- Matthieu Aikinscontributing writer for The New York Times Magazine.
One year after the Taliban seized power again in Afghanistan, we look at the new government’s crackdown on women’s rights while millions of Afghans go hungry. We speak to journalist Matthieu Aikins, who visited the capital Kabul for the first time since the U.S. evacuation one year ago. He writes the country is being “kept on humanitarian life support” in his recent article for The New York Times Magazine. The Biden administration’s economic sanctions are causing Afghanistan to spiral into a financial crisis, making the U.S. “at once both the largest funder of humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan and one of the main causes of the humanitarian crisis with these sanctions,” says Aikins.
AMY GOODMAN: Monday will mark one year since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan as the U.S. withdrew troops nearly two decades after the 2001 U.S. invasion. Afghanistan today is facing what the United Nations says is the world’s largest humanitarian disaster, with more than half the country’s residents facing starvation. Meanwhile, the Taliban continues to crack down on human rights and has barred girls from attending high school for the past year. The Taliban is also facing accusations of harboring leaders of al-Qaeda. Last week, the United States announced it had killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in downtown Kabul. This all comes as Afghanistan is facing a dire economic crisis, in part because the Biden administration seized $7 billion of Afghanistan foreign reserves held in U.S. banks.
We’re joined now by the award-winning reporter Matthieu Aikins, who has reported on Afghanistan since 2008. He was in Kabul last year when the city fell to the Taliban, and he returned to Afghanistan in May to report on current conditions. He’s just written a piece for The New York Times Magazine titled “The Taliban’s Dangerous Collision Course With the West.” Earlier this year, Matt Aikins published his first book, The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees.
Matt Aikins, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you lay out your findings as we mark this first year of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, hi, Amy. Thanks for having me, as always.
I went back in order to understand what had happened during the Taliban’s first year in power. And as you recall, the girls’ school issue was really a litmus test for whether they had changed, whether they would govern differently this time than they did during their first government in the '90s, where they didn't allow women to be educated. And they did allow girls to go back to elementary schools, to universities, but they hadn’t opened girls’ public high schools yet. They had promised to do so. They said it was just temporary. And this was going to happen on March 23rd, which was the first day of class for Afghan schools. And the girls went to school. They were filmed going to class, because this was supposed to be a hopeful day. And then word came out that day that, no, the schools wouldn’t open. The girls were sent home crying. It was an embarrassing debacle for the government. And I remember at the time not just being — not only being very disappointed and heartbroken, but baffled. Why would the Taliban change their mind at the last minute like this? So that’s what I went back to find out.
And in my interviews and meetings with Taliban officials in Kabul, including at the Education Ministry, what I actually discovered was that many of them had been in favor of reopening the girls’ schools. They saw it, you know, as something that was very much in their interest, not least because the international community was spending billions of dollars to avert humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan. So they had prepared a plan to reopen the schools, but at the last minute word came from Kandahar that the schools would not reopen, because it turned out that it wasn’t really up to the officials in Kabul. The true power in the movement lies in Kandahar with the supreme leader and the Leadership Council.
AMY GOODMAN: So, who really controls what’s happening in Afghanistan within the Taliban?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, you know, it’s really interesting how mysterious and opaque some of this decision-making is. Even some of the senior Taliban officials that I spoke to admitted to me in private that they weren’t fully sure how these decisions were being made or what exactly the role of the supreme leader, Sheikh Hibatullah, was.
But, in essence, to understand how power works in the Taliban, you have to look back at the first government in the ’90s, when you had sort of two governments. You had the formal cabinet in Kabul, and then you had another government led by the — then the supreme leader, Mullah Omar, who never left Kandahar, who stayed in Kandahar and governed with a close council, or shura, of other senior Taliban leaders, a kind of shadow government. Now, that became the leadership of the insurgency for the last 20 years when they went underground in Pakistan, became known as the Quetta Shura. And then, after the Taliban suddenly seized power last summer, which is something that surprised even them, that government became grafted onto the current Kabul administration.
So, you have the supreme leader in Kandahar. You have a small group around him that operates based on consensus. And some of the hard-liners in that group, who are opposed to reopening girls’ schools, essentially were able to block what much of the officials in Kabul, including some of the deputies, like Siraj Haqqani, Mullah Yaqoob, the defense minister — they were in favor of reopening girls’ schools, but the hard-liners, in essence, blocked it.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Afghanistan overall, Kabul and the more rural areas, and what this divide looks like, how it’s playing out. And then we’ll get into this humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, perhaps the worst in the world, as so much of the country faces hunger.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: So, the Taliban, again, in their first government in the '90s, they were really trying to bring back this idea of the virtuous village lifestyle. This was a time of chaos and corruption in the civil war. And in these rural villages, which are very conservative, particularly in the south, in Pashtun areas, women don't really leave the house. It’s a very strictly gender-segregated society. And this is the model that they tried to impose across Afghan society as a whole in the ’90s with a lot of repression and brutality.
