X Close

Two years on, the Afghanistan disaster hasn’t happened

Painful as it is to admit, the Taliban is doing much better than expected. Credit: Getty

August 15, 2023 - 3:30pm

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:

By March 2022, 95 percent of Afghan households did not have enough to eat, and more than 3.5 million children were in need of nutrition treatment support. By August 2022, six million people were “on the brink of famine”.
- Council of Foreign Relations

This is plainly untrue, as the latest World Bank report confirms:

A strong Afghani (currency) has helped to lower domestic prices, particularly for food and fuel. Furthermore, authorities have significantly reduced import tariffs on key food imports in March 2023, and favorable weather conditions have improved food production, contributing to this positive trend. The Bank’s Third-Party Monitoring Agent (TPMA) survey reveals that major markets nationwide continue to have sufficient essential food and non-food commodities.
- World Bank

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.


Cheryl Benard is an academic and an author.

 

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

34 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

This is certainly an article that will never see the light of day in the mainstream media. Well done, Unherd.

mari shahi
mari shahi
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It shouldn’t. We should never support Taliban sympathizers and inaccurate information with big statements like Taliban supporting midwife training programs? Have we forgotten May 2020 Maternity ward attack directly targeting women and female doctors. Hm

mari shahi
mari shahi
10 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It shouldn’t. We should never support Taliban sympathizers and inaccurate information with big statements like Taliban supporting midwife training programs? Have we forgotten May 2020 Maternity ward attack directly targeting women and female doctors. Hm

J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

This is certainly an article that will never see the light of day in the mainstream media. Well done, Unherd.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
10 months ago

Hopefully, Western authoritarian “liberal” elites will now stop trying to insist that “their way must be adopted by all” – and enforced on all, if necessary.
I’m no fan of the Taleban, but I’d much rather they were there doing their thing, than there hating us for unsuccessfully trying to prevent them from doing their thing. We can do without regular reports of yet another of our young men and women being blown to pieces, in a country which has successfully resisted every attempt to forcibly change its culture since the dawn of time.
We’re better off out. And they’re probably better off with us out.

mari shahi
mari shahi
10 months ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Interesting considering we cowardly left thr country on a silver platter to these awful Taliban. Leaving citizens to pick up our pieces. No reparations at all. Shame

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
10 months ago
Reply to  mari shahi

Your reactions are completely justified, but I’d like to ask you what you think should have been done. We tried to install a friendly government by occupation, suppress the opposition and change the culture of the country for the better by force, with the help of local collaborators. I’d argue it might have been a good thing if we had succeeded, but we failed completely. So did the Russians before us. Continuing the same policies would likely have led to more of the same: eternal war, eternal corruption, and (correct me if I am wrong) no major cultural change outside the big cities. Is that really your long term solution? Is it better than giving up and at least putting a stop to a war we cannot win? Or, if not, what policy changes do you think could have given a better result?

Last edited 10 months ago by Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
10 months ago
Reply to  mari shahi

Your reactions are completely justified, but I’d like to ask you what you think should have been done. We tried to install a friendly government by occupation, suppress the opposition and change the culture of the country for the better by force, with the help of local collaborators. I’d argue it might have been a good thing if we had succeeded, but we failed completely. So did the Russians before us. Continuing the same policies would likely have led to more of the same: eternal war, eternal corruption, and (correct me if I am wrong) no major cultural change outside the big cities. Is that really your long term solution? Is it better than giving up and at least putting a stop to a war we cannot win? Or, if not, what policy changes do you think could have given a better result?

Last edited 10 months ago by Rasmus Fogh
mari shahi
mari shahi
10 months ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Interesting considering we cowardly left thr country on a silver platter to these awful Taliban. Leaving citizens to pick up our pieces. No reparations at all. Shame

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
10 months ago

Hopefully, Western authoritarian “liberal” elites will now stop trying to insist that “their way must be adopted by all” – and enforced on all, if necessary.
I’m no fan of the Taleban, but I’d much rather they were there doing their thing, than there hating us for unsuccessfully trying to prevent them from doing their thing. We can do without regular reports of yet another of our young men and women being blown to pieces, in a country which has successfully resisted every attempt to forcibly change its culture since the dawn of time.
We’re better off out. And they’re probably better off with us out.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
10 months ago

A bigger question for me is how to pragmatically work with a regime that is so different to what we know and understand in the “West”?
I don’t think we have any moral right to dictate how a sovereign nation should function. All we have is the responsibility to manage our own reactions and dealings with that regime.

