casualties, and severe economic damage to the already struggling country. After seizing about half of all the 420 districts, the Taliban advanced towards the city centers, attacking areas near airports. Now, of the 34 city centers, six have fallen to the Taliban. Herat and Kandahar airports have remained closed for several days, making travel from these zones to Kabul impossible.

Previously, Afghan forces had the support of the US and NATO forces. But now they continuously face shortage of water, food, ammunition, and the necessary logistic support they need to carry on the fight against the Taliban. As the Taliban rapidly took over districts and revived their harsh Islamic Sharia, civilians left their homes and moved to the major cities, such as Herat in the west, Kabul in the center and Mazar-e Sharif in the south. The families internally displaced into the big cities are facing a food shortage, as they cannot go back to their original provinces, neither can they continue to live in bigger cities where they have ended up living in the streets and temporary tents.

The UN reported in July a 47 percent increase in civilian casualties in the first six months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. Women, girls and children are the ones paying the highest price of the ongoing war. The same UN report indicates an 82 percent increase in women casualties in the first six months of 2021. According to the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan, 176 schools have been destroyed in the last few months, depriving more children from getting an education.

In the areas currently captured by the Taliban, the group’s fighters have not only banned women and girls’ access to education, work and health services, but have also subjected women and girls to inhumane and degrading treatment. There are reports by Kabul-based newspapers that in the non-Pashtun areas, Taliban fighters have used sexual violence and jihad-ul Nikah – a phrase apparently used first by ISIS fighters in Iraq— referring to sexual violence and abuse of women and treating them as property and reward for jihad. There are dozens of videos circulating on social media showing the Taliban fighters flogging women in public for not wearing a Burqa and not being accompanied by a male member. Many of the displaced families say the reason for their fleeing their homes is the fear that their female members could be treated in a degrading way by the Taliban or even being taken away by the jihadist fighters. Some feared the Taliban would force their male children to be recruited as Taliban fighters, which is yet another reason thousands of families left their original districts and moved to the cities.

As the situation is getting worse in Afghanistan, a number of women and girls, mostly from or currently based in Herat City, under attack by the Taliban, spoke about their worries and fears when the Taliban return, and what they think the international community could do to protect women and their rights in Afghanistan. To safeguard their identities, the names of those who participated have been changed to pseudonyms.


We are a group of women writing from Herat, a very ancient city, founded by Alexander the Great, and famous for its beauty, its monuments and parks, which will turn into a prison to us. The Taliban control all the districts of our province. They have closed the border with Iran, and so we can escape neither by road nor by air because the airport is closed.

All the cities of our country are besieged by the Taliban who control the rest of the territory. Many people want to escape from the cities, because of the gunfire and the bombardment. But they cannot escape; and [those who came from districts and villages to the cities in search of safety] must now live in the streets and in temporary tents. The people will soon run out of food supply, and the army out of food and ammunition.

In the Taliban-controlled áreas, 176 schools are already closed. The Taliban have prohibited girls’ education, and many of those over 15 have been subjected to forced marriage. The Taliban distribute women as war loot, violate and flog them in public. The boys are forcibly recruited as child-soldiers. This will be the destiny that await us if our city falls into their hands.

Therefore, before our voices go silent and our faces disappear, we want to send you these messages, hiding our real names, so that we not disappear into oblivion forever.

Sara from Bamyan, “I am worried about my three daughters. We have nowhere to go. People say, ‘When the Taliban took the Saighan and Kahmard districts of Bamian, they forcibly entered people’s homes and searched for women’s clothing to find out about the number of females in each home.’ They [the Taliban] have been reported to take women and young girls forcibly with them. I wish rather that my daughter die in a dignified way, than to be taken into the hands of the Taliban.”

Amina, 28, journalist from Herat, who escaped Afghanistan to Europe in 2020, “I am in Europe safe, but with every bad news I am deeply shaken. I cannot sleep, neither can I focus on anything. I am neither alive nor dead. I feel ashamed and useless.”

Roya, 23, student at Herat University, “The only thing the Taliban were remembered for was violence and inhumane treatment of women. Once again, the Taliban are today becoming part of our painful realities of life. The international community needs to realize that if the Taliban are not stopped now, there will come a moment the international community will regret.”

Marjan, 19, student of fine arts, Herat, “Recently, I have read the book, The Last Girl, by Nadia Murad [the Yazidi human rights activist and co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize]. What Nadia has narrated about the horrible crimes committed by ISIS in Iraq is quite similar to the way the Taliban fighters are evolving, particularly the Taliban’s enslaving of women and girls, which the Islamists call, ‘jihad-ul Nikah.’ I think the international community, particularly the US and other free countries who value women rights, should rethink the Taliban and decide between a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and enslavement of around 16 million women and girls, or stopping the terrorist group of the Taliban.”