And today there’s a battle playing out within the movement over whether that vision still holds. And the fact of the matter is that even if the Taliban haven’t changed, Afghan society has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. You know, millions of girls have gone to school and been educated. Their families have seen the benefits of that education. And some of the more pragmatic Taliban that I spoke to in Kabul, they really understand that that reality has changed, and they are trying to adapt, as well. They have their own strict Islamist vision, but they see that girls can go to school, they can go to the office, as long as they’re veiled, as long as they’re separated from men.
So, that is essentially the tension between, you could say, the city and the countryside that’s playing out within the Taliban movement itself. And unfortunately, for now, we see the hard-liners have won. But it is important to remember that there is, you know, these internal dynamics within the movement, that hopefully could lead to more reform in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: According to the United Nations, nearly 1.1 million Afghan children under the age of 5 are expected to experience severe malnutrition this year. This is Melanie Galvin, the chief of nutrition at UNICEF, speaking in Kabul.
MELANIE GALVIN: I think we need — in the longer term, we’re still going to need a great deal of funding to just treat these children. In 2023, I will have a problem — I will have a gap in supply, for example, if there isn’t additional resources that come into the country. So, we’ve done everything we can with the donations we’ve had, and we’re so grateful for them, but this need will continue. It’s not going to stop.
AMY GOODMAN: So, according to the U.N., half the population faces hunger. Talk about the resources the Taliban have access to — for example, the U.S. freezing billions of dollars of Afghan money, and what that means, how that plays out in Afghanistan.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Sure. Well, I think it’s important to understand that even though the U.S. and its allies spent more than $100 billion on development aid in Afghanistan over the last 20 years, it remained one of the poorest and most aid-dependent countries in the world. And that was, in part, due to all the corruption that flourished with this uncontrolled spending, much of it by contractors.
And so, when that aid was suddenly cut off after the Taliban seized power last August, it had the predictable consequence of causing an economic collapse. Government salaries are going unpaid — teachers, medical workers. So the country is now facing a dire economic crisis. It’s being kept on humanitarian life support by a massive humanitarian surge. There’s now more aid workers working for these agencies in Afghanistan today than there was before the collapse of the government last August, the withdrawal of U.S. forces. And that means that the U.S. and its allies are actually funding these humanitarian efforts. They’re cooperating with the Taliban.
But, of course, the U.S. did also seize the Afghan bank assets that were held in the U.S., $7 billion, and they’ve earmarked half of that for victims of 9/11, their families. Now, that puts the U.S. in a funny position, because it is at once both the largest funder of humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan and one of the main causes of the humanitarian crisis with these sanctions.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what is the U.S. doing with that money?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Right now it’s on ice. And there is talk about returning the other $3.5 billion to the Afghan — you know, to Afghans. Now, they haven’t — they’re not going to give it to the Taliban, but they’re in negotiations right now to set up maybe some sort of trust fund, or something like that, that could be used to recapitalize the financial sector.
But one of the big problems facing Afghanistan today is that its economy is paralyzed by these sanctions, and a lot of other knock-on effects. You know, other banks don’t want to do business with Afghan banks because of some very genuine concerns, for example, over terrorism and money laundering. But what that means, in essence, is that the Afghan economy isn’t able to stand on its own feet. It’s dependent right now on external aid. The U.N. is actually flying in pallets of $100 bills, more than a billion dollars to date that they’re flying into Kabul, and that’s essentially keeping the economy on life support.
But, you know, one of the interesting things that I realized after this last year since the collapse of the republic is that, in a sense, for the U.S. and its allies, the crisis in Afghanistan has been contained somewhat. You know, it’s been contained through this massive humanitarian surge through these agencies that are cleaning up after political messes, not just in Afghanistan but in places like Somalia or Yemen. It’s feeding Afghans hand to mouth. The migration flows of refugees to Europe have been contained by all the border walls that have helped cage Afghans inside their country. So, even despite the massive suffering in Afghanistan, I think that there’s a sense it’s been contained. And in a strange way, the Taliban have played a stabilizing role in that. And I think there’s been, actually, a normalization of the relationships with a lot of countries in the region, who see the Taliban as possibly just keeping a lid on things in Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the U.S. drone killing of Zawahiri — were you surprised by this, the killing of the al-Qaeda leader? — and the fact that he was in a house owned by Haqqani, and what that means.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yeah. I mean, I used to go jogging, basically, right by that street every morning when I was in Kabul — the mornings I got up early enough, anyways. And so it’s right in the middle of the city. And it was surprising to see the drone strike there, in a house that used to be rented by USAID contractors, actually, and in area that was occupied by warlords after 2001.
