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My trip to Afghanistan, 1.5 years after the Taliban takeover

The Taliban claim to have won the war, they are in power and they do not use this power responsibly, to say the least. Poverty is rising drastically, so is the number of child marriages agreed to by children’s parents out of desperation. Girls are no longer allowed to go to secondary school or university, the curriculum for boy’s schools starting grade 4 is replaced with religious teaching. Ever new draconian rules and decrees make it difficult for women to exercise their jobs in all professions; in some fields, they are even banned from going to work. A growing number of decrees clearly are aimed at making women disappear from public life and relegating them to the private sphere and to activities that are stereotypically associated with women, such as household chores. This system can and should be described as Gender Apartheid. And it is difficult to imagine how the Taliban envision a country to prosper where most boys are raised with next to no knowledge outside of radical religious teachings and where girls are treated as second-class citizens deprived of secondary education. Suicide rates – where we have facts – are rising; many Afghans still want to leave the country. The Afghanistan of the Taliban is a ticking time bomb and we, the international community, can and should not look away only because there are no easy answers.

At the same time, life continues in Afghanistan and men and women put their lives at risk to make ends meet and support women and girls in all parts of the country. Humanitarian organisations negotiate pragmatic deals so that they can continue to work in a principled way. Journalists continue to resist the Taliban’s interference in their work and adapt their working methods. Various Afghan organisations coordinate political dialogues between the Taliban and Afghan citizens, including women’s organisations, representatives of tribal leaders and ethnic minorities, on the local level. One and a half year after the withdrawal of international troops, those who decided to stay show an admirable amount of resilience – and they want to know us by their side.

This is just a short summary of the context in which I travelled to Afghanistan for the second time after the withdrawal of international troops from the country (here you may find a report about my first trip). I was, once again, hosted by the “minimal presence” of the EU delegation in Kabul (which has considerably grown since my last visit) and used my four days in the country to meet with women’s organisations, NGOs working on education and social services, humanitarian organisations, business women, human rights groups, media representatives and officials from the EU and UN.

Just before my trip to Afghanistan, the European Parliament had called for the release of education activist Matiullah Wesa in an urgency resolution that I had initiated, and the EU Foreign Affairs Council as well as the UN Security Council had issued resolutions on Afghanistan. While I was in Kabul, UN Secretary-General António Guterres met with Special Envoys of different countries in Doha.

My report below builds on various meetings with stakeholders in the country and focuses on the following 6 key aspects (click to skip to the respective recommendation):

Humanitarian Aid: Upholding Humanitarian Principles despite Taliban restrictions

On December 24, 2022 (so on Christmas Eve, where most people in the West were ready for celebrations and a joint response was difficult to coordinate) the Taliban issued a decree directly targeting the support of the international community to the Afghan people desperately in need: Women are no longer allowed to work for NGOs. And as the Taliban clarified on April 5, this decree extends to female Afghan staff of the United Nations. The announcement has shaken the international community, as it clearly undermines its capacity to deliver aid to the most vulnerable. In a highly gender-segregated society such as Afghanistan, it is often women who need to treat women in hospitals, teach girls in schools, interview other women for humanitarian needs assessments or to hand out food baskets to women-led households. Therefore, it is of little surprise that this ban has triggered a sad debate amongst donors: Can we continue to work in Afghanistan? With this decree, the Taliban have heavily politicised humanitarian aid. They are even willing to sacrifice millions of Afghan people threatened with starvation for their Gender Apartheid ideology.

The first response of the international community to this challenge was the following: Humanitarian aid and Basic Needs support continues, wherever it can be delivered in line with Humanitarian Principles (humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence). Towards this end, humanitarian organisations had to work out agreements with local actors and adapt project implementation plans. What sounds very technical meant and means an enormous burden for them: Dealing with an arbitrary bureaucracy, with a variety of local actors including the Taliban, shouldering a huge responsibility for their women staff and responding to drastic poverty with increasingly scarce resources.