Elham, 21, student of economics at a private university, Herat “A Taliban return would damage the already poor economy of the country. The Taliban are skilled in committing atrocities, but they don’t know how to run a country. The international community must not leave Afghanistan on its own; the least they should do is put all possible pressure on the Taliban and stop them, before they establish themselves as a state. Because then the world will have to deal with one more terrorist state.”

Tamana Begum, 24, school teacher, Herat, “If the Taliban are not stopped, I fear I might have to take all my dreams with me to the grave. The world must know that Afghan women have not been responsible for conducting any wars, but have always been victims of war, conflict and violence carried out by men.”

Sahar, 26, “With the Taliban advancing towards the cities, and hearing about the group’s degrading treatment of women, I can barely fall asleep. If the terrorist group enters the cities, I fear they might kill a family member, they might flog me in public for wearing sport shoes or for not wearing a burka. I don’t know what to ask the world to do for Afghanistan.”

Safia, 26, Bamyan, “I have been studying for over 16 years. I have the dream of becoming a university professor someday, but a Taliban return would mean I would have to be imprisoned inside the home and die gradually. The world must not ignore the threat the Taliban pose for women.”

Hava, 25, Herat, “I kindly request the decision-makers of the countries who supported Afghanistan in the last two decades, those who value human rights and women rights to watch the documentary ‘Behind the Veil’ [ ] by Saira Shah and think of each of the number of the civilian dead as a human worthy of a life of dignity, just like their own citizens. Then decide what to do with the Taliban. We know the Afghan state is paying the price of its two decades of flexibility with the terrorist group of the Taliban. But think of the many millions of women who have not had any role in waging this meaningless war and violence, but are affected by it the most.”

Angela, 18, high school student, “Every day when I wake up, the first thing I think of is doing my taekwondo exercise to one day represent Afghanistan in the Olympics. Thousands of other girls have similar dreams similar to mine, and I want the world, particularly the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, to imagine a situation in which a group enters his city by force and makes announcements on radio, TV and the internet that from a certain date on, his children cannot go to school, neither can they follow their dreams of becoming someone they want. What would you think would be best thing to do with such a group?”

Khatera, 26, “I am a woman. I am a Hazara. I run a small business. I hold a degree in sociology. Each of what I am is a problem, a sin and a crime according to the Taliban. That is the case with millions of other women. As I have to take care of my old mother and cannot leave Afghanistan, a Taliban takeover would mean the end of all my dreams and plans, and even my life. What I want the international community, and the countries who value women and human rights, is that they rethink everything about Afghanistan and the Taliban. I want the international community to think of the situation in which they say, ‘We could have prevented all these atrocities and crimes perpetuated by the Taliban, but we walked away.”

Fatima, 30, history teacher at a school, Herat, “After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country experienced a bloody civil war, and when the Taliban took power from 1996-2001, thousands of men were already killed, leaving thousands of women widowed. The Taliban banned work for women. Poverty and hunger forced many women to engage in prostitution under the most inhumane conditions. Those involved in prostitution were arrested and stoned in public spaces, mostly on Fridays in stadiums. I am afraid this history will repeat. I think the Taliban must be stopped before it is too late.”

We are Sara, Amirna, Roya, Marjan, Elham, Tamna begum, Sahar, Safia, Hava, Angela, Khatera, and Fatima.

We are somehow sure that no one can help us – but, please, remember that we too were living once. When we have disappeared into silence, please, reread what remains of our thoughts and out feelings.

Herat, Afghanistan, August, 2021.


The featured image shows an untitled piece by an Afghan woman artist. The name on the painting is illegible. If anyone knows the identity of this piece and its painter, please let us know.

What Really Happened In Afghanistan?

Early in 2021, Afghanistan once again found itself in a situation similar to the early 1990s, when the Soviet Army withdrew from the country. The then president, a technocrat educated in the Soviet Union, was head of the government in the communist system, installed by the USSR. Poverty, war and violence were widespread. The opposing forces wanted to establish an Islamic system.

The result was an end of support from the Soviet Union, overthrow of the communist government by the mujahideen (the Arabic term for those carrying out jihad; the term also means “strugglers”), civil war between different ethnic groups of mujahedeen, and later the Taliban regime’s takeover of the country and their hosting of Al-Qaeda, which planned the 9/11 attacks from inside Afghanistan – which made the international community and the US intervene in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was toppled.