But this really does show the limits of that containment strategy that I just spoke about. And the fact of the matter is that if Afghanistan again becomes a threat to its neighbors, as it did in the ’90s because of groups like al-Qaeda, then you could see a, you know, intervention on the side of the armed resistance to the Taliban that could spark a new cycle of the civil war.
But at the same time, I do think that it’s important to remember that these groups have a long-standing relation with the Taliban. They got closer, actually, when they jointly resisted the U.S. occupation over the last 20 years. And so, the Taliban are in kind of a tricky place, where they can’t reject these groups, but they can’t send them elsewhere, obviously. So, it’s possible that by keeping al-Zawahiri in Kabul, it was a way of keeping him under supervision. But we really don’t know the details. I was told by a senior U.S. official that, according to their information, much of the Taliban leadership was actually unaware that al-Zawahiri was in Kabul, and that it was the work of a faction connected to Haqqani, the Interior Ministry, in sheltering him.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, al-Haqqani is the interior minister.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: That’s right, yeah, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is, you know, long been held to be one of the fiercest opponents of the U.S., was responsible for many attacks, is designated as a terrorist by the FBI, has a bounty on his head — and also happens to be one of the most socially, quote-unquote, “progressive” of the Taliban. He and the group around him who occupy many ministries in Kabul have been some of the most vocal proponents of letting the girls go back to school, have helped out a lot of aid agencies, and they’ve had trouble with other elements of the Taliban over their female workers. So, it just shows the very difficult contradictions that play in the country and, I think, the need for understanding better the dynamics there.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you spend a good amount of time in your piece highlighting maternal healthcare. The Taliban has a contradiction, because, on the one hand, many in the leadership, a number, don’t want girls and women educated, but they only allow women doctors and nurses to deal with women in maternity hospitals. Talk about this.
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yeah, so, that’s the irony, in essence. Because they only need women to deal with women, they need women doctors, which means you need women teachers. And so, there will always be this core of educated Afghan women. Even in the ’90s, the Taliban allowed doctors, female doctors, to continue working in some areas.
So, today you have women working — you have a lot of women working in Afghanistan. I thought that was important to show. I went to this hospital which is being supported by the Red Cross, the ICRC, and I met these women doctors who are doing heroic, lifesaving work. They’re helping women who are coming in now from more distant rural areas because there’s peace in Afghanistan, at least. There is security on the roads, and so women are coming in in really rough condition from places where they would have just died at home. They’re saving their lives. These women are working hard.
But the fact of the matter is, is if you don’t allow girls to go back to high school, then you’re not going to have girls in university, you’re not going to have girls in medical school school, and eventually this pipeline of Afghanistan’s nurses and doctors, women doctors, is going to run out. And so, that’s really, I think, the most compelling reason. It’s not for international aid or Western approval that the Taliban should allow girls to go back to school; it’s for the own country’s interest. It’s for the sake of their own daughters.
And I think that there are some people in the Taliban who understand that. They’ve been blocked by the hard-liners. But we can only hope that, especially with internal pressure from the many Afghans who are speaking up in favor of women’s rights, that they will see the light and allow the girls to go back to school.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Matthieu Aikins, 20 years — more than 20 years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, they left, and left it, would you say, in worse shape than the U.S., when they invaded Afghanistan? And how do Afghans feel about this?
MATTHIEU AIKINS: Look, I think it’s unfair to say that it’s in worse shape than it was in 2001, when the country was ravaged, destroyed, impoverished. There have been a lot of gains over the last 20 years. Afghans have rebuilt their country themselves. But it came at such a high price in terms of bloodshed and suffering, the damage that the war did to the fabric of society, the refugees.
So, the fact of the matter is that today Afghanistan is again in crisis, but we don’t have the same tools to deal with it. And we’re not occupying it anymore militarily. Afghan girls are no longer the poster children for our war there. And there’s a limit to what we can accomplish, but I don’t think that means that our obligation to the country has disappeared. I think that we still need to keep the spotlight on Afghanistan. We still need to do all that we can to support Afghans outside the country and especially inside the country, who are still struggling. And that includes the girls who want to go to high school. And so, we absolutely need to keep our relationship alive with this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Matthieu Aikins, contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, author of The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey with Afghan Refugees. We’ll link to your new article, “The Taliban’s Dangerous Collision Course With the West.”
Coming up, a jury in California has convicted a former Twitter worker of spying for Saudi Arabia by providing the kingdom private information about Saudi dissidents. We’ll speak with the sister of an imprisoned Saudi man who was tortured and jailed for running a satirical Twitter account. It was anonymous. Stay with us.