New report on Afghanistan reconstruction shows bleak outlook for women

New report on Afghanistan reconstruction shows bleak outlook for women

Nearly a year since the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, the humanitarian crisis and human rights record under the Taliban remains dire. 

Despite the demands of the U.S. and many in the international community, the rights of women in Afghanistan have deteriorated to a level unseen since the Taliban first imposed its repressive policies in the 1990s.

A quarterly report released Tuesday by the special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that the USAID, State and Defense Department disbursed at least $787 million to programs focused on women and girls from 2002 to 2020. 

The report found that while opportunities for Afghan women “slowly increased” over the course of those two decades, ultimately, women’s rights in Afghanistan “failed to achieve the structural change the U.S. and international partners had envisioned.” 

There were a number of obstacles, including “inconsistent implementation” by the prior Afghan government of women’s rights policies and “ingrained traditional social norms,” among others. And the ongoing Taliban insurgency meant that women “generally faced a hostile environment,” the report said. 

The U.S. continues to be the single largest aid donor to Afghanistan, providing $774 million in contributions since August 2021. But even with the infusion of cash that continues in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover, it has been hard for aid agencies to figure out how to distribute it. 

Many aid organizations have either relocated most of their staff or left the country. Thousands of qualified Afghans who would have helped with this work are no longer on the ground. Further, aid organizations have not yet come up with a system for working under the Taliban regime. 

“The world community pledged more than $1 billion in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan but delivering assistance to the most vulnerable people will require negotiations with the Taliban-led government, which has still not been internationally recognized,” one USAID report said. 

“The world cannot forget that over the last 40 years, many massive refugee outflows began in Afghanistan, including most recently into Europe in 2015,” said Peter Kessler, UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson, to CBS News. “Afghanistan should not be allowed to fall back into the isolation and economic deprivation that saw people here and around the world suffer in the late 1990s,” when the Taliban first came to power, in the vacuum left by the departure of the Soviets.

Women must now cover themselves when in public and are subject to punishment including jail time for failure to abide by the Taliban’s restrictions. Its Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice decrees that the “best” hijab for women is not to leave the house at all. 

In March, the Taliban banned access for girls to secondary education. The U.S. responded by canceling talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar about the $7 billion in Afghan Central Bank assets currently held in the U.S. 

With women largely excluded from employment opportunities and education, there has been an increase in forced marriages according to local media reports cited by SIGAR. Despite the ban, USAID partners found “that some girls’ secondary and upper secondary schools have been able to operate in six to nine provinces.” 

At least half the country’s population is living on less than $1.90 a day. The UN World Food Programme estimates 92% of the population faces some level of food insecurity and 3 million children are at risk of acute malnutrition. 

The deteriorating economic conditions have increased the population’s vulnerability to the influence and recruitment by ISIS-K, according to the report. It warns that economic problems could distract the Taliban from acting against ISIS-K and other potential terrorist groups.  

ISIS-K, ISIS’ affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, claimed responsibility for the attack outside the Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and dozens of Afghan evacuees nearly a year ago, in the final chaotic days of the U.S. withdrawal. The report released Tuesday said the group had about 2,000 members as of April 2022. 

The U.S. has had some engagement with representatives from the Taliban, including discussions on the Taliban’s commitment made in February 2020 about counterterrorism. 

Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Congress in May that al Qaeda so far has had difficulties reconstituting its leadership and “to a degree,” the Taliban have kept their word about not allowing al Qaeda to rejuvenate. On Monday, President Biden announced a major blow to al Quaeda – the last top planner of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., Ayman al-Zawahiri, known as Osama bin Laden’s No. 2 man, was killed by the U.S. over the weekend at a safehouse in Kabul. 

No country so far has recognized the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan, but several countries, including China, have accepted Taliban diplomats. In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Kabul to discuss Afghanistan’s mining sector and the role it could play in Chinese infrastructure projects with Taliban leadership. 

The war in Ukraine could exacerbate the problems Afghanistan is facing, according to the report, because Afghanistan relies heavily on imported food and fuel, and on the generosity of  international donors, whose attention could focus more and more on Ukraine instead of Afghanistan. 

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