God must have loved Afghans because he made them so beautiful.Alexander the Great.
This essay has been difficult to write. I tackle a lot of difficult topics in my writings, but often from an abstract, almost academic viewpoint. I’ve written about the situation in El Salvador before, but I haven’t actually been there.
This essay is different — it’s a summary of my reflections based on visiting Afghanistan on a UN mission in August 2023.
Both before and during my time there, I found it fascinating to consider Afghanistan’s rich yet turbulent modern history, and how the past continues shaping its complex present-day circumstances. I will try to synthesise some of the insights I gained from the people I met, the conversations we shared, and the daily life I observed.
This was my first time visiting a country that was under active sanctions from the international community, and I had previously heard numerous criticisms of sanctions as a negotiation tool, and this became quite apparent during my time there with the discussions I heard, especially with the private sector.
I was also surprised with regards to the different opinions I heard with regards to the Taliban. There appears to be two distinct camps of thoughts, and I’ll discuss that within this essay.
Though my perspective is undoubtedly incomplete, I aim to contemplate both the harsh realities as well as signs of hope that struck me during my stay in this storied land. By reviewing key historical forces and events that have forged contemporary Afghanistan, I hope these reflections provide a window into the nation’s ongoing struggles and undeniable resilience as it navigates formidable obstacles.
A Modern History of Afghanistan.
Before we reflect on what is happening in Afghanistan now, it is worth having a refresher on how it got to its current state.
Afghanistan’s complex modern history has been shaped by its strategic location at the crossroads of Central and South Asia. Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of important historical trade routes connecting Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. Its geography as a gateway between regions has made Afghanistan prized conquest for expanding empires throughout history.
The origins of the modern nation state can be traced back to 1747, when Ahmad Shah Durrani united the Pashtun tribes and established the Durrani Empire. After his death, Afghanistan fractured into different Emirates and was caught in imperial rivalries between Britain and Russia. It was not until the 1880s that Abdur Rahman Khan established a centralised Afghan state.
Afghanistan gained full independence from Britain in 1919 after the Third Anglo-Afghan War, but this hard-won sovereignty did not come easily. Nearly 80 years of intermittent conflict between Britain and Afghanistan taking a heavy toll on both sides had produced a stalemate. With war weariness setting in, the British realised they could not continue subjugating Afghanistan through force. The Anglo-Afghan wars had also proven hugely expensive and of minimal strategic benefit as threats from Russia receded.
Meanwhile, Afghan nationalism and resistance to foreign domination surged.
I believe the following verse succintly summs up the British imperial experience in Afghanistan:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plainsRudyard Kipling
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
And go to your God like a soldier”
Afghanistan has never been an easy place for outsiders, wherever they came from. The Persians knew that. The Russians discovered that.
Facing these realities, maintaining control over Afghanistan now seemed an untenable burden requiring endless military presence to suppress an inevitable uprising.
Additionally, in the wake of World War I, a depleted Britain could hardly afford overseas occupations any longer. Changing attitudes also played a role, as liberal sentiments grew against the injustices of imperialism. Granting independence addressed these grievances. With both pragmatic and ethical reasons aligning, Britain relinquished its claims over Afghanistan. Though instability would continue, Afghanistan regained its sovereignty after nearly a century of struggle.
The Kingdom of Afghanistan was established under King Amanullah Khan, who enacted reforms to modernise the country. However, political instability persisted over the next several decades. In 1973, the monarchy was abolished in a coup by the king’s cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan, who established a republican government. Just five years later in 1978, Daoud Khan was killed in a communist coup, starting a series of radical leftist reforms.
This paved the way for the tumultuous period that Afghanistan is still recovering from today. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan against Islamic guerilla groups called Mujahideen. During the decade-long Soviet-Afghan War, the U.S. provided support to the Mujahideen, leading to the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. After this, Afghanistan descended into civil war between competing Mujahideen factions vying for power.
It was in 1996 that the Taliban, a movement of Islamic students turned militants, seized control of Kabul and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban emerged in the early 1990s in northern Pakistan following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. They were mostly radical Islamic Pashtun students educated in madrassas or refugee camps, united by a mission to impose their strict interpretation of Sharia law. The Taliban were led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, a village clergyman and war veteran of the anti-Soviet mujahideen based in Kandahar. With support from Pakistan, Omar organized the Taliban as a political-religious force to continue waging jihad and end the civil war that erupted after Soviet withdrawal. They swept to power by force, taking Kabul in 1996 and quickly exerting control over most of Afghanistan. The Taliban regime imposed harsh fundamentalist policies, especially limiting women’s rights, but did bring some stability after over a decade of factional conflict.