The education and health sectors – and in some regions, also all kinds of projects focusing on humanitarian aid and basic needs – were later on exempted from the ban. Yet, in many organisations, it remains difficult for women to work in the office. However, most can work in the field as before. In parallel, an additional framework and monitoring mechanism linked to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) was established. Its aim is to track the impact of the ban and local arrangements on women’s representation in the work force and amongst aid recipients, as well as to assess whether a meaningful and principled implementation of projects is still possible under the new circumstances.

An informal assessment conducted by humanitarian organisations indicates that between 70% and 75% percent of projects can be implemented that way – though with adaptations. For many of the most vulnerable groups, such as widows, for whom it is especially difficult to work under the current circumstances, humanitarian aid is the only way to get food for themselves and their children. Wherever humanitarian organisations can work along these lines, we should continue to support the most vulnerable and bear in mind the highly complex environment in which our humanitarian partners have to operate these days.

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At the same time, any response to the Taliban decree needs to keep the global picture in mind. One can already see that the Houthis in Yemen observe the situation in Afghanistan carefully, imitating some of the Taliban’s announcements and decrees, and more actors may follow. This clearly is an attack on the humanitarian principles that must be responded to responsibly. It is these humanitarian principles that have made it possible for organisations such as the UN, Doctors Without Borders or the International Rescue Committee to work under the most difficult, conflictive, violent circumstances for the last decades. These principles have nothing to do with “ideology”, they are purely based on operational considerations: helping the most vulnerable people, regardless of the political context. To be very clear: It is the Taliban who politicise humanitarian aid with their decrees, not the other way round.

We should never accept such attacks on humanitarian principles. At the same time, humanitarian organisations can work in most parts of the country right now. Women are part of project implementation on the ground – as staff members and as beneficiaries. The demand for support is greater than the available resources. During the withdrawal, the pledges that “we will not turn our back on Afghanistan” were manifold and it may be time to remind some about their promises. Wherever humanitarian support in line with the humanitarian principles is still possible, we should continue. Stopping such projects would harm the most vulnerable in Afghanistan – often women and girls – not the Taliban.

The role of women: Women are keeping up the fight and we should have their backs

From day one, the Taliban restricted women’s rights based on their manipulative and erroneous interpretation of Sharia law, without any constitutional framework to protect fundamental human rights or to provide a balance between religious interpretations and human rights standards. In their infamous press conference after the fall of Kabul on August 15, they boldly claimed that women would be happy to live under the very special Taliban interpretation of Sharia law. Yet, since this audacious statement, women’s rights have been increasingly restricted: No more secondary education, no more university, no more going to parks and other public facilities, draconian rules on how to dress, prohibition to move around or to travel without being accompanied by a male guardian (mahram policy), no more working for NGOs. The Taliban clearly aim at eradicating women from all spheres of public life and at building a Gender Apartheid regime.

At the same time, there are thousands of women who do not accept this and who want to continue to make a living and to help others. Many of them had also found ways to work under the Taliban in the 90s and they are ready to fight them again today. Especially in the business sector, as well as the areas of education and health, it is possible for women to continue working. 

I met a number of such women during my time in Kabul. One had a job in a ministry prior to the Taliban takeover and now started a media outlet and a library, with eight women working in her organisation. Another one who ran a women’s health clinic with female staff only before August 15 had to close afterwards and now wants to re-open in Helmand, but lacks the funds to do so. A third woman had trained 300 women teachers and built up a network of these teachers who travelled to remote areas in Afghanistan to deliver community-based education to boys and girls in their home villages – but due to the cessation of project funding, she no longer has the means to pay them. Another woman from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry recently organised a meeting of more than 250 businesswomen, asked them about their needs and discussed with the Taliban how to speed up licensing, cut red tape and improve access to finance. However, now she lacks resources to continue these capacity building activities benefitting women-led businesses. Another woman I talked to trains women to make jewellery out of weapons – and part of that training is education in reading, writing, and advanced math, as well as on how to run your own business. Thereby, she creatively circumvents the ban on secondary education for women imposed by the Taliban. Yet, due to the collapsing economy, it is difficult for her to sell her products domestically.

