Let's face it. Afghanistan has lately been getting buried under a mound of newer issues coming up around the globe. The crisis over Ukraine is one. Add to that the endless battle against the coronavirus pandemic and the desperate efforts by governments everywhere to roll it back. There is then the spate of coups which has been seizing increasingly big swathes of Africa. Boris Johnson is fighting for political survival, with all those reports of Downing Street parties in lockdown seeping in. And American politicians in Congress remain busy trying to prove Donald Trump's criminality around the happenings of 6 January 2021.
In effect, the world appears to be getting too busy to notice the ongoing agony of Afghanistan. The spectacle of an old woman digging out a few potatoes she had earlier buried in the ground, to provide a meagre amount of food for her starving family in the bitter cold, reminds us of the pains Afghans have been going through since the Taliban reclaimed the country in August last year. Little children, unable to afford shoes, stand barefoot in the snow, trying to warm themselves in the cold sun. Meanwhile, their naked feet are overtaken by blisters. Men who once were employed are today without jobs because their employers cannot pay their salaries. And the employers cannot pay because the government has no cash.
One would not be wrong in suggesting that Afghanistan is today a God-forsaken country. Poverty has seized as much as 98 percent of Afghans in its grip. Since August, when American and Nato forces went for a hasty, chaotic withdrawal from the country, 500,000 Afghans have lost their jobs. Their families thus have no food on the table. By June this year, it is projected that another 200,000 will be added to this number. No fewer than 8.7 million Afghans are on the brink of starvation. And that is what the United Nations informs us. The country is in dire need of US$8.8 billion for its economy to stabilize, somewhat. That money is nowhere to be found. And with that comes the larger issue of all the Afghan money which is in western banks and which western governments, especially the United States, have so far refused to hand over to the Taliban.
It is a complex situation. The Taliban are yet to be acknowledged as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. And conveniently overlooked here is the fact that the Taliban, despite all the reservations about them, are not a foreign occupying power. They have only reclaimed their country twenty years after they lost it to the West in the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States. That does not, however, absolve the Taliban of the infractions they have committed since returning to power in Kabul. Their policy on women have not yet inspired confidence around the world in their ability to administer the country in line with modern standards of governance. Their repressive steps against women continue to arouse very legitimate concerns in global capitals. Banning women from work and preventing girls from going to school beyond grade six are not exactly measures that make the world happy.
A Taliban delegation has been to Oslo to talk about aid. Some of the important figures in the Taliban have been to Moscow. The Taliban have also been in contact with the Chinese authorities. These contacts are a sign of the desperation in which the Taliban find themselves. It is once again a hint of a larger truth, which is that an outfit basing itself on little more than religious fundamentalism is by and large unable to work out a system of governance. It is unable to reach out to the larger population. Besides, when its policies are perceived to be, indeed are, discriminatory toward a very large component of the population, it little qualifies to be a government in the proper sense of the meaning. In their earlier stint in power, the Taliban made an absolute mess of things. Now that they are back, one would have thought they would go about doing their work better than they did in the past. That is yet to happen.
The sad reality is that the Taliban remain notorious for their misogyny. A very large group of accomplished Afghan women --- university students, academics, media persons, medical personnel, lawmakers and others --- are mostly in hiding, with a handful having made their way out of the country. The message is obvious: while the Taliban are legitimately in control of Afghanistan, their policies are yet to convince the world that they mean to fulfil the aspirations of all Afghans through good governance. Their repressive measures against women do not do them any favours. It matters little what the central Taliban leadership in the capital Kabul says about women's rights. The problems arise from within the country, where gun-toting Taliban elements have been exercising their own independent authority as distinct from the authority of the men in Kabul. Reports of women being persecuted, even killed, have been disturbing. Conditions have not been comfortable for Afghan men, those who do not agree with the policies of the Taliban, either.
Conditions are stark. In addition to the figures from the UN about Afghans facing hunger, the Red Cross paints a dismal picture of 23 million Afghans staring at starvation. Government employees have not received their salaries for months. Men with no jobs sit on the streets, wondering about the fate of their families. Poverty, touching as it has the entire country, has compelled a million children between the ages of five and seventeen into working to ensure bare survival for their families.
The bottom line cannot be missed. Afghanistan needs to be back on the world's agenda. Afghanistan's frozen assets abroad, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has made it clear, will need to be released in order for the Taliban to bring back a semblance of normality in the country. Meanwhile, the West will need to engage more, and without break, with the Taliban to induce them to undertake measures that will convince the world that Afghanistan's people, including girls and women, will benefit from them. For their part, the Taliban should persuade themselves into accepting the idea that in a rules-based world, they cannot expect to operate through a weaponizing of medievalism.
Forgetting Afghanistan and its needs can only leave the door open for future dangers to arise. Given Afghanistan's history and the resilience of its people, the country must remain a priority at deliberations in the councils of the world.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer.