Herat, the third-largest city in Afghanistan, was one of the first major cities that fell to the Taliban in 2021. The capture of this city was considered a significant victory by Taliban rulers. Since mid-August, Afghanistan has been reclaimed by the Taliban and this has become a major international news story. The return of the Taliban to power poses many questions and worries to both the Afghan civilians and the world-at-large. With so many news outlets covering the events in Afghanistan at a macro-scale – the fleeing of President Ghani, the withdrawal of the U.S. military, the surrender of the Afghan troops, and other major events – we often forget to pay attention to what is happening at a smaller scale in each city claimed by the Taliban. I am aware that many international readers are familiar with what is happening in the Afghan capital, Kabul, thus I want to bring another major city to attention: Herat.
Herat, with a population estimated to be more than 500,000, is a strategically important provincial capital in the west of the country. This city has been an important location on the silk road route between the Middle East, Central, and South Asia since ancient times, which is why the city is often called “Afghanistan’s Little Iran.” According to BBC News, Herat is not only significant due to its current major trade links – the city is known as Afghanistan’s gateway to Iran and is located close to Turkmenistan’s border. With its position relative to Iran, this city collects a high amount of customs revenue for Afghanistan. It also has an international airport. Its overall economic and strategic importance explains why the Taliban rulers were so pleased to claim the city back after two decades.
For many who live in Herat, life has changed dramatically in the last two weeks under the Taliban. First, the laws enforced in Herat have changed. According to BBC News, violence against civilians has become more frequent and brutal. One civilian reported that she has witnessed the local Taliban authority cutting people’s hands off when caught stealing. Women are not allowed to work, and they must have men to accompany them while going out. Clothing restriction also has become more prevalent. Women must wear a burka, a long, loose garment covering the whole body from head to foot, and hide their faces.
“Herat is now like a ghost city. Women hardly commute and Taliban patrol with guns which people find intimidating,” said a journalist whose father was killed by the Taliban this year. “The parks that were established in recent years are now deserted,” the Financial Times reports. Men are not allowed to wear t-shirts or jeans and must wear Afghan dress. The Taliban rulers also check door-to-door frequently, causing people to live in fear for their safety.
Second, although children are allowed back in schools, their education looks different. Female students must wear full hijabs in school. Male and female students who once attended classes together are now separated, reports the Financial Times. Moreover, Taliban stamps are seen on the new certificates and diplomas. Herat University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in Afghanistan, remains closed.
Finally, the economy in Herat has also been transformed. The damage to the electricity and pipelines in the city often cause power and water outages. In the more remote districts, there are shortages of food and medical supplies. The inhabitants of these districts are forced to commute to the city to get their basic needs met. People are living in constant panic; in a city of more than 500,000 inhabitants, no banks have reopened and there is only one cash machine available, according to the Financial Times.
The Taliban has announced that its rule will be more moderate than it was twenty years ago, the last time the group was in power. However, the people of Herat remain skeptical about this promise. “I don’t think we’re the only people who are confused about our future. Even the Taliban are. They’re strangers to live in a big cultural city such as Herat. They have no clue what working in a system means,” said a female doctor in Herat. She added that immediately after the Taliban claimed Herat, about 100 armed Taliban men were stationed inside the hospital where she works, making it look like a “war zone.” Under this new uncertainty, many people are fearful of their future and are looking for ways to leave the country. Some left for Kabul to wait for their chance to flee via the main airport, while some have already departed to Iran. “It’s been 20 years since Herat saw such scenes,” Saeed, a civil servant said, adding “I’m ready to give my life to have my wife and kids out of the country.”
The main international actor involved in Afghanistan has been the United States, whose presence has dragged on since 2001. Back then, the U.S. was responding to the 9/11 attacks that were planned by Osama Bin Ladin, who was under the protection of the Taliban. When the Taliban refused to hand the terrorist over, America intervened militarily and pledged to secure democracy in Afghanistan. In February 2020, peace talks between the U.S. and Taliban occurred tentatively. However, the deal did not prevent Taliban attacks, as we have witnessed in August 2021.
Washington’s main goal to introduce democracy in Afghanistan under a new stable government has failed. Many critics have blamed the Biden administration for his decision to withdraw his troops from Afghanistan, leaving the Afghan soldiers unprotected. While this argument is reasonable considering how the poorly planned withdrawal of American forces led to the new rise of the Taliban, I take another position. I firmly believe that the withdrawal of the American troops was the right decision, considering how little has been achieved since placing the troops in Afghanistan in 2001. However, the blame should be put on the U.S.’s decision since the early days of the intervention to pursue an overly militarized strategy in Afghanistan. After the 9/11 attacks, both the American leaders and people were enraged by what the terrorists did on American soil. The public enthusiasm for an intervention was high, and there was confidence that if large numbers of American soldiers were present in the Middle East, the Taliban with its terrorist groups will vanish.
This has turned out to be a complete failure, with many lives (both American and Afghan) having been sacrificed for this so-called fight to end terrorism. Over-militarization should never have been an option. It only made the Afghan military and society dependent on the American presence, causing the Afghan government to become even weaker once a calamity arose. Afghanistan is a country of diverse ideologies and cultural complications, a nation that America could never fully understand by using military force alone. After what happened, many activists have witnessed human rights violations and harmful abuses perpetuated by the Taliban. That is why it was crucial for the United States to have some troops or a UN peace force stationed in Afghanistan solely to safeguard the vulnerable people who are now left unprotected.
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