Many women who had worked in ministries or local NGOs opened their own business after the Taliban took power, given that women’s participation in economic life has not yet been banned by any Taliban decrees. This is one of the few ways in which women continue to make a living despite all the new restrictions and the collapsing economy. According to the latest information provided by a representative of the Afghanistan’s Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AWCCI), during our meeting, the number of business licenses for women has increased from 2.600 before the withdrawal to 8.000 today. Additionally, there are an estimated 110.000 unregistered businesses, including very small businesses like small shops, street food stalls, sewing shops, and similar enterprises. Many of these women are very determined, but they lack basic funding and training on how to actually run such businesses.

We should always denounce the crackdown on women’s rights imposed by the Taliban – but at the same time, it is important to give a voice, visibility and support to those women who continue to work under the Taliban and use their influence to fight gender discrimination. However, in our meetings, these women pointed out a number of obstacles imposed by the international community that hamper their work: Many women who produce local goods such as carpets, jewellery or Afghan dresses would like to present and sell them at international trade fares – yet they do not get visas to travel. Owners of larger businesses are increasingly running out of money as financial restrictions in response to international sanctions allow them to initially only withdraw 200 US dollars, which now has increased to around 600 US dollars a week – making it almost impossible to pay a larger group of staff or buy necessary resources. And those who previously received funds from international donors are under serious threat of closing their business, given that funding to organisations supporting such business activities almost completely stopped after the ban on women working in NGOs. Finally, many programmes intended to support women-led organisations (business as well as NGO activities) come with unrealistic conditions. Frequently, international donors request organisations to be audited for at least 3 years or to have a funding record of at least 100.000 US$ a year only to be able to hand in proposals. For most organisations, these requirements are impossible to fulfil, as many large NGOs closed down after the withdrawal of US troops. As for the organisations that started their work afterwards, it is impossible to meet these demands anyway. Looking at these examples, it is important that we carefully consider the unintended consequences of our own EU and UN policies for women (regarding e.g. visa, organisational structure, funding conditions, interruption of funding …) and how they can make their lives even more difficult.

The demands that came out of these meetings were very clear and consistent: “Please support us while we try to continue our businesses or projects, despite all these new challenges”. That is:

  • Easier access to small-scale funding and more flexible funding criteria that allow for an adaptation to local circumstances, e.g. through sub-granting programmes
  • Less funding through the UN, which is perceived as bureaucratic and slow, but more via Afghan organisations
  • Easier access to finance and visas, unblocking of financial support dedicated to women-led organisations or projects aimed at bridging the gender gap

I think the women who made these demands are spot-on. As long as there are women working and backing women in Afghanistan, we should support them with everything we have, and in line with their needs.

Media: Reporting from Afghanistan – A tightrope walk, always with one foot in prison

One of the biggest achievements during the 20 years that the Afghan Republic lasted was the development of a relatively free and vibrant media sector. This is now changing under Taliban rule. Shortly after seizing power, the Taliban imposed repressive media regulations known as the “11 journalism rules”. These rules do not respect the Afghan law of journalism previously in force and facilitate censorship and arbitrary detention of media professionals. For example, according to these rules, every journalist who publishes or spreads a story deemed “contrary to Islam” or disseminates news items that could “negatively impact public attitudes or morale” should exercise caution to avoid detention.  

