The world has been watching in horror as Afghanistan quickly falls again to Taliban rule. Civilians have tried to flee in fear, and cities crumble one after the other as the Taliban has swept across the country, emboldened by the withdrawal of allied troops, intelligence and monetary support from Pakistan, and a deal struck with the US under the Trump administration.

The scenes trickling out in grainy videos are frightening, showing people clinging to airplanes as they try to escape, and pleas from frightened and desperate Afghan citizens have resulted in almost no help from the international community. As the terrorist group continues the takeover of its former stomping grounds, the death toll of innocents is rising and experts fear it will continue to do so to horrifying levels.

Women and children are the most at risk from the danger posed by the Taliban’s bloody ruling tactics, so what does all of this mean for the country’s most vulnerable? And how on earth did it all happen so quickly? One minute Afghanistan was a semi-stable country in a fledgling democracy headed towards independence, and the next it was once again under the thumb of insurgents; blink, and you’ll miss the exchange. 

Why Are Things The Way They Are?

Donald Trump

To take a look at what’s happening, it’s important to take a look back at how things got to where they are. In 2020, the administration of former President Donald Trump made the unprecedented move of bringing the Taliban to the negotiation table alongside the Afghan government. The goal was to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, where they’ve been since the early ’00’s in response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001. Voters have wearied of the two-decades long foreign engagement, costly in both money and lives. Trump appears to have wanted to score a late PR victory on his way out of office, and it worked; the idea of bringing troops home appealed to his base immensely. Unfortunately, it happened in the face of reality. 

The idea was to create an accord between the Afghani government and the Taliban, who have chomped at the bit since having their power unseated by the invasion of troops. Trump and his foreign officials did a victory lap in late 2020 after bringing the Taliban to the table and striking a deal, saying that if they lived up to their commitments of peace, that the US could bring troops home and leave Afghanistan in stable hands. But experts warned immediately that the Taliban was unlikely to respect the deal struck at the negotiation table. And later, intelligence officials warned that they would likely retake the country within 90 days of the United States and allied troops withdrawing fully from Afghanistan. 

It took 10 days. 

Why Has the Taliban Been so Quick To Recapture Cities?

But how did it happen so quickly? Intelligence officials are still scrambling to figure that out. Right now, it looks like it was a combination of variables:

  • Pakistan: Pakistan has long been in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and may be providing financial and intelligence support.
  • The Afghan Military: In some cases, forces for the government folded without even fighting back. Where they did fight back, resistance was half-hearted. The Afghan people aren’t entirely agreed on whether they want the government that America gave them, or a return to the Taliban. So the military responses were similarly mixed. City after city rolled over in front of the Taliban’s troops, often with barely a shot fired.
  • The Afghan government: President Ashraf Ghani fled the country to Tajikistan as the Taliban took control of the North, the last hold-out of pro-government forces. In the days before the fled, the President struck a defiant tone and tried to boost morale; but he was quick to leave once it became clear the urban centers were falling one by one.

In short, the country folded before the Taliban’s onslaught. A mix of varied loyalties and outside support set the Taliban up for an easy conquering of their former Middle Eastern stronghold. 

Women and Children At Greatest Risk

Women Children Afghanistan

Unfortunately though, the ones making the decisions for the country – the government’s military forces and President – are not the most at-risk from the Taliban’s takeover. It’s the women and children who are at greatest risk. So what does this mean for women and children left in Afghanistan as some quickly flee? The UNHCR – the UN’s refugee agency – has a grim warning of what may come. UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo says of the dire circumstances, “The human toll of spiraling hostilities is immense. The United Nations Assistance Mission has warned that without a significant de-escalation in violence, Afghanistan is on course to witness the highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year since the UN’s records began.

We are particularly worried about the impact of the conflict on women and girls. Some 80 per cent of nearly a quarter of a million Afghans forced to flee since the end of May are women and children.

Nearly 400,000 were forced from their homes since the beginning of the year, joining 2.9 million Afghans already internally displaced across the country at the end of 2020.”

Under the Taliban, women and children face forced marriages – more accurately defined as “forced rapes,” considering the fact that there’s zero choice for women on whether to comply or not. The Taliban has promised to let women continue their lives unbothered, going so far as to say that they can continue going to school and working, as long as they follow the strict interpretation of Islamic law that the Taliban embraces. This includes covering their faces fully. Across urban centers in Afghanistan, beauty salons and clothing stores have already painted over or torn down images of women with uncovered faces. In the streets, mostly men mill – confused, worried, but some celebrating. Women are staying home or trying to flee, fearful of what this new chapter in Afghanistan’s future means for them. 

