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Western Countries Out, Taliban In: Can Achievements In Afghanistan Of Last 20 Years Be Preserved?

Women gather to demand their rights under Taliban rule during a protest in Kabul on September 3.

The U.S.-led war that began in Afghanistan in 2001 ousted the brutal Taliban regime that had harbored the terrorist Al-Qaeda network, which was largely dismantled and pushed underground.

Nearly 20 years later, U.S. and other international troops have left in a chaotic withdrawal that concluded with one of Afghanistan's deadliest bombings ever, killing more than 180 people, including 13 U.S. troops, on August 30.

The Taliban has returned to power and terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), operate in Afghanistan amid concern that Al-Qaeda itself could also find a foothold in the country.

"The first clear goal [of the U.S.-led presence in Afghanistan] was to stop any more international terrorist attacks like 9/11 from happening again, [or from being] plotted...[or] organized from Afghanistan," former British diplomat Nicholas Kay, who served as his country's envoy and NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan from 2017-20, said in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "And for 20 years that has been successful. The question of course is, is that sustainable? Will that continue to be the case?"

Amid the uncertain security situation in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover on August 15, questions are being raised about the two decades of U.S-led efforts to defeat insurgent groups and bring democracy to the war-torn country.

The fighting since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion resulted in an immense human cost: 2,455 U.S. soldiers, some 66,000 Afghan troops, and more than 47,000 civilians killed, making Afghanistan among the "deadliest places in the world to be a civilian," according to the UN.

The effort cost some $2 trillion, including on training and equipment for the pro-Western Afghan military that quickly melted away after the withdrawal of international troops began on May 1, allowing the Taliban to quickly regain complete control of the country.

Despite that staggering investment in the country, many Afghans still live in poverty and about half of the country's population is dependent on humanitarian assistance, according to aid groups.

And many people, including some of the millions of Afghans internally displaced or forced to flee their country, are now asking whether the huge effort on the part of the international community was worthwhile.

"Afghan people have a very important question: after 20 years, after the killing and martyrdom of [so many] and difficult days, what is the result? Have we returned to 20 years ago?" Shafiq Hamdam, who advised NATO forces in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

While some have described efforts of the past two decades as a failure now that the Taliban has returned, many others have expressed the hope that some of the monumental gains in women's rights, education, and health care, for example, can still be preserved under the hard-line rule of the Islamist group.

"What started in 2001 as a journey for peace has ended up being a very bloody, costly road for the Afghans, for the Americans, for everyone else," said Bilal Sarwary, a prominent Afghan journalist who fled his country after the Taliban takeover.

Sarwary noted, however, that his country had changed remarkably in the past 20 years.

Not Women Of The '90s

Among the most significant advances since 2001 were achieved by Afghan women, who gained many rights but are now fearful they could lose them under the Taliban, which confined them to their homes during its 1996-2001 rule and deprived them of most of their basic rights.

"We have achieved a lot in the past years and despite security threats and other problems we studied, we assumed responsibilities, we worked along with men," said a woman at a September 2 protest in the western city of Herat.

In the years under the pro-Western government that fell last month, females were able to attend school and they joined the workforce in large numbers -- becoming teachers, police, judges, lawmakers, and government officials.

The country also held presidential, parliamentary, and local elections that were criticized for being flawed but gave Afghans an opportunity to take part in a democratic process.

But corruption in the country was endemic, with hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction funds being lost due to "waste, fraud, and abuse."

Bomb blasts and other attacks by various militant groups -- including the Taliban -- were widespread across the country and killed thousands of innocent people.

But life did, in fact, improve substantially for millions of Afghans.

Along with the gains in education, many Afghans had far better access to quality health care, with infant mortality being reduced by nearly 50 percent. Many also had their first access to mobile phones and the previously Taliban-banned Internet.

About 80 percent of the population say they have access to a mobile phone and there are reportedly nearly 9 million Internet users among the country's 38 million people.

The fully-controlled media during the five-year reign of the Taliban also flourished after its ousting, with dozens of independent radio, television, Internet, and newspaper outlets emerging across the country in the past 20 years.

Those outlets are now concerned about censorship and a ban on the many female journalists that they have employed. Many have already been told by Taliban officials not to return to their jobs.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says the major U.S.-led achievements were in the social sector, warning that they could all be easily jeopardized. "Given the Taliban's extremist views and repressive tactics, and given its lack of experience with governance and development policy, there's good reason to fear that these gains -- even if not as large as many may suggest -- stand to be reversed," Kugelman told RFE/RL.

Analyst Hamdam suggests that much will depend on the Taliban and the way it will govern the country. "The constitution of Afghanistan, democratic institutions, democratic structures, non-military infrastructure, all of these -- the Americans have not taken them while leaving," he said. "This infrastructure has remained in Afghanistan for the Afghan people and the military equipment worth tens of millions of dollars also belongs to the Afghan people. Therefore by preserving them [they preserve] the values, the capital, and Afghanistan's national interests, [its] major interests."

"It's the responsibility of the people of Afghanistan and the responsibility of the Taliban to preserve [these values] even if some of them are against their views," he added.

Heather Barr, the interim co-director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch, says the changes that have taken place in Afghan society are likely to pose a challenge to the Taliban.

"There is a generation of girls and young women -- and boys and young men -- who grew up, many of them with views about women's rights and women's roles that are completely at odds with how the Taliban were in 2001 and how the Taliban appear to be now. It is hard to see how these women and girls -- and their families -- will be able to live under a Taliban government that wants to roll back women's rights dramatically, even if in some limited ways it is a bit more flexible than 2001," Barr said.

In recent days, women in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, and Zaranj have taken to the streets demanding that the rights they gained over the past 20 years be respected. They also signaled loudly that they're not the women of the 1990s and that Afghanistan is not the country it used to be under the Taliban's previous rule.

Despite Gunfire And Lashings, Afghan Women's Protests Grow
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The Taliban, which has not appointed any women in its new government lineup of 33 ministers, has used force to disperse women's protests.

Barr expects many Afghan women to resist any attempt by the Taliban to roll back their rights, including through the setting up of underground schools for girls, women's support networks, and through public protests.

"The real question is what the response will be from the international community," she said. "Are they ready to just say 'that's a shame' and walk away from women's rights being crushed in Afghanistan, with no sense of responsibility to Afghan women?"