There were significant changes in the ensuing 20 years, particularly valuable achievements were made in the cities. But despite all the achievements, Afghanistan remained a poor, violent, corrupt, and one of the worst countries for women, children, and religious and ethnic minorities. As in the 1990s, at the start of 2021, the Afghan president was a technocrat – but this time educated in the US and president of a government backed by the US and the liberal West. The opposing forces, however, were still the same, claiming that they wanted to establish a pure Islamic emirate, in which they would apply their Islamic Sharia.

After the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Afghanistan in 1989, the Afghan government fell under the mujahideen. There was a bloody civil war in the country, and finally the Taliban took power. Between the years 1996-2001, the Taliban carried out massacres against ethnic and religious minorities, such as, the massacres of the Hazaras in Mazar-e Sharif and Bamyan provinces. As part of the application of their Islamic Sharia, the Taliban flogged and stoned hundreds of women publicly, punished thousands of people for simple things, such as, shaving the beard, having a “western” hair style, having books in foreign languages, listening to music or watching films. As part of their foreign policy, they established close ties with Islamic fundamentalist states such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan (the only three states that recognized the Taliban) and some other Arab states.

Moreover, the Taliban provided shelter to Al-Qaeda, the most dangerous terrorist organization of the time, which planned the 9/11 attacks. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States used its right to Self-defense, a right ensured to States by article 51 of the UN Charter. At the same time, the United States requested its allies to join the war on terror and use their right to “collective defense” given by the same article of the UN Charter. As a result, NATO countries for the first time invoked their article 5, which provides that an “armed attack against one NATO member is an attack against all members and so they will take actions to assist their Ally.” That was how the war against terrorism in Afghanistan started. Primarily, the military camps of Al-Qaeda and Taliban were destroyed and then the Taliban regime was ousted from power.

After the Taliban was toppled, the US also got engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan. The Bonn Conference was held in Germany, which paved the way for an interim government to be formed by representatives of different ethnic and religious groups in an inclusive manner. The interim government, as part of its duties, held a loya jirga (traditional grand council) to make a new constitution, which was ratified in 2004, and in theory, guaranteed some freedom, as long as said freedom did not contravene any religious teaching of Islam. Although some form of religious freedom could be inferenced from the constitution, Islam was established as the official religion of the state.

The main issue with the new constitution was that, as in the last century, it centralizes the power to the center, something that alienates different peoples, as they cannot even select their province and district governors. However, one of the most important thing about the new constitution is that, in theory, it allowed women and girls to enter schools and universities, and the social and political arena.

State institutions were built from scratch. Universities and schools were opened for both women and men, although in many provinces women could never attend schools and universities in large number. Operations against terrorism were carried out, along with development projects in many parts of the country; and despite widespread corruption in the Afghan government a lot of progress was made in communication, media and many other areas. All that progress came at a huge human and financial cost, both for the international Community and for the people of Afghanistan.

Despite all the hard-won achievements and changes, many things did not go well. And so on August 15, 2021, Afghanistan fell and a serious human tragedy began. To understand why things ended the disastrous way they did, there is a need to carefully delve into the past. One of the reasons why things did not go well was because the US, NATO and the Afghan government did not pay attention to how the Taliban transformed itself over time. Thus, the US and NATO always had a static, monolithic understanding of the Taliban, while the Taliban and its strategy kept evolving.

The Greek historian Thucydides explained that war was waged for three reasons: honor, fear and interest. In the case of Afghanistan, many argued it was honor (in both religious and tribal context) for which the Taliban continued to wage war, after they were toppled by a US-led coalition in 2001.

Others argued that the irrational Taliban continued the war simply because they were manipulated by a charismatic leader (Mullah Omar), were indoctrinated in religious madrasas, were closely tied to the Pashtunwali culture that valued avenging dead relatives and blood vengeance. However, these arguments were only partly true. While culture had a significant role in shaping the Taliban’s way of war, the group and its war were explicable within familiar strategic concepts both classical and more contemporary. The Taliban had developed a strategy to succeed and ultimately became winners.

Afghans are more generally survivalists. In that sense, the Taliban, formed primarily by Pashtuns, are no different than the rest of the people. Despite the fact that religiously the Taliban believe in the other world and praise martyrdom, in the battle ground, their top priority is not directly going to paradise, but to survive and succeed. The same survivalist nature is the key to explaining why, in the conflict areas, people change sides, always siding with the expected winner, or playing both to avoid recrimination by the possible top-dog.

