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The Girls We Left Behind

The Girls We Left Behind

The Taliban's savage greed is devouring Afghan lives. Swift action could put an end to the group's corruption and exploitation.

Natalie Gonnella-Platts

The Taliban’s capture and exploitation of Afghanistan has been nothing short of catastrophic for the Afghan people, especially women and children. 

Fully embracing their barbaric and extremist ideology, the Taliban have made swift work of suffocating the agency of female Afghans in nearly every way possible—across education, employment, freedom of movement, and beyond. The world must prioritize confronting those who savagely undermine the agency, well-being, and rights of women and children for personal gain. 

Nowhere is this attention needed more than in response to the current reign of terror in Afghanistan. As the George W. Bush Institute shows in a recent series of reports, the Taliban is leveraging their ability to expand their power, propaganda, and personal wealth at the expense of Afghan lives. 

Institutionalized gender persecution, extreme poverty, and growing desperation have caused a rapid surge in gender-based violence, forced and early marriage, and child labor rates over the two years since the Taliban’s return to power. Guided by brutality, they have used harassment, detention, sexual assault, and other forms of physical and psychological abuse to instill fear, obedience, and subjugation. 

Meanwhile, at least one hundred and sixty-seven children die every day in Afghanistan from treatable illnesses. Maternal and infant mortality rates have skyrocketed as malnutrition and preventable pregnancy complications become the norm for expectant mothers. And dozens of restrictive edicts have barred women and adolescent girls from nearly every facet of public life. 

Though any outside leverage it may have seems limited, the world can do much more to support the Afghan people than what it’s currently offering. A good place to start is by obstructing the Taliban’s use of corruption and kleptocracy and by challenging the state and nonstate actors who continue to enable the Taliban’s ability to acquire and safeguard assets.

Corruption and kleptocracy aren’t victimless crimes. In fact, authoritarian systems often intentionally persecute and subjugate women and minority populations in their pursuit of influence, profit, and control. Afghanistan under the Taliban is one of the most extreme examples of this abuse of power. Nevertheless, despite these blatant human rights violations, both individual countries and international systems (like the United Nations) have taken only limited action to curtail the Taliban’s ability to benefit from the suffering of the Afghan people. This needs to change, especially as the Taliban’s brutal behavior grows with each passing day.

The Taliban are eagerly pilfering critical resources during an economic crisis that has contributed to unprecedented levels of food insecurity. This includes diverting and stealing lifesaving humanitarian assistance from the women and children who need it most. Essential services like health and education have been sacrificed for Taliban priorities like intelligence, security, defense, and propaganda, even as tax and customs revenue collection has surged to record levels. But it doesn’t end there. 

Fellow autocratic regimes like Russia, China, and Iran are eagerly exploring prospects for engagement and cooperation with the Taliban, especially in natural resource access and trade, despite official condemnation of the Taliban’s treatment of women. Private sector opportunists from countries like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and even the United Kingdom are also lining up. Additionally, unintended legitimacy afforded by countries and civil society institutions (like international sporting bodies) has helped the Taliban take advantage of leniency and loopholes within existing sanctions to bypass restrictions.

Meanwhile, vulnerable Afghans are paying the price with their lives.

The world must act soon to mitigate this worsening crisis, which is all part of the Taliban’s survival strategy. And anti-corruption mechanisms are key weapons in the global arsenal.

The United Nations and individual countries should officially codify and criminalize institutionalized gender persecution and segregation as gender apartheid within international and national legal frameworks. Afghan and Iranian women are leading the charge on this right now, but they need support from national governments. UN member states should also collaboratively enforce harsher penalties on all Taliban leaders responsible for Afghanistan’s gender apartheid and other human rights abuses. 

Already existing tools could have tremendous impact in this regard if better utilized. These range from the expansion of the UN Security Council's 1988 Committee Sanctions List to the coordinated implementation of legislation like the Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the U.S. government and over thirty other countries with similar laws, to sanction, bar, and freeze the assets of foreign officials for human rights violations. Above all, the United States and other UN member states should designate the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization. The United States should also designate Afghanistan as a primary money laundering concern, under section 311 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act. 

Most importantly, individual countries and private sector organizations must increase support for data collection initiatives, civil society organizations, and independent media outlets (like Zan Times and Rukhshana Media) that are documenting Taliban atrocities. 

Knowledge is power. And the meaningful inclusion of women and other diverse Afghan experiences in decision-making forums is critical to impeding the Taliban’s manipulation of information and exploitation of vulnerable populations.

The Taliban have repeatedly demonstrated that they are incapable of reform. Corruption and brutality remain their modus operandi, and it is Afghanistan’s women and children who are enduring the fallout. The international community must do more to the hold the Taliban accountable.

Natalie Gonnella-Platts is director of Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute. Read the Bush Institute's new report series, "Captured State," here.

Image: A girl waits with her family to board a C-17 Globemaster lll Aug. 22, 2021, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. (DVIDS: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kylie Barrow)

AfghanistanAuthoritarianismDemocracyEconomicsEuropePolitical PhilosophyU.S. Foreign Policy