Arthur G
Arthur G
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

True, but no nation has any obligation to interact with another nation either. What if most of the world just says, “Nah, we don’t need relations or trade with you.”?

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
10 months ago
Reply to  Arthur G

A valid response.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
10 months ago
Reply to  Arthur G

A valid response.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

There is a little thing called “borders” that helps do with that. Diplomats do diplomacy, may have soem trade agreements (or not) and everything else is closed.

Arthur G
Arthur G
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

True, but no nation has any obligation to interact with another nation either. What if most of the world just says, “Nah, we don’t need relations or trade with you.”?

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
10 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

There is a little thing called “borders” that helps do with that. Diplomats do diplomacy, may have soem trade agreements (or not) and everything else is closed.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
10 months ago

A bigger question for me is how to pragmatically work with a regime that is so different to what we know and understand in the “West”?
I don’t think we have any moral right to dictate how a sovereign nation should function. All we have is the responsibility to manage our own reactions and dealings with that regime.

Max Price
Max Price
10 months ago

It’s just such dumb politics. The only thing we should be worrying about is Afghanistan again turning into a terrorist training camp.
Recognise the Taliban, negotiate with them in good faith on some way to prevent this from ever happening again.
Then leave the Afghan people the f**k alone. They have been an ultra patriarchal society for centuries.
Change will only come from within Afghanistan.

Max Price
Max Price
10 months ago

It’s just such dumb politics. The only thing we should be worrying about is Afghanistan again turning into a terrorist training camp.
Recognise the Taliban, negotiate with them in good faith on some way to prevent this from ever happening again.
Then leave the Afghan people the f**k alone. They have been an ultra patriarchal society for centuries.
Change will only come from within Afghanistan.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago

Eye-opening essay. I agree. This narrative won’t see the light of day in the regime media. I do wonder though if the reduced opium production has more to do with fentanyl and the near collapse of the heroin market.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
10 months ago

Eye-opening essay. I agree. This narrative won’t see the light of day in the regime media. I do wonder though if the reduced opium production has more to do with fentanyl and the near collapse of the heroin market.

Tosh Owen
Tosh Owen
10 months ago

I must question that a farmer stopped producing opium, just like that! This is their income, what feeds their families. Given the Taliban, and other such extreme authorities, will resort to torture to control the population, e.g. cutting off hands for theft, then what would they cut off if the farmer didn’t stop producing opium. Please don’t insult us, the Taliban government may well be able to stabilise elements of the economy but this is not with human misery. What are the hidden costs, ones that the Taliban (just like Soviet Russia) hide from the world. Forgive my disbelief.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

That was my thought. Traditionally the Taliban have demonstrated that they are aware of the elasticity of demand. They know that if they destroy X% of the crop, i.e. reduce the supply by X%, then the price will go up by more than X%, so the revenue, i.e. price times quantity, increases. The Taliban are not stupid.

Last edited 10 months ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

Won’t somebody please think of the poor opium farmers?

Tosh Owen
Tosh Owen
10 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Thank you for such a glib response. My point is not about “poor opium farmers” but about tactics used to change their actions. (Read the whole comment.) The farmers were producing something for which they got paid, if they don’t produce this crop what do they earn? Will they easily grow a product to feed their family or even sell? Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could just farm the land for food crops and this would keep everyone happy (even you?). However, we don’t live in a world that simple. If we did then UK farmers would use their farm land for food products, that the UK population would then eat it. I wonder if the UK government should resort to sawing off limbs to encourage UK farmers to make the UK more self-sugfficient.

D Glover
D Glover
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

UK farmers are very efficient at growing food. The problem is that we have the population of France in a country half their size. That’s why we have to import so much food.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

Is someone limiting your access to the internet? The manner in which the Talibs are enforcing their oh-so-terrible poppy eradication programme has been reported upon. Your fever dream of Talibs “sawing off limbs” is the product of, may Allah forgive me for uttering it, bigotry.

D Glover
D Glover
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

UK farmers are very efficient at growing food. The problem is that we have the population of France in a country half their size. That’s why we have to import so much food.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

Is someone limiting your access to the internet? The manner in which the Talibs are enforcing their oh-so-terrible poppy eradication programme has been reported upon. Your fever dream of Talibs “sawing off limbs” is the product of, may Allah forgive me for uttering it, bigotry.

Tosh Owen
Tosh Owen
10 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

Thank you for such a glib response. My point is not about “poor opium farmers” but about tactics used to change their actions. (Read the whole comment.) The farmers were producing something for which they got paid, if they don’t produce this crop what do they earn? Will they easily grow a product to feed their family or even sell? Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could just farm the land for food crops and this would keep everyone happy (even you?). However, we don’t live in a world that simple. If we did then UK farmers would use their farm land for food products, that the UK population would then eat it. I wonder if the UK government should resort to sawing off limbs to encourage UK farmers to make the UK more self-sugfficient.

Max Price
Max Price
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

There would have been a lot of what you mentioned of course but the fear of the Taliban would have been enough for a lot of farmers to stop.

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

The bulk of the profit from the production of drugs does not go to the farmers in the first place, but to the middlemen processing it, funnelling it out of the country, and selling it into rich countries. So likely, the marginal difference to planting a food or standard cash crop is not so great, and if the Taliban have managed to stabilise markets and pacify the country, then traditional crop specialisation may well again be profitable. After all, Afghanistan needs the food, which otherwise would have to be imported.
I don’t know, I just see market-based explanations being plausible, without the need to reach for coercive explanations.

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

That was my thought. Traditionally the Taliban have demonstrated that they are aware of the elasticity of demand. They know that if they destroy X% of the crop, i.e. reduce the supply by X%, then the price will go up by more than X%, so the revenue, i.e. price times quantity, increases. The Taliban are not stupid.

Last edited 10 months ago by Peter Kwasi-Modo
Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

Won’t somebody please think of the poor opium farmers?

Max Price
Max Price
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

There would have been a lot of what you mentioned of course but the fear of the Taliban would have been enough for a lot of farmers to stop.

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
10 months ago
Reply to  Tosh Owen

The bulk of the profit from the production of drugs does not go to the farmers in the first place, but to the middlemen processing it, funnelling it out of the country, and selling it into rich countries. So likely, the marginal difference to planting a food or standard cash crop is not so great, and if the Taliban have managed to stabilise markets and pacify the country, then traditional crop specialisation may well again be profitable. After all, Afghanistan needs the food, which otherwise would have to be imported.
I don’t know, I just see market-based explanations being plausible, without the need to reach for coercive explanations.

Tosh Owen
Tosh Owen
10 months ago

I must question that a farmer stopped producing opium, just like that! This is their income, what feeds their families. Given the Taliban, and other such extreme authorities, will resort to torture to control the population, e.g. cutting off hands for theft, then what would they cut off if the farmer didn’t stop producing opium. Please don’t insult us, the Taliban government may well be able to stabilise elements of the economy but this is not with human misery. What are the hidden costs, ones that the Taliban (just like Soviet Russia) hide from the world. Forgive my disbelief.

mari shahi
mari shahi
10 months ago

“Taliban are doing much better than expected” Glad they are. How about the Afghan people?

mari shahi
mari shahi
10 months ago

“Taliban are doing much better than expected” Glad they are. How about the Afghan people?

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
10 months ago

That was very interesting. Thank you.

D Walsh
D Walsh
10 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Heroin is so passe

D Walsh
D Walsh
10 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Heroin is so passe

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
10 months ago

That was very interesting. Thank you.

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
10 months ago

So, who ya’ gonna’ believe? The Council on Foreign Relations or the World Bank? By almost any measure, the loss of Afghanistan to the Taliban is a disaster. Human rights abuses alone shout that fact. And, it ain’t over yet. A repressive, extremist religious sect doesn’t seem to be a horse worth betting on in the long run.

Bernard Brothman
Bernard Brothman
10 months ago
Reply to  Gerald Arcuri

Fair point. I would like to see an update a year from now.

mari shahi
mari shahi
10 months ago
Reply to  Gerald Arcuri

Thank you, Gerald. I have a cousin who was k*lled for playing card games w. friends and this is a “bleh” story bc it happens everyday in different ways all over the country. Another relative who was a soldier and was on his way to leaving the country with his kids. This is COMMON. Ppl are scared to leave due to retaliation. It is not safe, it is not fun, it is not free. Will it ever be? Def not in our lifetime. One day some day

D Glover
D Glover
10 months ago
Reply to  mari shahi

Ppl are scared to leave due to retaliation.

Really? Then how do we explain the thousands of Afghans heading for Kent?

D Glover
D Glover
10 months ago
Reply to  mari shahi

Ppl are scared to leave due to retaliation.

