The Taliban has taken power in Afghanistan, seizing control of major towns across the country, including occupying the capital, Kabul, on August 15. President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, after Taliban fighters reached Kabul, and the Afghan government has fallen to the group, just several weeks after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan for the first time in two decades. Thousands of people have attempted to flee, including those who forced their way onto the tarmac of Kabul’s international airport in an attempt to leave.
This is not the first time Taliban took hold of the country. The religious and military organization ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 following strict Islamic law that included forbidding women from working and attending school. Since 2013, the Taliban has been on Canada’s list of designated terrorist organizations, due to the group’s use of violence including suicide attacks, attacks on girls’ schools, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and more. The Canadian military deployed 40,000 Canadian troops to Afghanistan over 13 years, ending combat operations in 2011 and pivoting to training the Afghan army. The last Canadian troops left Afghanistan in 2014.
We spoke with several experts on the Taliban’s resurgence, discussing what Canada’s role should be, the media coverage around the crisis, and more.
What Canada should be doing, according to experts
Several experts weigh in on what the Canadian government should be doing to support the people there, and those who have fled the country.
Creating humanitarian corridors
Fen Hampson, a Professor at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, says that Canada should be supporting the idea of a humanitarian corridor. This means creating a safe, military-free zone, to allow the UN to provide food and medical assistance to the people there. “There [are] many Afghans who have left their towns and villages to avoid the Taliban, who are [in] some of the cities in the country and they need food, water, housing, blankets,” he says. “And the humanitarian corridors would also serve as a safe exit for those who want to leave, because it’s clear right now that the Taliban isn’t letting people even get to the airport now.”
They started resurging and the international community, including us, you know, they ignored it. The signs were there that they had come back, and that they were strengthening.
Holding the Taliban accountable
When the Taliban took Kabul, they announced that they would protect women’s rights. However, Hampson says that Canada and the international community should be putting the Taliban on notice that they are being held to account to their promises that women and girls will be allowed to attend school, and that former officials of the Afghan government won’t be targeted. “I think we should, to be honest, [be] somewhat skeptical of verbal assurances that the Taliban has given about treatment of women and treatment of former members of the Afghan government or those, including Afghans who worked for international NGOs,” he says, as many of them try to leave the country.
Watching the media cycle
One of Hampson’s main concerns is that while the world is watching Afghanistan today, he questions whether it will still be in the news several weeks from now. “You know, if we leave the Taliban to its own devices I think there’s a very high risk that things will revert to the status quo ante 2001,” he says. By watching what is happening, Canadians can help to create accountability and avoid turning a blind eye to any human rights violations.
Nipa Banjeree, a senior fellow at the School of International Development & Center for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa, said she was not surprised at the Taliban’s resurgence because it was gradually happening, but received little media attention. “It has been happening. I mean, it didn’t come out in the papers every day. But it was there,” she says. “They started resurging and the international community, including us, you know, they ignored it. The signs were there that they had come back, and that they were strengthening. But nothing was done about these things.”
Offering support for refugees
On August 13, the Canadian government committed to taking in 20,000 refugees who have already left the country, but experts wonder how this will unfold. Hampson says that it is a logistical challenge to safely get people out of Afghanistan: “When I did the math, or the arithmetic, you know, you’re looking at somewhere between 100 and 150 flights to ferry people out of there. And that’s simply not going to happen,” he says. “Up to now, there’ve been, I think, a total of perhaps nine flights. So, just the logistical challenge [is] huge.”
Banjeree says that with the embassy closed, those trying to flee are having difficulties filling out the paperwork for the program for vulnerable Afghans through Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. She says this needs to be an area the government focuses on: “There’s nobody that can explain to them in a form that is written in foreign language. As I said, it’s not clear whether or not they can apply,” she says. “And they have applied not hearing from anyone. So we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
When you look at cities like Kabul, and Kandahar and Jalalabad, these are large cities and you will hardly see any women on the street. That is a frightening absence.
Learning from past mistakes
Banjeree worked in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2006 as the head of the Canadian government’s aid program and says that Taliban should have been brought to the table for reconciliation in 2002, when the U.S. invasion took place, but that the states would not allow it. “If it was done, when they were weak at that time and had just been defeated, it would have been much easier to bring them down to reconciliation efforts,” she says. “But now, as we’ve seen over the years, they have strengthened; they have no desire for peace.”
Things to pay attention to in the media
Looking at what we can’t see
Aurel Braun, Professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto who is also associated with the Davis Centre at Harvard University, says that although we’ve seen images of planes filled with people, and photos of demonstrators protesting, what’s key is what is absent. “One of the things that we don’t see that is profoundly important [is] we don’t see women on the streets. They’ve largely disappeared from the streets. And that disappearance, that absence, is utterly chilling, because the treatment of women in repressive regimes is one of the litmus tests,” he says. “And so when you look at cities like Kabul, and Kandahar and Jalalabad, these are large cities and you will hardly see any women on the street. That is a frightening absence.”
Braun says there are also reports of men going into shops and buying burqas for their wives and daughters in the hope that this will help protect them from the Taliban. He adds that it’s not just women: “Going back a couple of months, you see so many men wearing jeans and T shirts. Look at the pictures right now, all of a sudden is a switch to traditional dress so they look like the Taliban,” he says. “For these people to change even these basic habits, things that may seem small, [such as] a change of dress, may have profound meaning.”
Things to keep in mind when discussing the crisis
The Canadian government doesn’t recognize the Taliban as a government
On August 17, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada has no plans to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government. Braun says this is because the Taliban is “an incredibly fanatical, brutal group that has engaged in medieval atrocities, that terrorize its own population, that has denied the most basic rights to women in that country to those who want to go to school.”
“And so this is a group that has taken power by force. As corrupted as the Afghan government may have been, it was an elected government,” he says. “The Taliban did not come to power through elections. They came to power through assassinations, through threats to military force.”
Organizations to support:
Books to read:
Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia
I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban
A Political and Diplomatic History of Afghanistan
Articles to read:
Social media accounts to follow
These are groups and people amplifying the crisis by providing information. Some are also offering services such as online talks and therapy sessions.
@idrfcanada – The International Development and Relief Foundation
@altheatherapy – BIPOC mental health and wellness professionals in Canada offering resources for the Afghan diaspora
@arghoshi_psychotherapy – An Afghan-Hungarian therapist offering free single session therapy for Afghans in Ontario
@yohjistan – An Afghan with her MA Global Affairs & Policy creating and sharing informative graphics
@afghanstoronto – A community group sharing information and resources