After the September 11 attacks in 2001 planned by al-Qaeda under Taliban protection, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and drove the Taliban from power. But they regrouped as an insurgency that outlasted 20 years of US and NATO military presence, finally retaking Kabul in 2021 soon after US withdrawal from the prolonged war.
May God keep you away from the venom of the cobra, the teeth of the tiger, and the revenge of the Afghans.Alexander the Great.
Having spent many years in Vietnam, I find it easy to see parallels between the Vietnamese and Afghan people when it comes to tenacity and resistance against foreign powers. The quote from Alexander the Great would stand equally as valid for Vietnam. Both Vietnam with its dense jungles and Afghanistan with its rugged mountains have terrain that enables guerrilla tactics. This landscape has allowed them to withstand and eventually repel countless would-be conquerors over the centuries.
More recently, the sustained Vietnamese resistance against French and American forces has clear echoes in how the Afghan mujahideen eventually expelled the Soviets. And now, the Taliban’s enduring insurgency has outlasted the US military despite its vast technological advantages. At the heart of it is a shared strength of will – a stubborn refusal to submit to those who would try to dominate their homeland. The rocky peaks of the Hindu Kush and misty valleys of the Trường Sơn mountains seem to cultivate a similar fierce spirit of independence among those who find refuge in them.
Visiting the somber War Remnants Museum in Saigon, with its graphic evidence of atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, stands in stark juxtaposition to the energetic modern metropolis that present-day Ho Chi Minh City has become. It makes me contemplate whether Afghanistan, now standing amidst the rubble of its own violent struggles, can eventually follow a similar trajectory beyond the trauma of its recent history. Vietnam has managed to transform itself into a thriving nation, despite the deep scars of conflict. Hanoi and Saigon now pulse with commerce and youthful optimism, seeming worlds away from guerilla warfare in the jungle. Witnessing this remarkable rebirth gives me hope that Kabul and Kandahar too may someday move forward in peace and prosperity. With determination and the right opportunities, even Afghanistan’s war-weary people can rebuild and create a stable homeland. Though the road ahead remains uncertain, Vietnam’s example suggests a brighter future lies on the horizon, if Afghanistan can make the difficult but necessary journey toward reconciliation and reform.
Frankly, I’ve never understood why we give a damn whether a girl goes to school in Afghanistan or not. That’s not a national interest of the United States.Michael Scheuer — Former Head of a CIA Special Unit 2Afghanistan’s Youth Bulge Dilemma
Afghanistan has an extremely young population, with data from the Central Statistics Organization of Afghanistan showing a mean age of just 18.6 years as of 2020. The median age is 18.4 years, indicating half the population is even younger. A staggering 42% of Afghans are under 15 years old, while only around 3% are over 65. Life expectancy has remained low, at only about 64 years on average.
This very youthful age structure stems largely from high fertility rates and shorter life spans. The abundance of young people poses challenges for Afghanistan’s dependency ratio and capacity to provide services. Though the median age is slowly rising with declining fertility, Afghanistan seems poised to stay a predominantly young nation for the foreseeable future.
Given that around 42% of Afghans are under the age of 15, the majority of the population was born after 2001 when the US military ousted the Taliban government. These youth have grown up knowing only the US occupation, ensuing insurgency, and attempt to build a democratic Afghan state. To them, the Taliban’s original Emirate in the 1990s is merely history rather than lived experience. For these young Afghans, the US legacy is all they have ever known, until the Taliban retook control in 2021.
Now with the US departed, those born after 2001 are coming of age in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan once again, just as their parents may have decades ago. An entire generation of Afghans entered the world after the Twin Towers fell, growing up in the long shadow cast by 9/11 and events it set in motion. With the median age at just over 18 years, most young Afghans today barely recollect the nation pre-US invasion. For them, the American era is Afghanistan’s modern history. So the US occupation, for better or worse, has defined the only reality they know.
Concrete figures are hard to come by, but estimates go up to 175,000 civilian, military, and militant deaths during the US occupation3HUMAN AND BUDGETARY COSTS TO DATE OF THE U.S. WAR IN AFGHANISTAN, 2001-2022. So this means that many children had their lives disrupted or lost family members to the fighting. The outcomes of growing up in a conflict zone are well known, with impacts ranging from mental health issues to lack of access to education. Research shows increased rates of PTSD, anxiety, and depression in children exposed to war violence. The trauma of losing loved ones or witnessing horrific events can also stay with someone for life.