Really? Then how do we explain the thousands of Afghans heading for Kent?

Bernard Brothman
Bernard Brothman
10 months ago
Reply to  Gerald Arcuri

Fair point. I would like to see an update a year from now.

mari shahi
mari shahi
10 months ago
Reply to  Gerald Arcuri

Thank you, Gerald. I have a cousin who was k*lled for playing card games w. friends and this is a “bleh” story bc it happens everyday in different ways all over the country. Another relative who was a soldier and was on his way to leaving the country with his kids. This is COMMON. Ppl are scared to leave due to retaliation. It is not safe, it is not fun, it is not free. Will it ever be? Def not in our lifetime. One day some day

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
10 months ago

So, who ya’ gonna’ believe? The Council on Foreign Relations or the World Bank? By almost any measure, the loss of Afghanistan to the Taliban is a disaster. Human rights abuses alone shout that fact. And, it ain’t over yet. A repressive, extremist religious sect doesn’t seem to be a horse worth betting on in the long run.

Chris Carter
Chris Carter
10 months ago

“Fear of violence” has diminished now that the Taliban have stopped being so violent. Result!
“Maybe the Taliban’s social values are hopeless…” Well that’s certainly one word for it…

Chris Carter
Chris Carter
10 months ago

“Fear of violence” has diminished now that the Taliban have stopped being so violent. Result!
“Maybe the Taliban’s social values are hopeless…” Well that’s certainly one word for it…

R Wright
R Wright
10 months ago

I am not sure why antyone would be surprised that the end of a four decade civil war would lead to increased prosperity, except for perhaps delusional activist-journalists in the west.

R Wright
R Wright
10 months ago

I am not sure why antyone would be surprised that the end of a four decade civil war would lead to increased prosperity, except for perhaps delusional activist-journalists in the west.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
10 months ago

This is a dangerous and really quite irresponsible article, specifically around women and girls. Statistics and high level statements are often not the reality. The reality on the ground is frankly terrifying. I’m speaking from the perspective of knowing a family living in fear of whether they will eat, the daughter stuck inside with no education, just waiting, waiting, and too fearful to go out in the street. The son on the run from the Taliban to avoid recruitment. You think that is any different from ‘before’. According to your article I get the impression we should all sigh with relief!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
10 months ago

This is a dangerous and really quite irresponsible article, specifically around women and girls. Statistics and high level statements are often not the reality. The reality on the ground is frankly terrifying. I’m speaking from the perspective of knowing a family living in fear of whether they will eat, the daughter stuck inside with no education, just waiting, waiting, and too fearful to go out in the street. The son on the run from the Taliban to avoid recruitment. You think that is any different from ‘before’. According to your article I get the impression we should all sigh with relief!

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
10 months ago

Afghanistan is ruled by medieval barbarians because Afghanis are medieval barbarians — they have several times thrown off the imposition of a modernity they don’t want. One day they might want it, but for now we should recognize the Taliban as the chosen government of Afghanistan and what *we* think of them doesn’t really matter.

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
10 months ago

Afghanistan is ruled by medieval barbarians because Afghanis are medieval barbarians — they have several times thrown off the imposition of a modernity they don’t want. One day they might want it, but for now we should recognize the Taliban as the chosen government of Afghanistan and what *we* think of them doesn’t really matter.

Ri Bradach
Ri Bradach
10 months ago

The writer is the wife of the man that drove the surrender and withdraw policy.

https://x.com/gregchew14/status/1691840538700296589?s=46&t=qUTe4F2uhsAFTxk-LLN4ww

Ri Bradach
Ri Bradach
10 months ago

The writer is the wife of the man that drove the surrender and withdraw policy.

https://x.com/gregchew14/status/1691840538700296589?s=46&t=qUTe4F2uhsAFTxk-LLN4ww

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
10 months ago

See the Radio Free Liberty website for Afghanistan under the Taliban. Then tell me how Afghanistan under the Taliban isn’t a disaster!

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
10 months ago

See the Radio Free Liberty website for Afghanistan under the Taliban. Then tell me how Afghanistan under the Taliban isn’t a disaster!

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
10 months ago

The Taliban have moxie….
it convinced most farmers not to plant the seeds in the first place

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
10 months ago

‘Cheryl Benard is an academic and an author’. How about we hear from people actually living under Taliban rule and not this ivory tower princess.

Last edited 10 months ago by Studio Largo