January 5, 2023

IntelBrief: Taliban Ensures Isolation by Imposing Draconian Restrictions on Women

AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

Bottom Line up Front

  • The Taliban’s late-December announcements banning women from attending university or working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will exacerbate humanitarian crises and further isolate the country.
  • The newly announced policies demonstrate that hardliners are ascendant within the Taliban regime with little evidence of the supposedly reformed Taliban many international actors hoped would form the new government.
  • Considering these developments, the United States and its partners are unlikely to further ease sanctions on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, having already agreed to an important sanctions carveout to allow humanitarian assistance.
  • Efforts led by international relief organizations and the U.N. are unlikely to convince Taliban officials to reverse or modify recently imposed edicts in the near future.

The Taliban’s late-December announcements, which imposed severe new restrictions on women’s rights and opportunities in education and employment, left little doubt that hardline allies of Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada are ascendant within the regime, with little evidence of the supposedly reformed Taliban many international actors hoped would form the new government. The hardliners view strict adherence to their own interpretation of Islamic law as an overriding priority, despite the high costs that the Afghan people will suffer not only from restrictions on their freedoms and economic potential but also from the loss of international political, financial, and humanitarian support from the international community. Taliban officials explained the added restrictions – a ban on women attending university or working for local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – as necessary to ensure that unmarried men and women remain segregated and that women adhere to strict dress codes outside the home. Separately, the leadership banned women from attending religious classes at Kabul mosques. These measures have been called out as excessive by many in the wider Muslim community; Hissein Brahim Taha, the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which represents 57 Muslim-majority countries, called the measures “self-defeating” and “disserving the interests of the Afghan people.”

The announcements curtailing women’s rights came one month after Akhundzada ordered Afghan judges to impose the punishments of public amputations and stoning for certain crimes. His spokesman said robbery, kidnapping, and sedition must be punished in line with the group's harsh interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia. Collectively, the November and December rulings dashed international hopes that moderate Taliban leaders would prevail on Akhundzada and others not to adopt policies that would jeopardize global aid, investment, and diplomatic engagement, and retain some trace of the tremendous US military, political, and social investment over the past two decades. The measures also abrogated the promises that Taliban officials made to world leaders to avoid imposing restrictions similar to those enforced during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 reign.

International and domestic reaction to the Taliban announcements has been swift and vocal, but potentially insufficient to compel the Taliban leadership to backtrack. Women have led demonstrations in Kabul and other cities, often joined by men, complaining that the edicts would prevent them from earning funds to support their families or determine their own futures. However, Taliban security forces have been quick to respond to protests, using water cannons to disperse demonstrators and, in some cases, beating women. The protests, which have predominantly taken place in urban areas, have been small in scale and do not appear to have gained sufficient momentum to cause Taliban leaders to modify the orders.

Global leaders have sought to communicate that the consequences for Afghanistan, and for the Taliban, will be significant if the Taliban insists on permanent enforcement of the measures. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that: “The Taliban have just definitively set back their objective of being accepted by the international community.” Secretary Blinken also signaled that the measures would set back Taliban efforts to persuade U.S. officials to devise additional U.S. and U.N. sanctions carve-outs with which to continue aid and trade with Afghanistan despite terrorism-related sanctions on the Taliban movement. The UN also echoed this sentiment, saying: “Taking away the free will of women to choose their own fate, disempowering and excluding them systematically from all aspects of public and political life takes the country backward, jeopardizing efforts for any meaningful peace or stability in the country.” The new restrictions even gave the U.N. Security Council a rare opportunity to find common ground, as the body called on the Taliban to reverse the ban on female aid workers and allow women and girls to return to school. Senior UN officials in the field have also decried the ban and UN envoy Potzel Markus has met with the de facto Taliban Deputy Prime Minister, Abdul Kabir, to voice concerns; the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has stated that they will retain all-female Afghan colleagues who will continue to be paid, and that “none will be replaced by men.”

The new measures have complicated the efforts by governments and international humanitarian relief agencies to meet the urgent needs of the civilian population. As part of that effort, the United Nations Security Council last year adopted a sanctions carve-out to reassure foreign donors that they would not risk criminal penalties for engaging economically with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, even as the Taliban and several of its leaders remain sanctioned for the movement’s affiliation with terrorist organizations. This year, the Council went further and adopted a momentous carveout across all UN sanctions regimes, creating greater coherence and consistency to help international humanitarian actors deliver aid more effectively. International relief agencies warned the Taliban that the new restrictions on women will significantly hamper their ability to provide critical humanitarian and development assistance to the Afghan population going into the winter. The Afghan people have already suffered from the consequences of Taliban policies that have prevented international investment, reduced employment, propelled many educated and affluent Afghans to flee the country, and decimated the Afghan banking system.

The United Nations suspended some of its “time-critical” programs in Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s ban on female NGO workers, who are vital to relief efforts because of their ability to easily interact with Afghan women requiring assistance. On December 28, U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths and other humanitarian groups issued a joint statement saying that: “…we foresee that many activities will need to be paused as we cannot deliver principled humanitarian assistance without female aid workers.” The statement sought to reinforce for Taliban leaders the severe consequences of their actions on the population, noting that the 28 million people in Afghanistan require assistance as the country "grapples with the risk of famine conditions, economic decline, entrenched poverty, and a brutal winter." The position of the international relief community implied that attempts to circumvent the Taliban measures, for example, by enabling female NGO employees to work remotely, would likely be insufficient to fully satisfy their mission requirements.

Taliban leaders likely calculate that international relief agencies will resume their operations in Afghanistan, to the extent possible, even with these new strictures in place. The principled humanitarian organizations are mandated to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan population, without regard to politics, and international efforts to moderate Taliban policies. Still, even if the humanitarian aid community attempts to work around the Taliban’s new measures, the hardliner’s insistence on implementing their ideology will likely prevent Afghanistan from realizing an economically viable future as long as the Taliban remains in charge. Moreover, should international actors be perceived as complicit in the Taliban’s violation of women’s human rights, it would damage the credibility of key actors to pursue human rights and development agendas in many other contexts, as autocratic governments demonstrate a greater willingness to diminish international law and obligations.