That said, I did see school children running around and laughing, which highlights how humans can get used to almost any circumstances, and still make a somewhat normal life. The kids that I saw likely live in conditions that would make me miserable, and yet they can still play tag and joke around on the way to school.
In their play, these children embraced life’s simple pleasures, finding normalcy in abnormal circumstances. While grown-ups dwell on politics, power struggles, and conflict, kids remain kids, adapting to make the best of their situation. A ball game in an alley feels as normal as one on a field. The troubles of their country may cloud their future, but for now, the present still holds space for delight.
On top of psychological effects, conflict deprives many Afghan youth of stable schooling, health services, and economic opportunities. With so much time focused on basic survival, important developmental milestones are missed. The long-term implications for human capital and social progress are often severe. Of course, individual experiences vary greatly, and many demonstrate resilience despite the adversity. But in general, having a large population share exposed to the stresses and traumas of war from a young age risks hindering Afghanistan’s recovery. The disturbing impacts of children growing up surrounded by such turmoil will likely be felt for generations.
Afghanistan’s young population faces concerning vulnerabilities to radicalization by extremist groups seeking to exploit their grievances. After decades of conflict exposure, many youth are susceptible to recruitment efforts that promise purpose and resources lacking in their lives. The Taliban and ISIS-K have capitalized on this by targeting disaffected young people to propagate their radical ideology.
Lacking conventional schooling, madrassas (a type of Islamic religious school) teaching fundamentalist curriculums have filled the educational void, further ingraining extremism during formative years. Anger over civilian casualties from U.S. and NATO operations fuels resentment that radical groups can harness for their agenda. For each one of the 175,000 people killed during the occupation, that is a multiple of individuals who could be radicalised. Meanwhile, social media enables direct outreach to youth in ways not possible before. There are also fears that radicalized Afghans who have grown up in diaspora communities abroad may return home further steeped in extremist views.
Afghanistan’s youth now in these crucial developmental years.
However, there is also some light at the end of the tunnel. Afghanistan has a major “youth bulge” — with nearly two-thirds under 25, young people vastly outnumber other age groups. Proper investments in this large cohort could catalyze economic growth and innovation. However, lacking opportunities, this youth bulge could instead exacerbate unemployment, instability and extremism. The future trajectory of Afghanistan depends profoundly on how its leadership engages these young people now entering adulthood. Strategic inclusion and support of Afghan youth could vitalize communities, while failure to productively engage them risks disenfranchisement and unrest.
During the ten years I spent living in Cambodia, I witnessed first-hand the energy and potential of a predominantly young population. The median age was around 22 years old, cultivating an entrepreneurial dynamism that helped transform the country. My experience makes me believe Afghanistan could similarly harness its demographic dividend. But action must be taken now during this limited window of opportunity.
Afghanistan’s median age is only around 18 years old currently. This large generation of youth have recently reached or will soon enter adulthood. Without positive economic, educational, and social opportunities created at this critical juncture, disillusionment and radicalisation remain high risks. However, strategic investments in jobs training, healthcare, and education access could enable Afghanistan’s youth bulge to yield substantial benefits rather than fuel further instability.
The decisions made now will determine whether this boom becomes an economic catalyst versus destabilising force. Timely action supporting and engaging Afghan youth is essential to shape a more promising future. This burgeoning cohort offers hope, but failing to act risks grave consequences. Afghanistan’s potential hinges on empowering youth now in their developmental years.
We’re alive, but not living.Anonymous woman to UN Expert 4Afghanistan: Women tell UN rights experts ‘we’re alive, but not living’
Interestingly, I heard a paraphrase of the above quote uttered by an Afghan woman working within UN. She said: “I am breathing, but I am not alive.”
Since the Taliban take over in August 2021, one of the key areas of concern across the world is their track record when it comes to women’s rights.
Women make up nearly half of Afghanistan’s population at 49.72% as of 2020, according to World Bank data. Of the country’s estimated 38.9 million people, approximately 19.3 million are female. At birth, the ratio skews male, with around 105 boys born for every 100 girls. However, higher mortality rates among males from conflict, disease, and other factors bring the ratio into greater balance with age. Afghan men have a life expectancy of just 62 years, compared to 67 years for women. So despite starting off with more males at birth, Afghanistan ultimately ends up with an almost equal gender split due to these differences in death rates.
