Media coverage obscures uncomfortable elements of the Taliban's success
Two years to the day since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, accurate Western assessments of the regime are still few and far between. At every turn, facts are obscured by anger. The West remains outraged that its project to modernise Afghanistan ended in the triumph of a ragtag insurgent group, and understandably appalled by its policies towards women and girls. Meanwhile, members of the Afghan Diaspora are embarrassed by their own lack of courage and backbone, having rushed to the exit and emptied the country of almost its entire educated class.
If you look more closely at the facts, and compare contemporary predictions with how the country has fared, the uncomfortable conclusion is that the widely foreseen disaster hasn’t happened.
On 6th August 2021, a UN session on Afghanistan warned that a Taliban takeover would create a “catastrophe that would stretch beyond Afghanistan’s borders”, that there would be a “record increase in drug production” and a “return to chaos in the country”. Every year since then, the UN has been predicting similar disaster. Annually, the organisation predicts that winter will bring a famine which will kill a million children. When this thankfully fails to transpire, it predicts the same for the following winter.
Meanwhile, a new report from the Council of Foreign Relations makes similarly wild claims:
This is plainly untrue, as the latest World Bank report confirms:
This could be seen as an astonishing result, given that the country is under sanctions, its assets remain frozen overseas, and no one has recognised its government. Some think tanks are even starting to admit as much, with Brookings concluding that the Taliban government has “firmed up the Afghan currency, reduced inflation, partially recovered imports, doubled exports, and collected customs and taxes far more successfully than the corrupt leaders of the Afghan Republic.”
Painful as it may be, the Taliban is doing much better than expected on several key indicators. In September 2022, it passed a law banning the drug trade. Just a year later, opium cultivation had dropped by as much as 80%, according to the United States Institute for Peace (USIP). This is something the US, its allies and successive Afghan governments tried to achieve, without success, for decades.
Did the Taliban use coercive methods, such as terrorising the farmers or executing dealers? As it happens, USIP describes the state’s approach as “sophisticated”, as it convinced most farmers not to plant the seeds in the first place and required only minimal eradication. The ban also came close to getting rid of ephedra, the ingredient for methamphetamine. And yet, perhaps predictably, USIP sees the development as negative, arguing that ending the drug trade is hurtful to the income of farmers and dealers.
On women and girls, the Taliban’s policies are abominable, but the change is less absolute than the reporting might suggest. The Kabul street scene during the previous governments consisted of women in burqas and others in scarves, not dissimilar to today. As for schooling, in 2017 Human Rights Watch reported that “sixteen years after the US-led military intervention that ousted the Taliban government, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not go to school.” This has deteriorated further, as secondary schools and universities remain closed to girls.
In 2017, Doctors Without Borders placed Afghanistan near the bottom of the global leaderboard for maternal and infant deaths. In 2018 the Taliban issued a statement on women in which it highlighted maternal health as a key challenge. “Due to corruption,” the group alleged, “the monies spent under the title of women’s rights have gone to the pockets of those who only raise slogans.”
There is more than an element of truth in this. The Taliban has been supportive of midwife training programmes, and even its detractors are forced to admit that security across the country is vastly improved, fear of violence no longer saturating daily life. The Taliban isn’t taking Afghanistan back to the Middle Ages: Afghanistan, excluding the urban elites, never left the Middle Ages in the first place.
Maybe the Taliban’s social values are hopeless; maybe they will soften over time. Currently, there is no plausible challenger, so the Afghans are stuck with this government. The Diaspora had the chance to stay and push back, but instead they left, and in doing so sacrificed any claim to the moral microphone. The two-year anniversary is not a cause for celebration, but for Afghanistan it has not been the disaster so many people predicted.