A few international outlets still maintain permanent offices in the country. They see themselves confronted with growing bureaucracy, but otherwise can work rather freely. International freelance journalists find it more and more difficult to get visas to carry out their work. The situation of domestic journalists, however, is much more dramatic: Reporters without Border’s information reveal that more than half of the 526 media outlets operating in Afghanistan have been forced to cease operations after the Taliban took power. The Taliban now control all print media, and almost half of the radio stations have stopped broadcasting. Many rural stations had to close down. Of the 30 news sites operating in Afghanistan before August 2021, nearly 60% have shut down and most others have moved abroad.

The Taliban also continuously increased restrictions on media content. Already when I visited last year, they had banned music and entertainment shows. Since then, additional bans have come into force, obliging women to wear a hijab and cover their face with a face mask (even after Covid), forbidding interviews of women with men, even on the phone, denying women access to press conferences and intimidating journalists, men as well as women, with interrogations and even imprisonment if they criticise the Taliban. Just one recent example: Amu TV ran a documentary on the situation of Afghan women; nine of the journalists involved where questioned by the GDI (General Directorate of Intelligence, Afghan national intelligence agency), five remain in custody until today. Privately owned TV channels are banned to transmit media content produced by international media outlets such as BBC, Deutsche Welle or Voice of America.   

Journalists are increasingly affected by human rights violations while exercising their profession. According to a report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan covering the period from 15 August 2021 to 15 June 2022, the following incidents were recorded: 6 journalists were killed, 122 media professionals were subjected to arbitrary detention, 58 cases of ill-treatment were documented, 33 instances of threats and intimidation were reported, and 12 cases of incommunicado detention were recorded. Out of a total of 173 human rights violations experienced by journalists and media workers reported, 163 were attributed to the de facto authorities. Consequently, the number of professionals in the media sector decreased from 11.857 before the Taliban takeover to 4.759 as of today, whereas only about half of them can really make a living. The impact on women media professionals has once again been much more severe. Currently, only 463 women professionals are active compared to 1300 before the Taliban took power. Today, most women journalists work from home, access to the field has become increasingly difficult for them. Subsequently, many journalists left the country, some of them building up new diaspora media, relying on a network of colleagues that stayed in the country and work in silence. One key challenge for both is how to finance their programmes and staff, as the advertising market has collapsed due to the economic crisis and international donors have reduced their support.

Legal uncertainty further weakens media operators in the country. The national media law has been under revision for months – or the Emir is still in the process of approving it, according to the de facto Ministry of Information and Culture. Meanwhile, the “Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue” has released ad hoc decisions to further control the media landscape. In November 2022, the body required that the media not show certain types of films (including foreign films that would violate certain principles). The judiciary is also used to further intimidate journalists: a ruling by a Taliban court on whether to revoke the licenses of ten media outlets whose owners live abroad is now more than two months overdue.

Education: This field remains a battle field

Getting an education has never been easy in Afghanistan. Even during the 20 years without Taliban rule, many girls (and children in general) in remote areas had no access to formal education. Between 2001 and 2018, the country saw a tenfold increase of enrolment at all education levels, doubling the literacy rates of women. The number of girls enrolled in primary school increased dramatically: By 2021, 4 out of 10 students in primary education were girls. Still, in the most remote corners of the country, 87% of girls remained excluded from education. The percentage of women enrolled in higher education further witnessed a positive trend with more than 100.000 women enrolled in universities by 2021. But the Taliban have deliberately attacked all available education opportunities – on two levels: Who has access to education and what is taught. On 16 September 2021, the Taliban issued a decree banning girls from secondary education, which led to a massive outcry in the international community, also among Islamic countries. Yet, the crackdown continued. Subsequently, women were banned from universities and despite different announcements by the Taliban, none of these decrees has been revoked. A new decree is being discussed that could see a re-opening of girls’ schools under certain conditions, however, none of this has been formally implemented so far.

Since a few weeks ago, the Taliban have also started to interfere in the education of boys. In at least two districts, private schools were closed. More than 200 private schools, known for having a more secular curriculum, were already forced to close by August 2022. Preparations are ongoing to reverse the existing curriculum for public schools into a “jihadi” one, at least starting after third grade, and the Taliban invest considerable resources into the creation of a network of madrasas (religious schools) all over the country. A decree on education that is currently being discussed foresees that all expenses for boys attending these schools should be covered. This is a strong incentive for parents, especially those suffering from poverty, to send their boys to these schools. 

Afghans who protest against such policies or try to support community-based education are attacked. In recent months, we have seen many of them being intimidated by the intelligence services or even imprisoned, most prominently education activist Matiullah Wesa of PenPath, who remains in custody to this day with almost no contact with his family. Subsequently, other members of PenPath and other education organisations trying to find local solutions to local problems were detained or intimidated, forcing them to suspend their educational activities for the country’s most vulnerable.

With these policies, the Taliban endanger the future of the country for decades. The restrictions on girls’ access to education and women’s access to universities undermine their ability to pursue careers in many fields, including medicine or education, ultimately resulting in a shortage of healthcare professionals or teachers. Similarly, if boys are restricted to religious education only and not provided with opportunities to study fields beyond religious studies, it would impede their ability to develop essential skills necessary for the country to thrive and grow. This limitation would ultimately have an impact on the economy. And it becomes quite apparent: What happens in Afghanistan will not remain the problem of Afghanistan alone. There is an acute danger that the country turns into a new breeding ground of utmost poverty and terrorist activities.  

Talking to the Taliban: The need for an Intra-Afghan dialogue

Those I met in Afghanistan were very clear in their assessment of the need to engage with the Taliban: they see no other option. The possibilities for some kind of inclusive dialogue are growing, at least at the local level, though not in all parts of the country. Many are calling for the support of the international community in this endeavour.

This approach of engaging with the Taliban seems to be leading to a growing conflict between activists who have chosen to stay in Afghanistan and those who have been evacuated. It is clear that the ones who left can speak more freely, have often better access to international fora and more resources to do their advocacy work – whereas those who stayed feel sidelined. But there also seems to be at least a perceived difference in approach: Those who have left call for a hard line against the Taliban and warn against “normalisation” of relations through talks, while many in the country find themselves wrongly accused of appeasing the Taliban when all they aim for is finding pragmatic solutions to their daily struggles.

So clearly, more dialogue is needed on two levels: between the diaspora and those who stayed in Afghanistan, and between the Taliban and the many other groups living in the country, currently excluded from political decision-making. A recent meeting of the Afghan Women Leaders Forum with the participation of EU Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Thomas Niklasson, and EU Ambassador for Gender and Diversity, Stella Ronner-Grubacic, has reiterated this demand.

The population holds local Taliban leaders accountable for things that do not work well under their responsibility. So the Taliban have realised that they need to be somewhat responsive to the public if they want to keep things quiet. They simply can no longer refuse questions regarding deteriorating road conditions, employment or poverty. Yet, as they have been primarily fighters in recent years, they need to develop an understanding of the purpose of governance and dialogue, the role they play in society and the reasons why they need to meet and talk to people in order to run a community.  

A number of Afghan organisations are making steps ahead in this regard, with a growing number of dialogues taking place at the local level on concrete issues such as women’s access to markets, rebuilding road infrastructure or education opportunities in remote villages. According to these organisations, if the Taliban are invited, “they usually come”. In their assessment, Taliban leaders must learn how to deal with citizens’ and civil society demands. Representatives of these organisations state that what is needed are resources to also include the more traditional parts of society, such as local elders and religious leaders, training to facilitate such dialogues and money to rent venues and pay staff members. Many see this as the only way to at least achieve incremental change on the local level. And they hope to find ways – maybe also through support from the EU – to scale up such inclusive dialogues to the national level.

