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My trip to Afghanistan

When the Taliban took over power in Afghanistan on August 15th last year, they made it very clear: Women will not play a role in politics in their emirate. And from that day on, I made it clear that I will not accept this, nor will the European Union. Since then, me and many of my colleagues have been working hard to bring Afghan Women to Parliament, to include Afghan women in decision-making of the European External Action Service and the European Commission, to encourage women in the Diaspora to raise their voices and to make sure that we strengthen the presence of women in our own delegation to Afghanistan, and during our missions to the country.

From 10-13 April, eight months after the Taliban takeover, I visited Afghanistan with the objective to listen to women, women’s rights defenders and representatives of minority groups who decided to stay in the country, to learn about their situation and demands and to show all our solidarity and support to them.

Just before I headed to Afghanistan, I went to Strasbourg, where the European Parliament issued a resolution on the situation in Afghanistan, demanding, amongst other things, that the Taliban respect the right to education of all women and girls, that they release women’s rights activists and that all talks and engagement with the Taliban include Afghan women representatives. To prepare this trip, I also had a number of online discussions with women and human rights defenders in exile and in Afghanistan, learning about their respective situation and their demands.

Once I arrived in the country, I was hosted by the small representation (so-called minimal presence) of the European Union at their compound in Kabul. The representation was quick to return to the country after the fall of Kabul (as a “small presence”) and, so far, remains the only Western representation. Although only a small group of international staff is on the ground, their presence is crucial to check on the implementation of political and humanitarian projects and to reach out to civil society actors and human rights defenders who stayed in Afghanistan. Thanks to their support, I had very insightful meetings, visiting humanitarian projects, a primary school, a university, a radio station and several ministries. I had exchanges with civil society actors, namely women’s rights defenders, education activists, woman students, businesswomen, women who had worked in the administration until the Taliban takeover, representatives of minority communities, humanitarian workers and journalists. Further, I held meetings with officials from different ministries – namely on education, foreign relations and interior, as well as UN representatives. Given the persisting climate of fear, it seems needless to say that some of my reporting needs to remain restricted, in order not to reveal thoughts and identities of my interlocutors.

The space for international engagement, human rights and democracy is shrinking drastically under the Taliban. The economic and humanitarian situation is worsening. Our influence as EU has not grown since the withdrawal. Therefore, it is key to focus our action on realistic goals and processes that have the potential to make a difference for the people of Afghanistan whilst increasing the pressure on Taliban to transition towards a more inclusive and accountable governance. Key recommendations in this regard are as follows:

  • Rebuild the financial system while upholding sanctions on Taliban: After the takeover of Kabul, several national and international sanction regimes had been put in place against the Taliban, subjecting Afghanistan to financial sanctions and asset freezes. The ensuing liquidity crisis, skyrocketing humanitarian needs, the necessity to keep civil society activities running, and to allow the economic sector to continue its work, require pragmatic ways to rebuild financial flows while keeping sanctions (especially individual ones) in place. The EU and its Member states should engage in rebuilding an independent Afghan National Bank that makes this possible.
  • Scale-up presence without recognising Taliban as government: There is no political ground for recognising the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. The EU benchmarks, notably on human rights, set in September 2021, should continue to determine the conditions for any engagement with the Taliban. This, however, should not keep international actors from continuing their work and ensuring their presence on the ground. Working from within Afghanistan is especially key to reach out to women and civil society networks and provide support to them. Therefore, the EU should scale up its minimal presence and encourage member states to follow.
  • Focus political and financial support on women, media and civil society: Many women and activists left Afghanistan. But a considerable number decided to stay and continue their professional, journalistic and political work. The EU and its member states should focus on supporting these individuals (and, where applicable, their organisations) by providing flexible financial support, inviting them to regular meetings and by encouraging the Taliban to reach out to them for dialogue, rather than oppressing their work. Gender equality considerations should be mainstreamed through all external funding and made an essential decision-making element for the allocation of resources, whilst ensuring dedicated funding for initiatives strengthening women in all sectors. Women, of course, should have a place at all decision-making tables.
  • Document human rights violations and and strengthen actors in the provinces: As of now, little is known on the security situation or the work of civil society in the provinces. EU support should benefit local and national organisations that aim to document human rights violations beyond Kabul. This will help ensure accountability of the Taliban for their de-facto governance and help get a full picture of the situation on the ground. Supporting the protection of human rights defenders should be prioritised.
  • Continue evacuations and ensure safe arrival at final destination: For those who could not leave the country before August 15th (e.g. national staff of international institutions, or other individuals in danger), evacuations are picking up speed only very slowly. Despite the shift of international attention towards the crisis in Ukraine, the promises made must be kept. Negotiations with the Taliban on granting safe passage are key, but we must also address flaws in our own systems. Speeding up bureaucratic processes, implementing family reunification schemes in a flexible manner, issuing multiple entry visa schemes and quickly referring those evacuated to their final destination: All of this is key – and rarely working as of now. The plight of Afghans, notably Human Rights Defencers, who remain trapped in neighbouring countries must be addressed.
  • Start a process on establishing “lessons learned”: International attention moves on quickly. This cannot keep us from assessing the shortcomings and failures of our intervention in Afghanistan, as well as of our efforts to evacuate those in danger from the country. This will help us improve current and future action. Such an honest evaluation needs to be carried out at EU level, as well as in all member states.