According to UN experts, the Taliban have swiftly reversed decades of progress made by Afghan women and girls since 2002 5Afghanistan: UN experts say 20 years of progress for women and girls’ rights erased since Taliban takeover. Women have been banned from secondary and higher education, working for NGOs, and accessing public spaces like gyms and parks. Strict dress codes limit freedom of movement, effectively confining many women to their homes. Female participation in public office and the judiciary has been eliminated entirely.
The UN says this constitutes a form of gender apartheid, with women made invisible and isolated from society. Without the ability to work or access aid, women struggle to meet basic needs. The experts warn that women’s fundamental rights to education, healthcare, employment and freedom from discrimination have been annihilated. They call on the Taliban to lift restrictions and fulfill obligations to protect women’s rights under international law.
One question that comes to my mind is: why does the Taliban treat women in this way?
The Taliban’s restrictive policies toward women stem from several influencing factors. Their ultra-conservative Deobandi Islamic beliefs lead them to strictly interpret women’s rights and gender norms. Rural Pashtun tribal customs have also traditionally imposed patriarchal values limiting women’s roles. Imposing such limitations allows the Taliban to consolidate ideological control and signal a return to their previous harsh governance.
Perhaps this is a straight-forward example of realpolitik. The Taliban use women’s rights as sacrificial pawns in a chess match for political gain. They can deny women’s rights domestically, then leverage potential concessions on those rights as bargaining chips with the international community to extract other benefits, influence, or legitimacy abroad. By withholding basic rights from women, the Taliban put themselves in a position to strategically parcel out limited empowerment to achieve their broader goals. This pragmatism offsets the Taliban’s ideological stance on women’s issues.Additionally, women’s education, employment, and empowerment represent modernisation, which runs counter to the Taliban’s opposition to Western values.
While perspectives differ internationally, the Taliban justify their stances toward women through this blend of religious fundamentalism, tribal tradition, political expediency, and countering modernizing influences. Their resulting policies have profoundly impacted the status of women under Taliban rule.
So in some ways, one could argue that half the country is being held hostage. With women barred from education, employment, healthcare, and public participation, it’s as if 19 million Afghan women are captive to the Taliban’s extremist ideology. They have been rendered invisible in society except when escorted by male guardians. Like hostages, their voices are muted and presence barely felt. The sweeping restrictions on autonomy and personhood have left Afghan women disempowered and subjugated by force.
The oppressive treatment of women under the Taliban has profound psychological impacts as well. Accounts emerge of surging mental health issues, depression, anxiety and even suicide among Afghan women facing immense restrictions. Many shared feelings of fear and extreme anxiety, describing their situation as a “life under house arrest” according to the UN experts.
The Taliban have dismantled legal protections, contributing to an increase in child marriage, domestic violence, and other abuses perpetrated with impunity. Women fleeing violence no longer have recourse for protection or support.
While the Taliban justify their actions through selective religious interpretations, the UN experts noted these views are not shared by most Afghans. Rules are enforced through threats, harassment, arbitrary detention and torture of women who speak out. The rapid rollback of rights since 2021 essentially amounts to “gender apartheid” per the UN assessment.
What has the Taliban Done Right?
This is an uncomfortable topic, but I thought it was useful question to ask myself, and I generally enjoy thinking about uncomfortable points of views.
Governments, irrespective of their nature or ideology, typically maintain a range of departments to address various facets of governance. It’s not uncommon for a standard government to have 15 to 30 ministries, each with its own subdivisions and areas of focus.
Given the sheer number of functions and responsibilities that a government manages, it’s statistically plausible that even an organisation with controversial policies, like the Taliban, might inadvertently produce some positive outcomes for Afghanistan in certain areas.
This idea brings to mind a well-known thought experiment. Imagine a million monkeys typing away at a typewriter for an infinite amount of time. According to the theorem, these monkeys would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare. This isn’t to trivialize the situation but to highlight that amidst vast amounts of input, some positive or constructive outputs can emerge, even if by sheer chance.
But then I asked myself: why I have never heard of anything positive about the Taliban?
So I asked people on the ground and did some research on any projects that were promising. And I want to highlight that this is not a way of justifying the existence of the Taliban or apologising for their human right’s abuses, but just to have a sense of intellectual honesty: to try and see reality for what it is. We can point out the good parts while strongly criticising everything else.
The main thing that has improved since the Taliban has taken over is the security situation. This is not surprising, given that the country is not longer in an active state of war with an active foreign occupation, but there are still pockets of resistance from elements of the previous national army and also from ISIS.
There was a bomb in Kabul on my third day — two people died.
