Overview:

The Taliban's bans on women in public spaces have prompted NGOs to withdraw. However inevitable, we cannot forget that, in this game of international chicken, it's the Afghan people who always lose.

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In a series of moves surprising no one, the Taliban government in Afghanistan this past week banned women from universities, and also locked girls out of primary school (essentially ending education to female persons across the board), before also banning women from work in any local non-government organizations (NGOs). The usual nonsense reasons pertaining to claims that women aren’t abiding by hijab and can’t be protected from mixing with men in these spaces have been invoked, but are so clearly pretense as to not merit the dignity of consideration too often afforded to bad faith argumentation in mainstream media.

In a response that was slightly less predictable, four major NGOs have now announced a suspension of local operations. CARE, the International Rescue Committee, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Save the Children have stated that, without women on staff, they cannot effectively carry out their work, which involves providing food, medical attention, and related emergency aid services to the most desperate in Afghanistan. (This is, in part, true solely because rigid guidelines already exist with respect to who is allowed to be present with women and children in the country.)

The decision of these NGOs to suspend services was less predictable only because there is a difficult calculus behind the choice to withdraw aid entirely when a region decides to discriminate against specific demographics. Last year, after the US military withdrawal and the Taliban’s takeover, the state of Afghanistan’s civilian population plummeted: Human Rights Watch reported that only 5 percent had enough to eat. Afghans are selling their children and their organs to support remaining family members.

READ: Millions on the brink of starvation under Taliban rule

The major pressure point is financial. The US, the World Bank, and the UN have all authorized humanitarian efforts and dedicated funding to the region, and Afghanistan is technically allowed to engage in international commerce. However, the Afghanistan Central Bank’s assets have been frozen by the US since Taliban takeover, with a third-party Geneva fund only announced this September to help free up key resources for local transactions while continuing to bypass the administration. Moreover, although aid funding exists, even those earmarks were substantially reduced after US withdrawal, which also abruptly ended a major economic input in the form of expenditures related to military occupation.

In the absence of a functioning financial market, food exists, and medical labor does too, but without the ability to access salaries and actually buy goods and services, the vast majority of Afghanistan’s population has been left to borrow and barter whatever it can to survive.

A governing body can take two different approaches to this crisis. It can choose to defer to international demands on its administration, and hope that these will suffice for international actors to free up resources and markets. Or, in the absence of good faith dealings, it can allow the situation to deteriorate such that the population will be even more directly reliant on its edicts to survive: a brutal switch to an extremely insular nationalist economy.

The Taliban is leveraging a culture that was already one of the worst in the world for women to restrict the population’s capacity for further dissent, and to fuel a strong sense of the country having been abandoned by everyone else, such that submission to its authority becomes the only path to future thriving.

The choice of these NGOs to leave was both important with respect to holding the line against further abuses of women and girls in Afghanistan, and also part of an excruciating game of “chicken” with the Taliban. The Taliban currently “wins” with respect to cutting off hope among citizens of any further external relief. In the short term, the Taliban gains tightened control over all internal processes and the fate of Afghanistan’s population.

But whether a desperate population will accept the Taliban’s reign, and the staggering rates of dehumanization that accompany it, forever is less certain. Even if it is willing to rise up against its oppressors, though, that desperate population will need some resources to topple this regime—but from where, without direct contact to outside networks?

Whether the international community can stand idly by forever, condemning specific forms of oppression, without making concessions in exchange for some access to hurting human beings, is another major consideration. The Taliban currently shows no interest in de-escalating its path to greater tyrannical rule, so for now a lot depends on how outside actors choose to engage with its regime—and the only clear short-term outcome is further suffering on the part of everyday Afghan people.

Even if we can’t reach Afghan people directly at this difficult time, though, international organizations stand at the ready to support Afghan people in diaspora (who may, in turn, be able to offer more solutions and pathways to future regional change). Consider seeking out local action groups, and supporting NGOs serving refugee populations elsewhere, until more direct options become available for this part of our complexly hurting world.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.