New Century, Old Taliban

By the time the Taliban were toppled from power by a U.S.-led coalition of military forces in late 2001, they sat alongside North Korea, Burma, and a handful of others as among the most repressive regimes in the world in terms of political rights and civil liberties, causing some to draw parallels with Pol Pot’s brutal regime in Cambodia. The 2002 State Department Human Rights Report, covering the last year of Taliban rule, found “there was no countrywide recognized constitution, rule of law, or independent judiciary.” The situation for women was particularly egregious: “Women and girls were subjected to rape, kidnaping, and forced marriage. Taliban restrictions against women and girls remained widespread, institutionally sanctioned, and systematic.”

Although the 20 years between Taliban governments was hardly a panacea for Afghan citizens, the overall human rights situation—especially for women—improved. Between 2001 and 2021, women leaders had been elected to represent their communities at the local and national level, and despite threats of violence, women made up more than a third of the 2018 electorate. Maternal mortality was cut in half between 2000 and 2017, and life expectancy for women increased by eight years. And an entire generation of girls was born in a country where they had the legal right to go to school and hold a job. By 2019, 85 percent of girls were enrolled in primary school, and women’s participation in the labor force had reached 22 percent. Equally importantly, attitudes were changing; that same year, more than three quarters of Afghans polled agreed that women should be allowed to work outside the home. 

Twenty-one years later—and one year after the Taliban returned to power in Kabul—the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan looks eerily familiar. Over the course of their first year back in control, the Taliban have reimposed most of the restrictions put in place in the 1990s, expanding some to accommodate new technologies, and moving at a similar pace as they did the first time around. Some argued last year that the Taliban’s ideology had moderated, or that they had become more sophisticated as a result of their exposure to the international community—and that the international community’s active engagement with the Taliban could produce an “inclusive Islamic government.” Others argued that providing the Taliban with resources and recognition could ensure the group will remain “relatively restrained” and, over time, might be persuaded to improve conditions for women, girls, and ethnic and religious minorities. The evidence since August 2021 demonstrates that this is a false hope.

Old Patterns of Abuse

Immediately upon capturing Kabul in late September 1996, the Taliban began restricting the fundamental freedoms of Afghans, especially women and girls. Women were barred from working and girls above age eight were sent home from school. Head-to-toe coverings became mandatory for women to be seen in the limited public settings they were permitted in, and women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male relative. Within the first few weeks, a slew of edicts from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice added to the list of restrictions—everything from playing music to flying kites became prohibited, and the windows of all homes with female residents had to be painted over.

In 1997, the crackdown intensified further. Religious police began requiring relief programs to distribute aid through a close male relative, rather than to women directly, putting the lives of 36,000 widows in Kabul in jeopardy. By 1998, the Taliban began requiring men and women to be treated at different hospitals, and prohibited male doctors from treating women unless they were accompanied by a male relative. Though female doctors were allowed to continue working in segregated facilities, there were not nearly enough to meet demand. Within two years, many women in Kabul were reduced to begging or selling their possessions to feed their families.

The Taliban have acted with similar purpose and intent to reimpose these restrictions over the past 12 months, in some cases moving more quickly and expansively than they did in the 1990s. While carrying out revenge killings of political rivals, this time the Taliban also targeted women’s rights activists, among others who had pushed a more progressive agenda. In response to a surge of demonstrations for women’s rights, the Taliban banned all demonstrations and slogans not preapproved by the regime. By the end of September 2021, the Taliban had dissolved the Ministry for Women’s Affairs and reestablished the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Girls older than 12 were prohibited from attending school, and female workers were barred from returning to their jobs

In December 2021, the Taliban forbade women from going to healthcare appointments without a male relative, and prohibited taxi drivers from picking up unveiled women or driving any unaccompanied woman farther than 78 kilometers. Though the Taliban had promised to reopen girls’ schools in March, when the deadline came, they reneged on their promise and, within days, imposed even more restrictions on women, including banning unchaperoned air travel and sex-segregating public parks.

In May 2022, the Taliban officially announced that all women must wear head-to-toe coverings when in public and “encouraged” Afghan women not to leave home at all—formalizing a stance they had taken since the capture of Kabul in September 2021.

The Taliban have also closed shelters for victims of domestic violence and trafficking, and harassed and disappeared civil society actors involved in that work, even going so far as to punish domestic violence and trafficking victims for committing “moral crimes.” Given that 9 out of 10 Afghan women report experiencing at least one form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime, these changes are particularly devastating. In one year, Afghanistan’s score dropped from 27 to 10 out of 100 on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World scale, scoring only 1 point out of 40 on political rights and falling further than any other country over the course of the year except Myanmar.