In 2001, the Taliban was toppled by the US-led coalition in the course of just a few weeks and by 2006 many American and NATO authorities counted the Taliban as ultimately defeated. However, some historians and military analysts were skeptical of the narrative that said the Taliban were dead. Some years later, the skeptics were proven right. The Taliban, who were pronounced dead several times, refused to die, and went through a process of transforming into the “neo-Taliban” – they gradually adapted to changes that could help them reach their strategic objective of becoming the winner.

Thus, after being toppled, the Taliban gradually emerged and secretly started spreading their handwritten messages in the form of “night letters,” face-to-face warnings, and in some cases, radio broadcasts, emphasizing the narrative that time was on their side and the infidels would have to leave. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar had said, “…the Americans and NATO have all the watches, but we [the Taliban] have all the time…”

As the Taliban positions were being bombed since 2001, they exploited territorial bases in Pakistan to survive, and replenished their manpower with fresh recruits of stateless, transnational jihadists with expertise, money, and weapons, but also with Pashtun, Arab, Uzbek, Chechen and other volunteers. Then the Taliban carried out periodic offensives, mobilized Afghan riots among civilians alienated from the state because of food shortage and the state’s great corruption and failure.

While in power, the Taliban practiced and imposed strict Sharia and “pure” Islam. On the battlefields, the Taliban started to sacrifice their culturally and religiously-rooted beliefs and taboos for survival and success. For example, despite the religious and cultural emphasis on human remains to be buried, the Taliban fighters usually left the bodies of their dead behind and did not risk removing them from the battleground. The “neo-Taliban” resorted to Al Qaeda-style tactics – roadside explosives, kidnappings. That was well-calculated – because the international and Afghan forces were not affected as much by five days of fighting as much as they were affected, for example, by a suicide attack or a roadside bomb.

The Taliban are mainly formed by Pashtuns, but as part of their evolving policy to gain popularity, the group tried to include the rival groups such as Tajiks and Uzbeks in their movement. They were very successful in that. For instance, provinces such as Badakhshan, Takhar, and Kundoz, which are Tajik and Uzbek dominated respectively, fell to the Taliban very easily this year. It was partly because the Tajik and Uzbek locals were divided and many became vulnerable to Taliban ideology.

The Taliban even tried to recruit Hazaras —a group different from the Taliban ethnically, linguistically, and religiously— but were unsuccessful simply because Hazaras remember the Taliban’s ethnic cleansing and massacring of thousands of Hazaras in Mazar-e Sharif and Bamyan and thus still fear their return.

While in power, the Taliban were known for technophobia. The Taliban’s Sharia police were breaking devices such as television and computers. But in the recent years, the “neo-Taliban” have vastly been using every means of technology to spread their propaganda. By 2006, the Taliban had representatives in Iraq to learn video production from Al-Qaeda, so that they could use produce videos and publish them on the internet.

Considering the fact that the Taliban considered depiction of humans as evil, the use of new technology was revolutionary. Similarly, when in power, the Taliban punished people for listening to music; but in the last few years the group has used music with religious content as a way to spread their propaganda, strengthen the morale of their fighters and deliver their message in the most suitable way to the illiterate people. Like modern fascism, the Taliban hates modernity, but wants the benefits of its technology.

The coalition and the Afghan government destroyed opium fields, but the Taliban offered protection and defense of the opium fields, which made the group more attractive to the Pashtun locals in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, in which the largest percentage of the world’s opium is produced. The Taliban’s protection of the opium fields and its direct involvement in the drug industry, although in opposition to their religious beliefs and their leader Mullah Omar’s fatwa in 2001 to ban poppy cultivation, was strategically calculated, and provided the Taliban with an annual income of around $420 million.

The Taliban also used the time during which the US was engaged in Iraq and allocated much of its manpower, spending and political capital to the war in that country, and during which time, Afghanistan was not the priority. For example, in 2007 there were 27000 American troops in Afghanistan, while in Iraq the number was around 155000. This neglect helped the Taliban to strengthen even more.

As part of their evolving policy to gain popularity, they relaxed their restrictions on social behavior. For instance, while in power and even many years later, the Taliban only allowed religious schools for boys and totally forbade girls’ education. Between 2001-2006, the Taliban destroyed over 200 schools, killing tens of students and teachers. Years later, they allowed schools for boys in their territory; but this never meant the Taliban were ultimately sincere or committed in the long term to change their education policy.

Another stereotype which is mainly promoted by the Taliban themselves is that the Taliban are very much tied to martyrdom and going to paradise, which is true, but at the same time, while in wartime, the Taliban have proved to be more subtle operators. There is a famous case in which Taliban leaders trimmed their beards —shaving the beard was punished under the Taliban— to avoid being captured.