August 15 and painful new beginnings

“August 15” has become a synonym for the drastic change that many Afghans, especially women and those working in national institutions, the media or international organisations, have experienced in their lives. There was not a single meeting without a reference to that date. The Taliban takeover has changed things profoundly, and people as well as organisations have been trying until today to find their place in this new set-up.

Many members of the national elite, especially those with foreign passports, left the country the latest in August. They try to organise their lives in the diaspora, torn between their responsibility for the future of their country and their worries about those who they left behind. Most of them have plans to go back once conditions allow.

Others needed to leave last minute, often with few belongings. They remain stuck in limbo and cumbersome asylum processes (Link in German). Finally, some hope they will still find a way to make it out of the country. Thousands of highly educated Afghans remain in a transitional state more than eight months after the Taliban takeover. Refugees in neighbouring countries, namely Pakistan and Iran, demonstrate against increasingly dire circumstances. As the attention of Europe and the US moves on to Ukraine, this crisis is by far not resolved. Until today, it is unclear what is left of civil society and activists once operating in the country. Especially in the provinces, many remain in hiding, unsure if they can and want to continue their work. During my talks, one thing became abundantly clear: After the withdrawal, the European Union remains one of the few actors that has not lost its credibility on the ground as a player that remains invested in the country’s future. As some women activists put it: “Please stay engaged, you are the only ones who still care.”

Last year has clearly shown that the EU’s human rights funding is not flexible enough for situations such as the one we witnessed in Afghanistan. There is an EU programme to protect Afghan human rights defenders, for example. Before 2021, it had been used to support about 50 people each year, predominantly with trainings, small grants and relocation within the country. In early 2021, pleas for protection shot up, hundreds of Human Rights Defenders needed support and internal relocation was no longer a solution: visas for neighbouring countries or the EU were needed. But a request to increase funds was only finalised after 8 months; by then, the Taliban had already taken over the country, and visas were impossible to obtain. Right now, 9 months after the Taliban takeover, a flexible sub-granting scheme to provide small funds to human rights and civil society organisations to continue their work is still in its approval phase. But such funds are key to sustain the small number of NGOs still left in the country, as all my interlocutors underlined.

International organisations and embassies find themselves in a state of transition. Nearly all of them were forced to interrupt their services and evacuate in August 2021. Coming back and rebuilding from scratch is not easy. The development branch of the EU delegation (Directorate-General for International Partnerships) alone had employed 19 national staff members to facilitate their work on the ground. Currently, they have none. Compounds were looted, cars disappeared, licences not extended, project partners evacuated. Sanctions make it difficult to transfer money into Afghanistan and pay local contractors. The interruption of financial flows was cited by all all people I talked to as a key challenge for their work. Humanitarian organisations need to channel huge funds through intransparent “havala” systems, local NGOs cannot be supported even with small grants, as there is no way to send money over, donations to continue the work of citizens organisations cannot be transferred to the country, and relatives living abroad cannot send remittances. On top of that, any kind of investment in the economic sphere is blocked. This entire situation is clearly unsustainable and affects the NGO sector and the civilian population much more than the Taliban regime. Therefore, the international community urgently needs to work on pragmatic solutions and negotiate with the Taliban to ensure an independently functioning Central Bank that allows financial transfers into the country.

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A return to “business as usual” with the Taliban is not in sight and should clearly not be aimed for. The bottom line needs to remain: As long as the Taliban do not recognise the rights of the citizens of Afghanistan, we will not recognise the Taliban as legitimate leaders of the country. But within that framework, it is key to support what is left of civil society, to back woman activists, human rights defenders and independent media on the ground. Working on a country from outside the country, as most EU member states do with delegates in either Doha (Qatar) or Tashkent (Uzbekistan), is not an easy task. Whilst liaising with the Taliban is possible, working remotely with civil society is nearly impossible. Addressing and counterbalancing this disparity in terms of access was one of the goals of my visit. Even though only few expats remains in Afghanistan, this presence is crucial to check on the implementation of development and humanitarian projects and to reach out to and meet with civil society actors and human rights defenders still on the ground. It is also a good way to communicate messages directly to Taliban leadership and coordinate with UN bodies and international NGOs present in the country. Despite the challenging context, I hope that the EU presence will soon grow and member states will follow – not as a sign of recognition of the Taliban, but as a way to engage with those who decided to stay in Afghanistan and need our support and solidarity.

Being a Woman under Taliban – once again

The situation for women was not easy in Afghanistan even before the Taliban takeover. But whilst in rural and/or conservative areas opportunities for women remained rather restricted, life for women and girls improved in particular in Kabul, with some women even reaching leadership positions over the years. With the Taliban takeover however, any advancements were abolished; contrary to initial announcements.

During my stay in Kabul, I observed the presence of women in public and at work. When driving through the streets, I clearly saw fewer women than men. Most women were completely covered, with just a few exceptions of veiled women showing their faces. Once again, women need to follow an increasingly strict dress code and can be interrogated in case of non-compliance. The latest decision by the Taliban, issued shortly after my mission, ordering all Afghan women to cover their faces in public is another major blow to the rights of women and girls.

When I visited the hospital where CordAid (an emergency relief and development organisation) provides oxygen plants – thanks to EU funding –, I saw female nurses in most ICUs. Women teachers were present at university and in the elementary school I visited, and women continue to support the delivery of humanitarian aid. I even met one woman running her own NGO. Some women own media organisations; such as Radio Begum, a radio station producing programmes for women by women. While women continue to work in hospitals, in education, in private business, media or humanitarian organisations, new and arbitrary rules make their situation increasingly difficult and they feel unsafe and intimidated. Many told me that the way to get to and from work is like running the gauntlet; work to them feels like the only safe space remaining in their lives. University teachers said that every morning they are afraid to pass the entry gate because Taliban often stop them to discuss their dresses. They do not know how long they will be allowed to continue working. Humanitarian workers explained that the need to have a mahram (male escort) with them makes it very difficult to work in the field, and woman journalists told me that they restrict themselves to non-political issues to not provoke additional and stricter rules.

Women in business find it increasingly difficult to acquire necessary licences and consider registering their business under the name of a male family member. It is a toxic mix of arbitrary rules, continuous harassment and increasing self-censorship that shrinks the space for women at work and causes more and more mental health problems. Those who dare to speak up face harassment, violence, enforced disappearances and attacks on their closest family members. Women that previously worked in the administration are doomed to stay at home, with a few exceptions in the ministries of health and education. They were told to leave in August and since then have seen their positions taken by less qualified men.

The last-minute decision of Taliban leadership to ban girls from attending secondary education (that is, grade 7 and up) continued this line of harassment, but it also led to massive demonstrations and, within the Taliban, to internal debates. Some Taliban representatives admitted during our meetings that they have hired female school teachers to teach their daughters at home – until they would be allowed back to school. Things have clearly changed on the ground in the 20 years since the last Taliban rule.

In meetings with Taliban officials – which I attended together with the EU representatives – we  insisted on the right to education for girls in Afghanistan referring also to a recent statement of the EU and like-minded governments. We pointed out that without a good education, girls would be deprived of their future, putting many of them at risk of poverty and exclusion, and that this should not be in the interest of the Taliban either. While the Taliban, including their self-proclaimed minister of education, promised that the issue of girls’ schooling would be resolved soon, a clear timeline is lacking until today. Meanwhile civil society organisations, such as Pen Path, organise school programmes even in remote areas, while radio programmes, such as Radio Begum, try to step in, with schooling programmes aired in provinces.

The broadcasting centre of Radio Begum

For educated women and girls, it is difficult to find a place in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. But many are not willing to give up and want to continue their fight for women’s rights. Former Afghan women MPs just recently founded a Parliament in Exile; when I met them in December in Athens, they were suffering because of their forced displacement, but were ready to continue their fight for a more inclusive Afghanistan. Women that I met in Kabul who had previously worked in the administration do not accept that their positions are now taken over by less qualified men, and build networks to increase pressure. Female teachers continue teaching – now via radio programmes – and want to broaden the curriculum as soon as they get funding; women journalists I met aim to strengthen women entering the profession through mentoring programmes. Ideas for how to resist the Taliban are springing up from everywhere.

We should do everything possible to support these women and to ensure they have their voices heard at the decision-making tables and talks with Taliban. In the medium run, the Taliban will not be able to run the country by excluding half of its citizens from decision-making and economic prosperity. The new generation of women grew up free from Taliban rule and may now be shocked and scared. But my impression is that they are also ready to fight for their rights and defend their place in society. One sentence that I often heard was: “The Taliban may not have changed, but the women of Afghanistan clearly did – and the Taliban will have to learn that.”

Funding programmes providing smaller grants to women’s organisations or programmes that directly strengthen women in specific sectors, such as media, education or human rights, are urgently needed. Further, we should encourage the Taliban to directly engage with the women of Afghanistan. They are articulate, outspoken and can raise their concerns much better than we ever could.

Violence and a climate of fear

Whilst the Taliban claim to have made Afghanistan safer, violence has been on the rise again in recent weeks. We see a violent escalation of local feuds, criminal elements that try to take advantage of the chaos, a rise in ISIS attacks all over the country and violence committed by Taliban at checkpoints and during raids. The human rights situation remains equally grim, with the Taliban targeting human rights and women rights defenders, as well as political activists, through violent attacks, detention and forced disappearances. Amongst those I met were also representatives of ethnic groups who reported that their communities – in particular the ethnic Hazara – are being targeted by the Taliban through deliberate attempts at intimidation, evictions and killings. Non-Muslim communities have largely left the country.

It has been widely reported that women’s protests against imposed Taliban restrictions are met with violence. UN experts have denounced an increased risk of exploitation of women and girls (including the risk of being trafficked for the purposes of child and forced marriage). They are also at high risk of sexual exploitation and forced labour. While in Kabul, I met with representatives of several women’s networks that had fought such practices for years. They were now deeply worried to see these figures on the rise again. Some of the Taliban representatives I met are concerned about the situation, especially about the rise in domestic violence, which is another burning issue. We discussed the need to involve women and women’s organisation in the outreach work to victims. Reem Alsalem, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, and Rana Bandana, Member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, also stressed this need. They were on a field visit in Afghanistan at the same time I visited Kabul.

Further, members of the former security apparatus, especially military and police, continue to be targeted with violence. Recent research by the New York Times speaks of “nearly 500 former government officials and members of the Afghan security forces […] killed or forcibly disappeared during the Taliban’s first six months in power”. As one interlocutor during my trip concluded: “The Taliban may pride themselves for having brought an end to violence against civilians (what an irony?!), but in reality they didn’t even manage that.”

Staying “on air”

The development of free and vibrant media in Afghanistan had been one of the country’s main success stories in the last 20 years before the Taliban takeover. Many outlets had been established, in Kabul as well as in the provinces. Journalists produced high quality content and businesses financed a lot of media work through advertising campaigns. This dramatically changed with the Taliban takeover. Many local media outlets in the provinces were force to close down. The big Kabul-based media are faced with threats and intimidation, often leading to self-censorship. International series or national entertainment shows are forbidden on TV and radio. Taliban monitor their programmes and many outlets refrain from producing political content, including news, in order not to get into trouble.

During my stay, I spoke to several journalists who told me about the repressive and dangerous environment they need to do their work in. They regularly face threats, physical attacks and detention. All of them know colleagues who have been killed or are still held in prison. With the collapse of many local businesses and the withdrawal of many aid and development organisations, funding through advertising and sponsored campaigns (e.g. NGO campaigns) has decreased drastically. Many journalists left during the first wave of evacuations. Those who stayed and decided to keep working despite the dire (working) conditions struggle to get access to and information from the Taliban-led government. They also need to deal with cumbersome bureaucratic registration processes.

We can see that the Taliban show little aspiration to further diverse and free media. However, especially under such circumstances and in such volatile settings, information about safety and social wellbeing is key. Therefore, it should be crucial for the international community to insist on, facilitate and support high quality and independent local media in order to disseminate such information, but also to foster discussion about political issues, so people across the country can make their voices heard. In an interview with Kabul-based Tolo News, woman journalist Farida Sial discussed with me the current situation under Taliban rule, including challenges for Afghan media and ongoing human rights violations, particularly those targeting women.

The humanitarian crisis

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan was dramatic before the Taliban takeover and it got even worse afterwards. Therefore, humanitarian aid can and must continue to flow. UN Security Council Resolution 2615 (of 22 December 2021) allows for the provision of humanitarian aid to meet the population’s basic needs notwithstanding the UN sanction regime against the Taliban currently in place. A fund specifically created by the United Nations Development Programme seeks to provide community level solutions by circumventing Taliban government assistance.

Today, the EU and its member states are amongst the largest donors of humanitarian aid; with a contribution of nearly 700 million dollars (as of February 2022) for the UN humanitarian response plan and a so-called flash appeal.

The EU humanitarian support will continue as long as we can deliver according to the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. However, recent reports about attempts of interference by the Taliban have raised concerns. This has included requests by local authorities to share beneficiary lists, demands to provide aid directly to beneficiaries selected by Taliban, as well as interference in working processes of aid agencies, including staff recruitment etc. It is clear that such kind of control and interference is unacceptable. Against this backdrop, a new law on “coordination and control” of humanitarian and development work that is currently under discussion is eyed with great anxiety by local and international humanitarian organisations, such as members of the ACBAR network that I met during my trip. Therefore, I made it clear in my meetings with the Taliban that if they want to keep international aid coming to the country; they need to overcome their control-focused approach.

Visiting a hospital ©CordAid
©CordAid

Talking with the Taliban

Meetings and discussions with the Taliban brought to light the many contradictions inherent in their current governance. While they oppose evacuations and lament the brain drain, they have no concept for how to provide a space and income to women and members of minority groups in a future Afghanistan. While they ban the education of girls, many of their members home-school their own children. While they struggle with the arbitrary implementation of rules throughout the country, they largely refrain from issuing laws or decrees to formalise governance. While they refuse to “take orders” from internationals and claim that now it is Afghanistan to the Afghans, they also complain that the national budget is no longer payed for by the international community. While they pride themselves for having brought an end to violence and corruption, they fail to control Taliban at checkpoints and in provinces who execute violence and demand bribes. While they were very vocal about the exclusion of their own ranks by the previous government, they now fail to include large parts of the population into decision-making.

The Taliban are apparently good fighters, but to run a country, a different skill set is needed. The transition from violent insurgency to inclusive governance needs to happen fast, but as of now, there is little to no plan visible. And only few in the leadership have assessed the need to do so. The question of how to move from the current cumbersome transition phase to a somehow inclusive form of governance, where “all Afghans feel represented“, as the former deputy leader of the Taliban and now Minister of the Interior, Siurajuddin Haqqani, himself outlined in a New York Times opinion piece of 2020, needs soon to be answered by Taliban leadership: The future of the country depends on it.


After four insightful days, I left towards Pakistan and then returned home with mixed feelings: Sadness, because there is so much potential in this country that cannot flourish due to neglect and oppression. And hope, because there are still people on the ground who believe that a better Afghanistan is possible.

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