The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in 2021, and the subsequent Taliban takeover, also led to the withdrawal of scores of foreign businesses and development projects from the country. Since 2021 the international community has taken a new approach in a bid to protect the human rights of the population. Rather than direct military intervention, it has imposed economic sanctions on the Taliban-led Afghan government, aiming to put pressure on the country’s leaders to uphold human rights, particularly women’s rights. While economic sanctions are intended to target the government, this new approach has had devastating effects on the population. The international community must find new ways of protecting the human rights of the Afghan people— and it can start by investing in the Afghan youth.
The problem with pre-2021 aid to Afghanistan is that it was tied to political and military conditions: when the politico-military situation changed, the aid changed too. The investment and following divestment of development aid to Afghanistan has left the country in an economic crisis. While the UN and World Bank maintain some involvement in the country, delivering emergency humanitarian aid, any project that could be linked to the Taliban regime remains blocked under economic sanctions. The international aid system, alongside many industries that had been promoted by international funding, such as civil society, journalism, and media, have collapsed, causing mass unemployment. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that more than half a million jobs were lost in Afghanistan between August 2021 and mid-2022. UNDP reports a depressing irony: that the microfinance industry, a favourite project among development donors, is now on the brink of collapse under financial sanctions imposed by the same governments who funded its creation.
Atiq Rahimi, an Afghan social science researcher and a citizen journalist, argues that the urban youth have been hit particularly hard by the international community’s withdrawal. Young Afghans occupied many of the jobs in aid, media, and civil society which have now disappeared: they invested in years of education to work in these sectors, and now find themselves in a country where their qualifications are useless.
Arezo Ebrahimi, a geological engineer who escaped Afghanistan in August 2021 and has recently started a masters degree in Canada, knows countless young women in Afghanistan whose lives have come to a standstill. Ebrahimi mentions one economics graduate who had a newly-established bread factory and a part-time journalism career in 2021. After the Taliban takeover, her factory was closed by the authorities, who threatened her never to appear in the media again. “There are thousands of girls like these whose dreams are buried,” she says.
Rahimi also brings up the psychological impact of the Taliban takeover on the youth: Afghans under the age of 30 have little or no memory of the former Taliban regime, making the political and cultural shift since August 2021 all the more shocking to them. The urban culture of liberal academia, Kabul cafes, and mixed-gender sports clubs have disappeared from public view. Without economic stability or cultural identity, Rahimi describes a sense of hopelessness and anger among Afghan youth: “The youth of Afghanistan know that the world has abandoned them,” he says. Other young Afghans echo this sentiment: “The younger generation has two options: leave the country or be ready for another revolution” writes one.
This mention of revolution is not a throwaway remark: Afghanistan has seen waves of protest, dominated by young faces, before and after the Taliban takeover. As this article is in publication, young women across Afghanistan are taking to the streets, despite police brutality, to campaign for the protection of ethnic minorities.
Young people throughout history have been the agents of change, but the revolutionary tendency of the young is not always positive. Rahimi points out that the majority of Taliban fighters whom he saw entering Kabul in August 2021 were young men. He believes that economic hardship was a key factor in motivating them to fight for the Taliban.
So what will happen if the youth in Afghanistan continue to suffer under economic sanctions? Pakistan’s foreign minister has warned that “washing our hands and turning our backs” is a dangerous approach. He fears that economic misery will breed extremism rather than liberalism, worsening the human rights situation and feeding armed group recruitment.
It is clear that the approach of the international community to Afghanistan is still inadequate: both military intervention and economic pressure have failed to protect the population of the country. But perhaps it should not surprise us that external pressure does not change internal politics. If Rahimi is right, it is the youth of Afghanistan who will determine the future of the country, not the diplomats of the West. This could be a good thing: it is long established in development theory that local populations possess far better contextual understanding than outsiders, and can use this understanding to devise the best solutions for their communities’ welfare. Afghan youth have more influence to transform their country than foreign politicians do, and they have more understanding of their country to know how it should be transformed.
So, is there any way that the international community can intervene positively in Afghanistan? “The West can do something” says Ebrahimi, “so that we don’t have generations with negative minds for the future.” In a country where the press is increasingly limited and international travel is increasingly difficult, the range of opinions that the Afghan youth are exposed to is in rapid decline. “By providing scholarship opportunities, empowering young people could happen and make them have a bright future,” suggests Ebrahimi. Rahimi agrees that international scholarships may be a silver bullet: programs like the Fulbright scholarships to U.S. universities have for 20 years allowed young adults from across the world, including from Afghanistan, to think more widely, and to see the world in different ways. Continuing and increasing these programs will be an essential part of a new approach to Afghanistan: an approach which does not use aid as a bargaining chip to force transformation from the outside, but which gives resources and encourages Afghans to transform their country on their own terms.
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