Innovation of suicide bombers, an affront to popular understanding of Islam in Afghanistan, came with a utilitarian justification by the Taliban leaders; meaning that as it was proved effective, so it was allowed and justified by their version of Islam. A suicide bomber’s dream might have been paradise, but to a Taliban leader that was an important way to reach their objective.

The Taliban sacrificed dogma for popularity. They sacrificed religious belief for success. They shifted from technophobia to using technology and cyberspace to spread their message and propaganda. They sacrificed the Pashtunwali code, for example, to attack pro-government Pashtuns, again for their ultimate success. The Taliban gradually formed a parallel government and virtual state aiming to become the real government and state over time.

Part of the Taliban success was because of the willingness of the Western media to broadcast the Taliban claims. The Taliban have always used human shields, occupied small towns to maximize collateral civilian deaths caused by Afghan and international forces, and blamed everything on the government and NATO. All their claims were broadcast by the Western media. The Taliban were particularly good at exploiting audience perceptions of the media. For instance, the Taliban removed weapons from the corpses of their dead fighters and made them appear as non-combatant and then showed the bodies to the media.

Some argued the Taliban’s center of gravity was their leader, but they were proved wrong. Because when their leader died, the Taliban could successfully keep it secret for months and finally overcome the leadership issue. In recent years, the Afghan government tried to create divisions among the Taliban by supplying and creating smaller factions,; but that only empowered the Taliban and endangered the Afghan government. As one Taliban faction leader described it once: “…we don’t depend on government, the government depends on us. They think they use us, but no, it is we who are using them and their equipment to advance our own goals…”

What was interesting about the Taliban factions receiving supply from the government is the significant change in their view of the issues. In their propaganda, the Taliban always refer to the Afghan government as “the puppet of the West,” and to those working for the government as “slaves of the slave;” while in wartime, the Taliban received support from the Afghan government without any hesitation, but then cleverly used it against the Afghan government.

While it is not clear how much the Afghan government and its intelligence services have infiltrated the Taliban, it is crystal clear that the Taliban had many sympathizers and infiltrators in the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police; but probably not on a serious scale in the Afghan National Directorate of Security.

In early 2021, the Taliban had around 80,000 full-time fighters and had significant income sources, such as, illegal mining and opium money. In the peace deal with the US, in February 2020, the Taliban guaranteed the freedom of their prisoners —many of them accused of committing serious crimes.

A great many of the reasons why Afghanistan fell so rapidly are related to the Afghans and many of them date back to 2014 when Ashraf Ghani became president, after a fraudulent election, in which he was announced the winner, while his rival, Abdullah, who did not compromise, became Chief Executive Officer, after mediation by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry.

During his time as president, Ghani alienated other groups, by depriving them of any real role in decision-making, and surrounded himself exclusively with Pashtuns. In the multi-ethnic Afghan society, monopolizing power has always been one of the main issues why the nation-building process fails and the governments collapse.

In his election campaign, Ghani promised that he would eradicate corruption. But when in power, he failed to address the issue. Ghost schools and ghost soldiers, for which Afghan authorities were paid, were just a small part of the endemic corruption in the country.

What further demoralized people about the democratic system was the moral corruption of those in power, including the people very close to Ghani. The scale and the level of corruption was incalculable. Even widows of Afghan soldiers had to sexually gratify officers to get pensions; and there were allegations that members of the Afghan administration offered posts in exchange for sexual favors.

There has always been ethnic division and ethnic tension among different groups in Afghanistan. Larger groups usually gained power, with the help of external sources, and in some cases committed atrocities and victimized smaller groups – and they have never been held accountable for what they did, which goes in explaining why there has been so much hatred and so little trust. However, after the new constitution was ratified in 2004, there was hope that a nation would be built from the different ethnic groups.

But people have remained divided, up to the point that even at schools and universities, students of different ethnicities have made ingroups, so that even inside the classrooms the interaction was mainly by way of groups.

If anything ever was national, in the real sense of the term, in the last two decades and probably in the last century, that was the Afghan National Army. For the most part, it was because it was largely trained by the US-led NATO forces, in which ethnic composition, as primarily set by the US, was inclusive, in which all ethnic groups could see themselves as belonging. In the Afghan National Army, soldiers developed profound friendships, bonds, trust and loyalty. Even though while the whole country and institutions were drowning in corruption, the national army maintained some positive motivation, and even gradually gained the trust and respect of ordinary people.

Nevertheless, since 2014, when Ashraf Ghani became the president, the Afghan National Army gradually became an instrument in the hand of the populist president who was accused of ensuring Pashtun domination, even if it came at the cost of ethnic and social division of the country, or strengthened the terrorist group, the Taliban. Since 2014, non-Pashtun generals and officers have continuously been fired or sent to the frontline and killed. Politicizing the Afghan National and Defense Security Forces further weakened it.

