The Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan Explained—And How Women Could Be in Peril

·8 min read

On August 16, thousands of Afghan women and men descended upon the military side of Kabul International Airport’s tarmac, the last place in the country under U.S. military control. They were desperate for escape. People hung on hopelessly to a moving airplane even as it jetted down the runway.

Over the weekend the Afghan military and government folded to the Taliban as U.S. forces continued to wrap up their withdrawal after 20 years of war. Now the country has been plunged into chaos. “I am particularly concerned by accounts of mounting human rights violations against the women and girls of Afghanistan who fear a return to the darkest days,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech to the Security Council on August 16.

“We are just sitting here and watching to see what is going to be next,” Mahbooba Seraj of the Afghan Women's Network told TRT World. “Whether the Taliban are going to really go house to house and start looking for the women…or start looking into the houses and taking the cars and taking people's money and things like that, which we are hearing here and there. Or they are not going to be doing that. Because at the same time we are also getting news from the Taliban that they say none of these things are going to be happening in Afghanistan anymore.”

State Department officials say that Afghan women who worked with the United States, in particular, are in danger under the newly empowered Taliban, The New York Times reported. But all women face uncertainty under the Taliban because of their gender. On Monday, President Biden signed off on $500 million in funds for Afghan refugees. It's not yet clear how many of them the United States will take. Nor is it known how the Taliban will treat the people who remain.

So what can you do to help?

Images of desperate Afghan civilians provoke a profound feeling of helplessness. Here are some direct ways to get involved.

You can volunteer with a group that is working to resettle refugees. Contact your local agency for resettling refugees and immigrants, or check out Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service or the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

CNN, partnering with Public Good, put together a list of 11 organizations that are taking donations. 

You can email the White House with this easy form letter to ask that the Biden administration take immediate action to help people trying to escape Afghanistan.

You can follow people who are on the ground in Afghanistan or have done long-term work in the region, like activist Homira, Afghan women's news organization Rukhshana Media, and the group Afghans for a Better Tomorrow.

Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban is an Islamic fundamentalist military group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001. During that time the Taliban sheltered al-Qaida, the Osama bin Laden–led group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and committed human rights violations. Women were not allowed to work and girls were not allowed to go to school. They were forced to cover themselves in public, and were subject to violent punishments. Any woman who participated in the furthering of women's rights in the past years may be in additional danger under Taliban rule.

While the Taliban claims to be interpreting Islamic law and tradition, it is important to remember that their practices no more represent Islam than those of the KKK, which claims to be motivated by Christian values, represent Christianity.

How will the Taliban treat women?

Since the takeover this weekend, the Taliban has been putting out the message that the Taliban of 2020 is not the same group that once ruled Afghanistan. “We would like to live peacefully. We don’t want any internal enemies and external enemies,” said spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid. “There’s not going to be discrimination against women.”

But there is reason not to believe these promises. Parts of Afghanistan have been controlled by the Taliban even as the U.S. has continued to have a presence in the country. “Public beatings and executions are routine inside the Taliban’s Afghanistan,” The Washington Post reported in December 2020. “And women are almost entirely absent from public life, largely denied equal access to education and employment.” This July, women in Taliban-controlled regions told Voice of America that they were forbidden to leave home without a male chaperone and forced to wear a full body covering. “They have conducted summary executions. They are beating up women. They are shutting down schools. They are blowing up clinics, and they are blowing up infrastructure,” former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani told NPR of life in Taliban territory.

How did this happen?

This week marks the tail end of the 20 years the U.S. has spent waging war in Afghanistan. On September 11, 2001, terrorist group al-Qaida attacked the U.S. The following week President George W. Bush pledged that the U.S. would “defend freedom,” “bring our enemies to justice,” and fight and win the “war on terror.” The U.S. invaded Afghanistan, and the Taliban surrendered in December 2001. But the U.S. spent two more decades in the country, attempting to build a democratic government and strong Afghan military, even as the Taliban rebuilt and gained power.

The numbers from the 20-year war are grim: More than 47,000 Afghan civilians have died, as well as 66,000 members of the Afghan military and police. The American death toll exceeds 6,000, which includes more than 2,400 soldiers. The war has cost the United States more than $2 trillion, a number that is expected to balloon, due to interest. It is the longest war in American history.

In May, under President Biden, U.S. forces began finalizing their withdrawal from Afghanistan, a path paved by a peace treaty signed under President Trump between the U.S. and the Taliban. Biden had insisted that the transition would be smooth, and that Afghan leaders would withstand Taliban forces. But this week the Afghan military and government fell to the Taliban.

In remarks on Monday, President Biden defended U.S. military actions and blamed the Afghan government and military. “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country,” he said. But the situation on the ground is more complex. The Afghan soldiers who folded to the Taliban have faced years of huge fatalities and pay theft, The New York Times reports.

Why is the U.S. leaving after years of claiming to help Afghan women?

The urgent danger facing women in Afghanistan may not feel like an occasion for nuance. But it's worth noting the painful irony—Afghan women are being left in peril, even though the U.S. has, from the start, used the rights and safety of Afghan women as a pretext to wage war in the country.

In president Bush’s first address to Congress and the nation about the war in Afghanistan, he laid out reasons for intervention, saying, “Afghanistan's people have been brutalized—many are starving and many have fled. Women are not allowed to attend school.” In a radio address in November 2001, first lady Laura Bush claimed that U.S. engagement in Afghanistan was part of a larger effort to secure rights and safety for women. “Because of our recent military gains, in much of Afghanistan women are no longer imprisoned in their homes,” she said. “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” American feminists, including Gloria Steinem, Meryl Streep, and Kim Gandy, then the president of the National Organization of Women, signed an open letter to the president arguing that, “U.S. women supported the war against the Taliban in unprecedented numbers—in large part because they believed your promises that it would liberate Afghan women from abuse and oppression.”

Afghan women, activist and writer Rafia Zakaria argues in her new book Against White Feminism, were used as political pawns. Zakaria says that political spin gave the impression that “America was not a cruel superpower bombing a small and hapless nation but a force for good that would actually help bring gender equality to a war-torn country.” But Afghan women were unable to ignore “the irony that some Americans could be bombing one village in the morning while other Americans inaugurated a school in another in the afternoon.”

Women's rights continued to be touted as a reason for the U.S. to stay in the region long after toppling the Taliban. Bush spoke about advances in women's rights to justify the war. In 2011, defending his controversial 2009 decision to send a surge of troops into the country to stave off Taliban forces, Obama cited “new opportunities for women and girls” thanks to the U.S. presence.

What about Biden? Richard Holbrooke, a special envoy to Afghanistan under Obama, says he met with then Vice President Biden in 2010, The Washington Post reports. He urged that U.S. forces should stay in Afghanistan to support women who risked danger under the Taliban. According to Holbrooke, Biden shouted, “I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights!”

Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.

Originally Appeared on Glamour