The way forward on the international level: No recognition – but engaging with the Taliban while including women and minorities

While I was in Kabul, Special Envoys on Afghanistan from various countries met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres in Doha. This meeting was scheduled as a reaction to the Taliban decree banning national staff from working for UN organisations, and in light of growing tensions among UN member states on how to deal with the devastating situation in Afghanistan. While those in neighbouring countries favour a more pragmatic approach towards the Taliban, being mainly concerned about the economic situation in the country and the increasing drug production, and intend to send back refugees, others have underlined the need for a principled response to the Taliban attacks on women’s rights.

Although there were many good reasons for such a meeting among UN member states to coordinate their strategy regarding UN activities in the country, the communication of UN officials in relation to this meeting greatly complicated the matter. Whilst one high-level representative was cited as hoping for “baby steps (…) on the pathway to recognition [of the Taliban]”, another was referenced as being ready to take the “heart-breaking” decision to pull out of Afghanistan. And then the Taliban announced they would send a delegation to Doha (which in the end didn’t happen) … This led both people in the diaspora and those inside Afghanistan to panic that once again, others would decide the future of their country – without even consulting them. This was never intended, but an understandable consequence of previous missteps (such as the negotiations in Doha in 2020 between then US President Donald Trump and the Taliban) and the confusion created by the above-mentioned statements of high-level UN staff. And it clearly has not helped the UN‘s reputation amongst Afghans – neither among the locals nor those in exile.

The outcome of the meeting was an ambiguous compromise in which everyone agreed that the concerns of all parties are legitimate: “While different countries placed different priorities on these concerns, according to their own situation, there is a general recognition that they are intertwined”, says the statement released after the meeting. The statement at least made it clear that recognition of the Taliban is not (and never was) on the table, that humanitarian aid and its monitoring will continue and that it is necessary to continue a dialogue with the Taliban (whatever that may look like).

It would be crucial for such international-level dialogues or engagement to include not only Taliban leaders and representatives of the international community, but also Afghan voices in all their diversity: Women, Hazara, Tadjik … Such an inclusive approach could address the worsening stalemate where the international community claims to represent “the Afghan people” (which it cannot since the Afghan people is divided on a number of issues and, moreover, many countries are clearly pursuing their own agendas) while the Taliban dismisses the statements of the international community as “Western”. By holding talks in a tripartite setting, these concerns could be addressed, including the fears of Afghan women and minority groups of being excluded once again. It would be an opportunity to break away from the destructive format of both the Doha talks between the US and the Taliban and the recent UN talks, where conversations were held about but not with the groups concerned.  

The “Afghan Women Leaders Forum” set up in March 2022 by the European External Action Service can be seen as a promising step in this regard. Launched in response to the Taliban’s announcement that women would play no role in the country’s politics, it brings together women from within Afghanistan and the diaspora to discuss important political issues and actively shape the future of their country. The Forum amplifies the voices of Afghan women, ensuring that their perspectives are not only heard but also included in decision-making processes. By providing this inclusive platform, the Forum challenges gender stereotypes and highlights the achievements and contributions of Afghan women in various fields. It creates spaces for collaboration, dialogue, and networking opportunities and helps foster dialogue between groups inside and outside the country.

But an honest engagement with the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan also includes a critical assessment of our own role as “the West” in Afghanistan, which is hardly ever discussed anymore. Key elements that merit such an assessment are

  • How the support of armed groups during the Soviet invasion by certain Western countries contributed to the emergence of the Taliban
  • Alleged war crimes committed by some international troops during the intervention in Afghanistan and the US’s refusal to be subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court
  • Reports of abuse and torture inflicted upon persons imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay who were captured during the war in Afghanistan
  • The Doha talks between the US and the Taliban, which excluded the Afghan government, civil society, and neglected women’s and human rights
  • The evacuation efforts after the fall of Kabul, marred by the lack of preparedness and coordination among Western states and their failure to assume responsibility for the lives of those threatened by the Taliban due to their past support for the Western military and donors
  • Insufficiencies in support systems and delays in processing asylum claims: nearly two years on, Afghans still lack pathways to safety in the EU.