Late in 2016, Ghani and, as sarcastically described by some, his “three-man republic” started a campaign to engage the Taliban in peace talks. This campaign, in which apparently millions were spent to spread the idea that the Taliban had changed and it was time to negotiate with them, was flawed. The campaign was not launched after a military gain over the Taliban; but rather it begged and bribed the Taliban to start peace talks. As part of the campaign, in 2018, Ghani offered a careless ceasefire to the Taliban. This miscalculated ceasefire paved the way for the military presence of the Taliban in major cities, including the capital, Kabul, which the Taliban had never left. The Taliban’s presence in the cities gave them the opportunity to campaign for their group by exploiting the mullahs who already sympathized with them.

The idea that Afghanistan did not have a military solution also became attractive in the US. “Peace entrepreneurs” like Khalilzad, who was later appointed as the US Especial Envoy to Afghanistan, took advantage of that idea. Khalilzad emphasized that there was no “military solution” and took the lead mediating peace negotiations on behalf of the US with the Taliban.

Regardless of how much the US authorities lied to the American public about the war in Afghanistan and what had been achieved, Khalilzad’s efforts to make peace or find a way out for the US from Afghanistan were deceitful and irresponsible. His negotiations with the Taliban did not end in peace, led to the emboldening and strengthening of the terrorist group which the US fought for its harboring of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. While the Taliban has never denounced its cooperation or ties with Al-Qaeda, Khalilzad kept assuring everyone that the Taliban had changed and was sincere in its talks, and that the group could become a partner of the US, in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and the region.

While Khalilzad was selling the idea of a “changed Taliban” and that political settlement was possible, the UN reported that the Taliban continuously violated the conditions of the peace deal signed on 29 February 2020, which included a ceasefire, reduction in violence, and engagement in peace talks with the Afghan government. The report indicated that the Taliban, in fact, had increased their attacks, violence and target killings. Most of the five thousand Taliban prisoners, who were released from Afghan government prisons, rejoined the war.

In addition, the Taliban continued applying their Sharia in the territories under their control. Considering all that, it was foreseeable that the withdrawal of the United States and NATO forces would have serious consequences for Afghanistan, particularly for women, and ethnic and religious minority groups.

At the same time. according to the study “Women, Peace and Security Index 2019/20” carried out by Georgetown University, in cooperation with Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Yemen and Afghanistan were the worst countries for women among 167 countries that were studied. Such was the situation when the international forces were – still – in Afghanistan, supporting the Afghan government and the Afghan Army. None of this was taken into account by Khalilzad, who was searching for a way out and very soon.

In effect, Khlilzad was negotiating with his eyes closed. For instance, according to different reports, since last year, the political elite and civil society activists, journalists, and in some cases university professors and intellectuals with clear points of view against the Taliban ideology, fell victim to Taliban targeted killings —which were unclaimed or denied but probably in most cases carried out by the Taliban.

There were various other disturbing signs. Young Taliban sympathizers spoke of a “great revenge” on those who in one way or another were against the Taliban ideology. What that indicated was that the Taliban would have no respect for any commitment they made with the United States, or whatever they said in front of the cameras of the international media. The group was deceiving the whole international community and buying more time. That is why, as soon as the foreign forces left, the Taliban continued to take control of the country by force.

In February 2020, the US and the Taliban signed an Agreement in the Qatari capital of Doha, but with the absence of the Afghan government. Based on this agreement, the Taliban was to stop its offensives against the US and NATO forces; end its ties with Al-Qaeda; not allow Afghanistan’s soil to be used by other transnational terrorist groups to attack the US and its allies; reduce violence and begin intra-Afghan peace dialogue. On the other side, the US would withdraw forces from Afghanistan and guarantee the release of 5000 Taliban fighters.

Months after the agreement was signed, 5000 Taliban prisoners were released, most of whom were reported to have rejoined the Taliban in their Jihad. The Taliban indeed remained committed to not attacking the US and NATO forces after the agreement; but its relation with al-Qaeda continued to exist and even strengthened, and its offensives against the Afghan forces also increased.

In April 2021, US president Biden announced the end of the “forever war” in Afghanistan and the total withdrawal of US troops from the war-torn country. Despite some NATO members, for example, Germany’s approval on extending its military mission in Afghanistan for one more year, the US withdrawal plan consequently led to the withdrawal decision of all NATO forces from Afghanistan. While the date set for the total withdrawal was 11 September, most NATO members had already brought their troops home by early July.

