ISLAMABAD — A prominent female rights activist in Afghanistan lambasted the global community Saturday for failing to come up with a plan or agreement on how to help her crisis-ridden country since the Taliban took control of it 18 months ago.
Mahbouba Seraj, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, spoke virtually from the Afghan capital, Kabul, to a town hall at the Munich Security Conference on prospects for her country under Taliban rule.
“Is there a plan, or you are just going to sit down and have meetings after meetings and talk about it and not get anywhere?” she asked. “Is that the name of the game now?”
Seraj, 75, and a handful of female activists stayed behind when the Taliban reclaimed power in August 2021 as the United States and NATO troops chaotically withdrew from Afghanistan after almost 20 years of war with the then-insurgent Taliban.
“You were a part of our lives for so long. You did so much for us, we counted so much on you. What happened?” she asked, adding Western nations need to take urgent measures to help Afghans get out of the current situation.
U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, along with his counterparts from Belgium and Spain, were among the speakers at the town hall event.
Restrictions on women
Since capturing Kabul, the radical Taliban have placed sweeping restrictions on women across Afghanistan, effectively blocking their access to public life. They closed schools for girls beyond grade six, have progressively banned most women from government and private workplaces, citing edicts stemming from their interpretation of Islamic laws or Shariah — interpretations that most Islamic scholars do not agree with.
The restrictions, coupled with terrorism-related concerns, have kept the world from opening formal political engagements with the Taliban and from granting them legitimacy. However, there has been no disruption in humanitarian assistance for millions of Afghans through the United Nations and its partner organizations. When the Taliban banned women from NGOs in December, several did suspend their operations there.
Seraj suggested the global community needs to engage with the Taliban. She warned that deepening economic and social problems could make it difficult for women to return to schools even if the ban on their education is removed.
“There are no proper schools, there are no teachers, there is no money, (Taliban) can’t do it. So how are we going to do it? Very soon you are going to be actually sitting in a country that is falling apart,” she said. “The poverty is holding us by the neck and is going to take us down.”
Economy pushed to brink
The return of the Taliban to power prompted tens of thousands of capable and educated Afghans, particularly those who worked with U.S.-led foreign troops, to flee the country fearing reprisals.
Washington and other Western nations suspended financial support for the largely aid-dependent country since the Taliban took over and isolated the country’s banking sector.
The Afghan central bank’s access to more than $9 billion in foreign exchange reserves in U.S. and European banks has been blocked to keep the money from falling into the hands of the de facto rulers as many of them remained under sanctions for terrorism.
The U.S. has transferred $3.5 billion of the $7 billion in its banks to a newly created Swiss-based Afghan Fund to help stabilize the country’s economy but the remaining amount is blocked and could go to U.S. victims of terrorism pending court judgments against the Taliban.
Critics say the sanctions and other punitive measures have pushed the country’s war-hit economy to the brink and its revival is crucial for resolving the long-running Afghan humanitarian crisis.
“Until they engage in better behavior, we cannot recognize them as an official government,” McCaul said, supporting calls from other speakers for the Taliban to remove restrictions on women. “… I think we can leverage them to change [that] behavior but until that happens, we do have these restrictions in place.”
‘We can’t wash our hands and turn our backs’
For his part, Zardari argued that without economic engagement with Kabul, the de facto Taliban authorities would not be able to build their capacity to counter terrorist groups such as Islamic State and anti-Pakistan insurgents sheltering on Afghan soil.
“We can’t wash our hands and turn our backs on Afghanistan. It’s time to create a consensus based on the realities of Afghanistan. We need to continue the humanitarian aid, open up their banking channels, unfreeze their funds so their economy can function,” the Pakistani foreign minister said.
Zardari acknowledged that his country has experienced an increase in terrorist attacks emanating from Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power there, saying if the radical regime demonstrates resolve to combat terrorism the world should help them improve their capacity to counter the threat effectively.
Earlier this week, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said they had brought peace to Afghanistan and that no one was allowed to use the country for cross-border attacks. Muttaqi added that his administration was determined to seek engagement with the world, including the U.S., to discuss and resolve security, diplomatic and other issues.
However, Taliban leaders have refused to negotiate their rules for women, claiming they are strictly in line with Afghan culture and Shariah.