In Germany, some of these aspects are being addressed by a committee of enquiry and a study commission (“Enquete-Kommission”) on Afghanistan. The study commission, set up in the summer of 2022, is to draw lessons from Germany’s engagement in Afghanistan by thoroughly examining the period from 2001 to 2021. Its objective is to make recommendations to the Bundestag (German parliament) that promote effective coordination between military and civilian measures in international crisis management. The committee of enquiry, on the other hand, investigates the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of the Bundeswehr (German army) from Afghanistan and the evacuation of German and field personnel. It aims to gain a comprehensive understanding of the Federal Government’s decision-making processes, actions, and interactions with German and foreign entities. The committee will draw conclusions and make recommendations based on its findings.

By learning from these experiences, Germany can hopefully improve its foreign and security policy and enhance the coordination of military and civilian measures in international crisis management. This assessment at the national level should be complemented by an exchange with international allies and encourage them to take comparable steps.

Our main goal should be to support the people of Afghanistan in their diversity – and we should stay:

Shortly after the withdrawal, the EU returned to Kabul in the form of a “minimal presence” with some staff from the different institutions (European External Action Service, Directorate-General for International Partnerships, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations). The “minimal presence” is tasked with re-launching humanitarian and stabilisation projects, engaging with different civil society actors and the media, talking to the Taliban leadership when necessary, receiving high-level visitors from Member States and third countries and coordinating EU efforts on the ground. Today, the EU representation is one of the few non-Muslim country presences in Afghanistan, along with Japan, China, India and Russia. The EU is highly valued by Afghan interlocutors as a safe space for interaction and exchange, and by Member States for its support to their activities in Afghanistan. The “minimal presence” is an encouraging example of a unified European approach that allows for coordination and representation even in the most difficult of circumstances. This approach should clearly be strengthened and re-taken in similar settings.

Currently, the EU’s “minimal presence” is able to continue its work on the ground, as are many humanitarian organisations and a considerable number of women’s and civil society organisations. Our strategy in this context should focus on two pillars: to criticise and confront the Taliban for their encroachments on political, women’s and human rights – while continuing our principled support for women, civil society and those most in need in the country. For the way forward, this means:

1. Continue providing humanitarian aid, following a principled approach

Poverty in Afghanistan is on the rise, and it disproportionally affects women and girls. Yet pledges to address this issue are far from being fulfilled. It is crucial that the international community continue to provide humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable in the country – wherever this is possible in a principled manner. Moreover, the international community must keep up the pressure on the Taliban to allow aid workers of all genders unrestricted access to all parts of the country. Given the current challenges for humanitarian organisations present in Afghanistan, donors should support their humanitarian partners in flexibly adapting their programming, and insist on the implementation of the monitoring mechanism (linked to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, see chapter “Humanitarian Aid: Upholding Humanitarian Principles despite Taliban restrictions” above) to assess the impact of the recent ban on women‘s participation in international organisations, NGOs and among programme beneficiaries. 

2. Support women in business, social services and decision-making wherever possible

The Taliban seek to exclude and marginalise women in all spheres of public life. It must be our role to strengthen women wherever they can continue to resist such exclusion, run their own businesses and support others. First, the review of aid budgets for the country since the ban on women working for NGOs and international organisation needs to be reconsidered on a case-by-case basis. Programmes that counter gender discrimination – either because they are run by women or because they primarily benefit women – should be continued. Second, funding conditions need to be adapted so that funding can benefit smaller and women-led organisations by reducing bureaucratic requirements and increasing the volume and number of sub-granting schemes managed by Afghan organisations (rather than slow and bureaucratic UN partners). Third, we should support women entrepreneurs in accessing money and visas, so they can expand their businesses and access international markets. Finally, it is crucial that we proactively support and promote women’s participation in policy-making processes – from the local level to all international fora. In this regard, the Afghan Women Leaders Forum, initiated by the EEAS in March 2022, should be strengthened to enhance capacity building for Afghan women and their access to all levels of decision-making. This applies to both Afghan women in the diaspora and those based in Afghanistan.

