One year of Taliban: Where are Saleh and Ghani as Afghanistan slips deeper into chaos?
On Monday, Taliban fighters fired their guns in the air and waved black and white flags while marching on Afghanistan's streets to celebrate the first anniversary of their takeover of Kabul.
But the jubilation hid a humanitarian crisis. The country has slipped deeper into chaos: millions more are now battling poverty, and even hunger, in the face of few jobs and rising inflation in a collapsing economy. And girls and women face restricted access to education and work, contrary to promises of greater gender parity this time around.
While killings of civilians and those from the previous government have dropped slightly, it cannot mask the bleaker future at which Afghanistan is staring. One of the questions being asked in the current situation is: Where are Amrullah Saleh and Ashraf Ghani, once the faces of resistance and surrender, respectively? Another question is, what's Afghanistan's future now as the world seems to be growing, even if out of compulsion, more "tolerant" of the Taliban? But first, Ghani and Saleh.
Ousted president Ashraf Ghani is living in exile in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). On Sunday, he appeared on a CNN show to say the Trump administration's deal intending to lead to the withdrawal of US forces ultimately executed by Joe Biden from the country was a disaster.
Ghani fled Afghanistan as his western-backed government caved in, and his demotivated troops mostly surrendered after a series of stunningly one-sided battles across the country to a Taliban surge allegedly backed by Pakistani elements.
"I want to be able to help my country heal. And I hope to be able to do that from the place that every cell of my body belongs and without which I always feel alien," Ghani said in remarks seen by many as an attempt to somehow justify his abandoning his country and blame the US for the crisis Afghanistan is in today.
Ghani's then-secret escape came amid the US and Nato forces leaving Afghanistan in a scramble through precariously secured passages mobbed by ordinary Afghans also desperate to flee their country as the Islamist insurgents roamed around shooting people and terrorists, freed from jails, carried out bombings. This was after two decades of an unsuccessful war against the Taliban and other terror groups, triggered by the 9/11 attacks.
Ousted vice-president Amrullah Saleh left Kabul ahead of the Taliban takeover for the Panjshir Valley to run the operations of a National Resistance Front (NRF) with the son of his former ally, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the slain Northern Alliance general. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan announced the formation of a new government. Saleh declared himself the caretaker president of Afghanistan. But all this did not mean much. After days of fighting in and around the Panjshir Valley, the Taliban claimed to have defeated the NRF. But Saleh remains active, at least on Twitter.
On August 15, which marked the first anniversary of Kabul's takeover, Saleh tweeted that dozens of Taliban fighters were captured and some were killed in a surprise coordinated attack by the NRF and that "the brave heroes would soon release the footage of this magnificent attack." Saleh also said Afghanistan cannot not be swallowed by Pakistan and its proxies.
While wishing India on its Independence Day, Saleh said, "August 15 is a bitter coincidence for Afghans who mourn the creepy occupation of their country by the Pakistan-backed Taliban. This should be fixed and it will. This black dot will be removed from our calendar. Afghans will regain their freedom." There is no independent verification of Saleh's location or his claims of the NRF still fighting or even capturing and killing Taliban fighters.
Be that as it may, a year after Kabul's takeover, millions of Afghans are faced with a bleaker future. The Taliban have not shown themselves to be any different from who they were while first ruling Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, when western forces dislodged them from power and installed a local government.
Girls have been denied access to post-primary education and women can work but under stifling restrictions, despite the Taliban initially claiming they have changed their approach to these issues. Regulations on clothing and laws forbidding access to public areas without a male guardian have been enforced.
There have been about 800 civilian deaths in Afghanistan since August 15, 2021, lower than the numbers seen earlier. And nearly half of these deaths are from terror attacks by the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) group. But there has been a substantial jump in human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, detentions and torture by the Taliban, according to a United Nations report. Between August 2021 and June 2022, Afghanistan saw 160 extrajudicial killings of former government and security force officials.
The Taliban are chanting "death to the United States" in front of the American embassy as they are trained to risk isolation but they are clearly struggling to govern. To be fair, governance never really featured highly on their CV. As per international estimates, the Afghan economy has contracted by 40 per cent in a year. There are disease outbreaks in the absence of doctors and medicines.
Unemployment rates are soaring. The United Nations estimates that up to 900,000 jobs could be lost this year as the economy sinks. Food insecurity is perhaps the most significant crisis. About 25 million Afghans are now living in poverty. This is well over half the country's population that's been hit hard by spiralling prices of essentials.
International aid remains snapped. And the Taliban's access to Afghanistan's foreign exchange reserves in the US and other countries is still frozen for apparent reasons. This has made matters only worse. And a total economic collapse, which seems imminent, will only worsen this tremendous humanitarian crisis.