Familiar Rhetoric

Not only have the Taliban’s actions mirrored those of the 1990s, their excuses and justifications have as well. The Taliban of 1996 and 2021 both issued carefully worded statements that purported to affirm their commitment to human rights, particularly the rights of their political opponents and of women. Senior officials in Kabul sometimes downplay the words of more extreme members, often rural mullahs, and tried to present a respectable front to the world. “So far as we are able, we want to establish an Islamic government which will not be opposed to the modern world,” the Taliban’s deputy foreign minister assured international audiences in October 1996. He explained that restrictions on women working and girls going to school would be in place only temporarily while appropriate “regulations” for their separation were put in place. Around that same time, the foreign minister added that he was “hopeful these small questions will be resolved.” Two years later, amid an even harsher crackdown on women’s freedom of movement and ongoing school closures, acting president Burhanuddin Rabbani assured the visiting executive director of UNICEF that that “everything is negotiable,” including girls’ education. Over the five years of Taliban rule, the continued closure of girls’ schools was justified by a series of increasingly petty excuses, beginning with the need to put in place practices that conform with “Muslim principles,” and moving on to a lack of physical facilities, the slow development of an anti-Soviet curriculum, and finally a shortage of textbooks.

Echoes of these justifications have reverberated from across Afghanistan over the past year. When the Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021, spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid assured the world, “Nobody will be harmed in Afghanistan . . . Of course, there is a huge difference between us now and 20 years ago,” and later insisted, even as restrictions were reimposed, that there would be “no discrimination against women . . . within the [Islamic] frameworks we have.” Taliban officials claimed that girls would be permitted to go to school, and that head-to-toe coverings would not be required. And yet, seven months later, just as girls’ middle schools were set to reopen, a familiar refrain emerged: a lack of girls’ school uniforms made the reopening impossible.

Policy Implications

For more than five years in the 1990s, the international community pushed the Taliban to relax its restrictions on women and girls, attempting to leverage the Taliban’s desire for international recognition and humanitarian assistance, working to empower and cooperate with more moderate factions of the Taliban government, and deploying proxies from the Muslim world to argue that the Taliban’s restrictions were not mandated by Islam. None of these strategies were successful. Instead, the Taliban imposed increasing limitations on the daily life of Afghan women and eventually even non-Afghans, ultimately constraining the work of aid organizations to the point that 23 international aid organizations pulled their staff from the country.

This approach was not successful in the 1990s, and there is no reason to believe, based on developments over the past year, that it will be successful now. Human rights abuses, especially of women and girls, are intrinsic to the Taliban’s philosophy of governance, and cannot be bargained away; in fact, admonitions from outsiders have often only served to strengthen their commitment. There continue to be divisions within the Taliban on the restrictions placed on women and girls, including whether girls can return to school, as there were in the 1990s. But time and time again, more radical forces have emerged victorious from these debates. While tactical engagement with the Taliban is necessary to navigate effective aid delivery and build a moderately functional economy, no negotiations with the Taliban will fundamentally change their approach to governance or result in an inclusive, rights-respecting regime in Afghanistan.

Instead, the United States should approach the Taliban the same way it approaches other ideologically-driven repressive regimes, from Cuba to China: not by trying to change the regime’s beliefs, but rather by working to limit the ability of the regime to inflict harm on its people, and by providing robust support to civil society organizations (CSOs) seeking to protect civilians and activists in the short term and create sustainable change in governance in the long term.

Because the Taliban enforces their edicts as much through fear and intimidation as through force, reducing the Taliban’s access to funding via general sanctions is not likely to directly lessen its ability to restrict the rights of women and girls. However, more targeted efforts to keep repression-enabling tools like surveillance technology out of the Taliban’s possession can help limit the Taliban’s capacity to monitor wide swaths of the population or single out individual activists. The U.S. Department of Commerce has deployed export controls to constrain the ability of the Chinese government to surveil Uyghurs and to make it more difficult for spyware companies to peddle their services to authoritarian regimes globally. It has not, however, added any Afghan organizations to its Entity List since it began listing companies on human rights grounds in 2019. The Taliban regime should also be an early focus of multilateral efforts to curb the spread of this technology to repressive regimes, as well as U.S. foreign assistance efforts to build more resilient, secure communication networks for CSOs.

Going hand in hand with these efforts is expanded support to CSOs, not only to assist them in deploying technology to avoid surveillance, but to proactively utilize technology to promote human rights, facilitate access to education and other basic services, and for women to continue to work. Organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy have decades of experience providing support to civil society activists in closed societies, and can continue to share lessons from those regions as well as previous work in Afghanistan. Crucially, support to Afghan civil society must include the thousands of women and other civil society leaders forced into exile in 2021—both regularizing their status in host countries as well as supporting their efforts to organize and advocate for women and girls still in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have been ruthlessly consistent in its approach to human rights over its more than 30 years of existence, never fundamentally softening their opposition to the rights of women and girls, and reliably failing to live up to promises to open space for women or CSOs. What has changed, however, is Afghanistan. A generation of women leaders—many of whom are now in exile—have experience serving in senior government positions and leading companies and CSOs, and will continue to lead, even if from a distance, alongside their male allies. Last fall, Stanford historian Robert Crew described the “puzzlement on the faces of Taliban fighters” he observed, “when in recent days they’ve encountered female protesters who do not back down, even at gunpoint.” These leaders are the Afghans who will transform their country in the long term, and those who deserve the United States’ sustained engagement.

Marti Flacks is the Khosravi Chair in Principled Internationalism and director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Lauren Burke is the program manager and research associate with the CSIS Human Rights Initiative. 

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Marti Flacks

​Marti Flacks

Former Khosravi Chair in Principled Internationalism and Former Director, Human Rights Initiative
Lauren Burke
Senior Program Manager, Human Rights Initiative