Per CNN, “Appearing relaxed and jubilant at their victory, Taliban fighters outside the presidential palace told CNN their main job now was to provide security and make sure there was no looting or criminality during the handover of power.

When asked about smoking bans, mandatory beards and other rules the group has imposed on civilians in the past, the fighters told CNN nothing would be implemented drastically or immediately. At the same time, they shooed away CNN’s chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, telling her to stand to the side, because she is a woman.”

Women Children Afghanistan

The Taliban claims that the Afghan people are Muslims and therefore welcome their rule, but scenes at the Kabul airport that have trickled out over the past two days prove that not everyone agrees. The scenes are horrifying, showing mostly men clinging to airplanes as they take off from the tarmac, some videos even showing bodies falling from the skies as they fall. Notably, almost no women and children are in the crowds; too afraid to go in public right now as uncertainty and fear reigns. 

The Week reports that female journalists in Afghanistan are in fear; “‘In the last 24 hours, our lives have changed and we have been confined to our homes, and death threatens us at every moment,’ said one anonymous female reporter. ‘We see silence filled with fear of the Taliban around us.’

Another source, who said she was worried about what might happen to her as both a woman and a journalist, said ‘you cannot imagine the picture of the people and the eyes, and the faces and expressions’ from Afghans as the Taliban descended upon Kabul. ‘In provinces they took some girls for themselves and used them as slaves,’ she added fearfully, while citing reports of rape, forced marriages, and physical abuse.'” Others claim that they fear their families will be shown no mercy. 

And in one former Taliban supporter stronghold, now Taliban territory, a female mayor named Zarifa Ghafari believes she will be killed; “‘I’m sitting here waiting for them to come. There is no one to help me or my family. I’m just sitting with them and my husband. And they will come for people like me and kill me. I can’t leave my family. And anyway, where would I go?’ Ghafari told i News on Sunday.”

On Monday, President Joe Biden spoke to the world from the White House, promising to continue to speak up for women and children made vulnerable under the Taliban. But that promise rings hollow – what good will “speaking out” do when they’re being laid bare to the extremist regime? 

The Future of Afghanistan

In Biden’s speech, he struck a confident but weary tone. The President said in part, “We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago, with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and make sure Al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that. We severely degraded Al Qaeda and Afghanistan. Our mission was never supposed to be nation building.”

The President defended the choice to withdraw from Afghanistan. Biden explained that the US and allied troops spent trillions in supporting the building of the Afghan government and training of their troops. According to Biden, if they aren’t ready to hold their own country now, 1 year or 5 years more of American boots on the ground won’t make a difference. Biden focused on defending the choice to withdraw, missing the mark because most people are more worried about how horrifically the withdrawal was bungled than whether the US should have remained or not. 

Biden went on to explain that he had always promised to be honest; “The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The afghan military collapsed. Sometimes, without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending US military involvement now was the right decision. The US troops could not and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces aren’t willing to fight themselves. 

… We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.”

Joe Biden

The one thing Biden didn’t do was make viewers feel any better about the unfolding humanitarian crisis. As women as children are under increased risk in Afghanistan, and more civilians fall under the extremist regime, what is the United States going to do to help solve this problem they’ve created? Apparently, not much. Biden has sent 6,000 troops back into the country to facilitate safe evacuation of friendlies and vulnerable citizens. But if women and children aren’t leaving their homes, the effect will be minimal. 

Biden’s speech may have resonated well with some voters; he did make a case for withdrawing from Afghanistan despite the horrifying aftermath. At this point, the idea that more time in Afghanistan would make their situation better is a case that would be hard to make. However, concerned people around the world want answers as to why the withdrawal was handled so badly, why civilians were placed in danger so casually and suddenly, and what the international community will do to safeguard the human rights of women and children they left behind. For now, those questions remain unanswered. Grazia has gathered together a list of organizations aimed at helping women and children in Afghanistan and fleeing the country. The Red Cross and other international humanitarian groups are working harder to get help where it’s needed most. Gloating and high on victory, the Taliban has struck a magnanimous tone. According to them, life will continue as it always has, just more righteous and glorious than before. But the stories trickling out of forced marriages and slavery put that promise to lie; fear and uncertainty reigns as lives hang in the balance.