Taliban checkpoints in Kabul were apparent all over the place, and you could see a lot of heavily armed men and also military equipment that was left over from the Americans being used.
However what. was very interesting is that I came across the concept, speaking to colleagues on the ground, of the different types of security. General security was significantly better, with far fewer road bomb and other types of attacks, but personal security had gone down. I was told of one story where one of our colleagues woke up in the middle of the night with someone knocking agressively at his door and it turned out to be 15 Taliban who then proceed to search his entire house. He had no recourse, and was given no reason. However, this is significantly better an option than what was happening before, where tens of thousands of people were dying in the cross-fire of military and paramilitary actions.
One interesting project is what the Taliban is doing in the north of the country, where they are trying to build what would be the world’s largest artificial canal, which would irrigate a significant area of land and turn them into a net exporter of food by 2028.
They are apparently around 50% complete with this project, but I heard skepticism about this statistic while on the ground. It will be interesting to see if they can pull this off. What is interesting is that this is completely without any assistance from the international community. They are using old equipment and it is completely funded from tax payer’s money.
I am interested in following this project over the next few years to see if it comes to fruition, it would be a positive note in an otherwise dire situation for Afghanistan.
Another relatively positive thing is how the Taliban is approaching the drug problem. Afghanistan supplies, to some estimates, 80% of the world’s heroin. 6Opium Cultivation in Afghanistan: Latest findings and emerging threats
Since the takeover by the Taliban in August 2021:
- Opium cultivation in Afghanistan increased by 32% over the previous year to 233,000 hectares – making the 2022 crop the third
largest area under opium cultivation since monitoring began.
- Opium prices have soared following the announcement of the
cultivation ban in April 2022.
- The income made by farmers from opium sales tripled from USD
425 million in 2021 to USD1.4 billion 2022 – the equivalent of 29%
of the 2021 agricultural sector value. The sum still represents only
a fraction of the income made from production and trafficking
within the country. Increasingly larger sums are further accrued
along the illicit drug supply chain outside the country.
- Seizures of opiates around Afghanistan indicate that trafficking of
Afghan opium and heroin has not stopped. Afghanistan supplies
80% of global opiate demand.
This is from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. There are conflicting views, however. The Taliban have banned Opium 7The Policy Dilemma in Afghanistan: There are no good options in response to the Taliban’s Opium Ban and:
Speculation and opinions about the Taliban’s narcotics ban have characterised the current debate. However, the evidence clearly suggests that Mullah Haibatullah, the Taliban’s leader, has achieved his objective when promulgating a religious edict against drugs in April 2022. In fact, although the poppy season in Afghanistan is only just coming to its end in the more mountainous parts of the country, in areas such as Badakhshan, it is already apparent that cultivation will have fallen by more than 80% compared with 2022.
Cynics question the veracity of this claim that cultivation has fallen, arguing that the BBC and other media outlets have only seen what the Taliban wanted them to see, and that bias, as well as other factors such as logistical convenience, has led them to restrict their enquiries to more accessible areas where the Afghan state has traditionally been able to impose its will.
This is an interesting, and rather brutal, look at one of Kabul’s largest drug rehabilitation centers, which was on the same road as the UNOCA compound.
It is difficult to know what the truth here is. Because there is logic to say that the Taliban have significantly clamped down against poppy production and the heroin trade because that is one of their stated objectives and it dovetails nicely in their belief system.
That said, there are not many economic opportunities in Afghanistan at the moment which would make it more likely that farmers would attempt to grow poppies where the yield is more profitable per acre than other crops, and where they can often receive cash upfront instead of having to wait for the harvest.
So we have all these problems, so how do we go about solving them? Obviously the international community would prefer to have an Afghanistan without the Taliban than with the Taliban.
But have to face reality, the Taliban is in charge, and — as always — there are only two options available: violence or conversation.
Considering the historical track record, violence is not the answer. We cannot fight the Taliban with conventional weapons. Nobody wants another Afghanistan war. Let’s remember that this is a country that has been at war almost for 47 of the last 50 years:
- The Republic and Communist coup (1973-1978) – 5 years of unrest
- The Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) – 10 years of war
- The Afghan Civil War (1989-1996) – 7 years of civil war
- Taliban Rule and US Invasion (1996-2001) – 5 years of conflict
- The War in Afghanistan (2001-2021) – 20 years of war and occupation.
And this has only taken us to where we have arrived at today. This means that the only logical option, however distasteful this may seem, is to engage with the Taliban and try to steer the course of the country through diplomacy.
How we do this, and how we win the war of ideas, is a topic for another day.