Since the announcement of the withdrawal, violence has surged, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government did not have any result, and the Taliban continued to rapidly overrun a significant number of districts. In June alone, Afghan government forces lost more than 700 military vehicles and other equipment —of course donated to the Afghan army by the US— to the Taliban. The continuous loss of territory and military equipment gave the Taliban fighters’ momentum, and impacted negatively on the Afghan security forces, who no longer had air support from the US forces.

By ending its military presence, the US not only lost its most significant leverage with the Taliban, but also emboldened the group to claim victory by means of jihad. What the international community and the US must take note of is that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan sends a strong signal to other Islamist jihadists in other parts of the world that they too can become winners. Most importantly, the US and the international community should realize that what happens in Afghanistan does not stay in Afghanistan. When terrorism takes stronger roots in Afghanistan, it will pose a threat to the rest of the world.

Now the situation seems pretty similar to when the United States left Iraq, and when ISIS gained strength and started massacring Yazidis and other minorities. The U.S. went back and took part in destroying the ISIS. But in the case of Afghanistan, going back is much more difficult and more costly. What is clear now is that those who were vulnerable before have become even more vulnerable; and as human rights defenders and workers are targeted by the Taliban, the worst fear is that ethnic and religious groups such as the Hazaras could silently face ethnic cleansing or even a genocide in Afghanistan.

As for ethnic minority groups, the Hazaras who make up about 15-20 percent of the country’s estimated 36 million population – but they face a greater danger. Since 2014, they have been targeted several times. First, it is impossible for this Shiite group to adopt to the Sunni Taliban rules. Secondly, they belong to different ethnic groups, possess different physical characteristics, speak different languages, and most importantly, the Hazaras have changed very much in the last two decades.

For example, according to the survey “A Survey of the Afghan People: Afghanistan in 2019,” conducted by The Asian Foundation, “Hazara respondents (92.3%) are more likely to strongly or somewhat agree with women’s equal access to education.” That is the highest level in the country.

Education for girls almost became a universal phenomenon among the Hazaras. But now with the Taliban in power, Hazaras are much more under threat of the Taliban, ISIS-K and other terrorist groups than they were before. Different UN reports indicate that there have been several cases of targeted attacks against the Sikh minority and the Hazara community in the last few years. The last remaining Sikh and Hindus left Afghanistan for India, meaning there is no Hindu left in Afghanistan.

Some groups are preparing for resistance against the Taliban. Compared to other groups, Hazaras have less access to arms, as they handed in their arms as part of the process of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR), administered by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2003.

What really happened? Corruption and tribalism among the Afghan elite, and the inability of the US and NATO to understand the enemy. How could the Taliban not win?


Gabriel Vilanova is the pseudonym of a young Afghan scholar whose memoirs, Afganistán: Una república del silencio. Recuerdos de un estudiante afgano, have recently been published in Spain.


The featured image shows the work of the graffiti artist, Shamsia Hassani, in Kabul, ca. 2013.

Mute And Beaten: The Future Of Women Under The Taliban

It is now 26 years since the Taliban captured the attention of the world’s media. They were men wearing black turbans, under a white flag, and calling themselves the Islamic Emirate; they soon seized power. With them, a time of darkness, despair, helplessness and misery spread throughout Afghanistan. And when that plague passed, Afghan society was much poorer, and women, who had always been weak, became even weaker, having been denied the right to work and to education; only to be stoned, whipped, tortured and subjected to forced marriages.

After the fall of the Taliban regime, and thanks to international intervention, Afghan women saw the sun rise again and, at least in the cities, were able to have the opportunity to access education, participate in political life, and realize their dreams of leading a more dignified life, and fighting for equality and dignity, two things hitherto reserved only for men. They were able to study at universities and become musicians, artists, political activists, journalists and sportswomen. But with the return of the Taliban, they will no longer enter schools and universities. No woman or girl will be able to sing, play any instrument, dance, or be a teacher in a school or university. After the final withdrawal of the NATO troops, and now under the Taliban, there will never be another new dawn for these women who are now without a future.

Since Biden announced his final withdrawal, the Taliban continued to gain ground until they captured the country. Afghanistan’s 34 provinces consist of districts, or counties, which are basically made up of villages, are organized around the provincial capital. The rural world was always practically Taliban. So, all that remained was the fall of the cities, which has now happened. When a district falls into the hands of the Taliban, the first thing they do is impose their system of prohibitions, which are almost always focused on the lives of women and girls. It is well known what that is all about – prohibition to engage in any kind of salaried work, to study anything at any educational level, and to leave home without wearing the burqa that covers the whole body from head to toe, including the face, and only allows women to see the world through a grille. Under the new Taliban rule, all women will have to wear this type of attire that was once only used in the southern provinces.

