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A Taliban Takeover: the Ramifications of a U.S. Troop Withdrawal on Human Rights

Written by Lydia McCoy


Editor's note: Most of this article was written prior to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on August 15. Some discrepancies may occur, as the situation is rapidly developing.


Executive Summary

This paper provides background on the Taliban, an extremist group in Afghanistan that has existed since the 1990s, and discusses how the withdrawal of U.S. troops will impact human rights in Afghanistan. The U.S. plans to withdraw all troops by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. However, given Afghanistan’s fragile security and human rights situation, the U.S. withdrawal may worsen the situation if proper mechanisms are not put in place.


What is the Taliban?

The Taliban is a group that emerged in the 1990s, and its name translates to “the students'' in the Pashto language. The group’s emergence resulted from the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Experts widely believed that the movement grew out of Saudi-funded religious seminaries preaching hard-line Sunni Islam. However, many also believe Pakistan played a role in training Taliban members. In addition, members of the Taliban promised to restore peace and security in the Pashtun regions near the Afghani border with Pakistan; part of this promise included implementing strict Sharia, or Islamic, Law.


Exhausted by the excess of the former government and the infighting brought on by Soviet withdrawal, the local population initially welcomed the Taliban. The Taliban worked hard, stamping out corruption and creating an infrastructure that supported the local economy. The group quickly gained control of Afghanistan, moving from the southwest corner of the state to capture the province of Herat in 1995. Only one year later, the Taliban captured the Afghani capital of Kabul. By the end of 1998, the Taliban controlled 90% of Afghanistan.

Despite the promise of renewed economic growth and stability, the new regime brought negative consequences, including the strict enforcement of Sharia Law, public executions, full-coverage of womens’ bodies, a ban on television, music, and film, and other various cultural and human rights abuses. As the Taliban increased its influence, terror-inducing attacks became the norm in Afghanistan because they maintained control of the population. Moreover, the Taliban threatened to destabilize Pakistan, an ardent supporter that fell under the undue influence of the Taliban, leaving the state vulnerable to attack. The group also faced accusations of providing safety to Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 terror attacks in the U.S.


The U.S. in Afghanistan

In October 2001, the United States sent troops to Afghanistan, which led to a complete collapse of the Taliban government in December of that year. The Taliban dispersed, regrouping along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Since then, the Taliban has been waging an insurgency and gaining ground against the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The Taliban’s resurgence was due to the U.S. withdrawing both troops and massive amounts of resources for the Afghan government and diverting it to Iraq, leaving it vulnerable to Taliban attack. In addition, American forces failed to help Afghanistan rebuild and form a legitimate government which led to increasing instability and pushed the local population to anger and increased Taliban membership. The U.S. moved resources back to Afghanistan only after the Taliban gained a substantial share of power at the national level, but it was too little, too late. Now, the U.S. plans to withdraw most of its troops by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, leaving a delicate security situation behind in Afghanistan. In July 2021, estimates show the Taliban controlling 54% of Afghanistan’s districts. The Taliban continued gaining ground, taking over Afghan military installations, invading the suburbs, and seizing key border crossings with Pakistan and Tajikistan. On August 15, the Taliban toppled the Afghan government and took control of Kabul.


Although the 2020 Doha peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S. were constructive, there was minimal discussion regarding the safety of Afghan citizens. Instead, the promises ranged from the Taliban not interfering with the U.S. withdrawal to preventing al-Qaeda from gaining power in the region. Despite these promises, Taliban officials continue to use acts of violence and terror as means of control, such as targeted assassinations against women, activists, judges, and journalists. Many argue that the group remains as extreme as ever, regardless of the peace talks. With about 85,000 full-time fighters, the Taliban reached its highest enrollment since 2001.


Human Rights Ramifications

The U.S. troop withdrawal has immense consequences for human rights in Afghanistan. While the human rights situation was always sensitive in the region, it is now in an especially precarious position due to an intense drought, pandemic, and economic downturn. There are also many divisions, ranging from religious officials, locals, government officials, Taliban supporters, and U.S. officials. Since these divisions were unable to come together in the face of increasing Taliban control, it is unlikely that any progress will be made in the area of human rights for Afghanistan.


The human rights situation in Afghanistan is dire. Many Afghans find themselves homeless due to destroyed dwellings. Intellectuals and politicians foresee the prospect of unjust expulsion from the state or death for their beliefs. The Hazaras, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minority, fear genocide. The Hazaras claim to be descendants of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire. Their Asiatic language, distinct features, and Shia Islamic practices separate them from a majority of Afghans. With a history of persecution, it is likely that the Sunni-based Taliban will once again engage in violence against the Hazaras. Furthermore, women and girls in Afghanistan are in jeopardy. If the Taliban regains total control and implements their strict interpretation of Sharia Law, many freedoms, such as the ability to vote, drive a car, attain an education, or even leave the house without a male chaperon, once afforded to women will be promptly removed.


Policy Recommendations

To remedy the human rights situation, or at least defend human rights, in Afghanistan, there are three actions the U.S. Government can take without reinstating troops in the region.

  1. The United States Government must create a task force specifically dedicated to evaluating the human rights situation in Afghanistan. The task force must evaluate the following:

    1. The rights of women, children, and minorities

    2. Housing conditions

    3. Sanitation conditions

    4. Food and water access

    5. Education access, specifically non-secular options and education for women and young girls

  2. The United States Government must officially condemn the human rights conditions in Afghanistan and call on the Afghan Government and Taliban officials to improve upon the human rights in the country.

  3. The United States Government, specifically the U.S. Department of State, must offer human rights training and education materials to Afghan and Taliban officials to ensure that all peoples enjoy fundamental human rights regardless of their political affiliation.


Conclusion

The United States’ prompt exit from Afghanistan leaves a power vacuum that the Taliban plans to fill. It is unlikely that the Taliban will use the ballot box when force and fear work quickly and effectively. With the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, the human rights situation is likely to rapidly deteriorate. The U.S. withdrawal failed to result in a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan; instead, the withdrawal and the recapture of Kabul by Taliban forces will likely result in greater human rights abuses and a resurgence in targeted violence. There is no perfect solution here. Taking the aforementioned policy recommendations into account, however, the U.S. Government can attempt to ensure a decrease in human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

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