3. Support journalists and underline the importance of media freedom

The media sector has come under increasing pressure from the Taliban. However, the country still has many media professionals and a tradition of free media that can be built upon. The role of the international community should be to put pressure on the Taliban to respect media freedom, to support media organisations and journalists in Afghanistan and to strengthen diaspora channels and journalists covering Afghanistan. It is important to provide financial and technical support to media organizations and professionals, as they face economic challenges both in the country and in the diaspora. This can help them to continue their work and maintain as much independence as possible in a highly restrictive environment. Support should include funding, equipment, training and capacity building programmes as well as help to build networks with established media organisations outside Afghanistan. Further, we must oppose laws that undermine media freedom, such as the repressive “11 journalism rules”, and advocate for clear guidelines that protect media in the country. In addition, it is crucial to provide legal assistance and protection to journalists and media professionals who are at risk of arbitrary detention or censorship due to these repressive laws.

4. Closely follow developments in Afghanistan and support local education activities in a pragmatic way

The Taliban have chosen education as a key area to spread their misogynist and radical ideology. The international community – including countries with a predominantly Muslim population – should make it clear to the Taliban how unreasonable this strategy is to secure a halfway decent future for the people living in Afghanistan. Muslim-majority countries should play a special role in showing that gender discrimination in education has no religious basis. We should furthermore support educational activities wherever they continue to take place – be it teachers working on the ground in communities, radio-based or internet-based teaching, or other creative ways that still exist throughout the country. And – while our access may be limited – we must carefully monitor developments indicating that education is being used to radicalise children and young people (including changes to curricula and the establishment of a nationwide madrassa network as the only educational option for boys). This must be a joint effort by neighbouring states, Islamic religious authorities and the international community as a whole to prevent the emergence of new generations of radicalised Islamists.     

5. International support for intra-Afghan dialogue as well as inclusive decision-making

Recognition of the Taliban is off the table and this should not change as long as they do not fundamentally change their policies and form of governance. Nevertheless, it is crucial for the people living in Afghanistan to find ways and means to improve the situation on the ground – which can only happen through dialogue with the Taliban. Local Afghan-led organisations are in the best position to facilitate this, but the international community could provide support. For example, financial assistance, training programmes and logistical support should be considered to enable the expansion of inclusive dialogues at local and national levels to address pressing issues such as women’s access to markets, infrastructure development, education opportunities or health services. A similar process should also take place at the international level regarding issues of concern to the international community, such as humanitarian aid, migration, terrorism, drug proliferation, women’s and minority rights or inclusive decision-making by the Taliban involving Afghan women and minority groups in all spheres of negotiation and decision-making.

6. Living up to our responsibility

It is important to criticise the Taliban for what they are doing in Afghanistan. Even so, the international community also has a responsibility to live up to, and it is not yet doing so sufficiently. A critical self-assessment of Western actions in Afghanistan that have greatly contributed to the current disaster is necessary. National assessments, such as the one carried out in Germany, should be conducted to guide improvements in foreign policy. Those who worked for us on the ground during 20 years need to be better supported and protected – many are still facing enormous threats to their safety and have no way to flee the country. Others have been stuck in transit for almost two years now and even those who have made it to their destination country face cumbersome asylum procedures. It is our responsibility to create reliable pathways to come to Europe legally. We must better support and protect those in transit or stuck inside Afghanistan and keep raising the cases of those unjustly detained with the Taliban leadership. Maintaining a presence in Afghanistan to support civil society and the coordination efforts within the international community is crucial in this regard. The EU’s work in Kabul should be further strengthened, with more staff and resources.

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