In recent years, the U.S. representative for Afghanistan has acted as a mediator in a negotiation with the Taliban. Khalilzad, that is his name, repeated again and again: “The Taliban are no longer the same; they have changed;” and they no longer treat women so badly. But what happened in areas under Taliban control was exactly the opposite. One of the leaders of that group, Sayed Akbar Agha, defined women as beings “deficient in their religious practice and beings of limited intelligence.” And it is on the basis of that idea that the entire treatment of women proceeds.

The first thing the Taliban does, when they take over a district, is to close the girls’ schools. Then they prohibit salaried work, and the leaving of the house without the burqa and a male companion who must be a family member. So, now, again as in the 1990s, Afghanistan has become a prison, where women live confined to their homes and inside the portable cell that is the burqa. And there are also the well-known degrading punishments in public – the whipping and stoning. But there are also other things that the Taliban do that are less well-known and are rarely shown to the public. The Taliban, like other terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have a long history of rape and female sexual servitude, mainly involving non-Pashtun women living in the most remote and isolated areas. As an Afghan proverb says: “God never listens to the braying of an ass,” which means that in those remote areas you can do whatever you want, because no one will be the wiser.

In the 1990s, the Taliban turned girls from orphanages into sex slaves. They forcibly married them off and sold them by the hundreds, along with girls and adult women, to Pakistani and Arab members of Al-Qaeda, who fought jihad in the ranks of the Taliban. Nor has anything changed in the way the Taliban treat women, according to their interpretation of Islam. In hundreds of cases, then and now again, the Taliban sentence them to public floggings, for such things as talking to a man, or calling him on the phone. And the penalty of stoning for adultery applies to any kind of sexual intercourse, full or not, outside marriage.

Takhar is a largely Tajik province, located in the north of the country, which fell in its entirety to the Taliban. Refugees from it, told how the Taliban have not only closed all the girls’ schools, but also burned the houses and destroyed the crops. And they forced the creation of lists of unmarried women or widows under the age of 45, to marry them off to the jihadists, or send them to Waziristan, a region of Pakistan that needs to be “re-Islamized.”

In a recent interview with an independent radio station in Kabul, an MP from Takhar, Habiba Danish, an engineer, named, Amir Mohammad Khashar, and a physician, Dr. Sharaf-ul Din Aaini confirmed the mistreatment that the Taliban inflicted on the people of that province. In the Rostaq district, forced marriages were implemented. Of course, the main Taliban leader, Zabibullah Mujahid, has denied it all. But that is the usual modus operandi for the Taliban. The imposition of the burqa in that province has immediately raised this garment’s market price from 400 to 1,600 Afghanis.

If the Taliban triumph for good, in addition to all the misfortunes that will befall the country, a whole generation of women and girls will wear the burqa for the first time in their lives. The majority of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 25, and many millions of them are girls and young women. For twenty years they used to wear the veil of their choice. To go totally hidden under a burqa will be a very painful experience for women who were workers, students, doctors, journalists, lawyers, teachers, artists or merchants – all professions that they will have to leave, causing enormous damage to the country, which will thus lose a good part of its most qualified professionals. What awaits them is a future of confinement, in which just expressing an opinion can be a crime in the eyes of fanatics who usurp the name of God every day. In Takhar province, for example, a Taliban commander told the inhabitants: “Anyone who does not swear absolute allegiance to the supreme leader of the Taliban will be out of Islam, even if he practices prayer and fasting.”

Over the past few months, women journalists have had to stop being journalists and flee the country to escape the Taliban’s return. Teachers, professors, nurses, doctors, artists, actresses, singers and sportswomen watch in terror as the Taliban now control the cities. Is there any hope left for them here on earth? The Book of Revelation, 21:4 says: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.”

Where else but heaven can Afghan women look to when they are forced to kneel? Can they look to the West, where no one wants to see them? Western men and women say that all these things I am talking about happen in Afghanistan because the East is the East, and besides, Afghanistan is thousands and thousands of miles away. It is very far. That is true. But for many centuries Western women were also forced to be humiliated and to kneel; and in a world where everything changes that could happen again in the future. Let us hope that it will never be so, and that the women in the East will not say that such things are happening in the West, a place so far away, a place where the sun sets.


Gabriel Vilanova is the pseudonym of a young Afghan scholar whose memoirs, Afganistán: Una república del silencio. Recuerdos de un estudiante afgano, have recently been published in Spain.


The featured image shows an untitled piece by a woman Afghan painter, from the University of Kabul. If anyone knows the identity of this piece and its painter, please let us know.