President Joe Biden’s decision to completely withdraw US troops from Afghanistan in May 2021 has been met with international criticism as the Taliban’s swift offensive takeover of the country comes right after. At the time, Biden stated that “the likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” Those closest to the conflict have long criticised the President’s stance on the US’ longest conflict, indicating that it would ruin 20 years of work and would bring about a humanitarian catastrophe.
In just little more than a month, Biden has been embarrassingly—and rather concerningly—proven wrong as the Taliban swiftly swept across the nation, overtaking the country’s capital, Kabul. This simultaneous takeover and criticised abandonment has resulted in a fearfully-dark future for Afghan women.
The Taliban has always been a threat to the lives of women in Afghanistan. Now that very same threat has hit an all-time high as the extremist organisation overtook its capital unopposed and seized the presidential palace. Malala Yousafzai—Nobel Prize laureate and activist—took to Twitter and wrote, “We watch in complete shock as [the] Taliban takes control of Afghanistan. I am deeply worried about women, minorities and human rights advocates.” She continued by stating that “global, regional and local powers must call for an immediate ceasefire, provide urgent humanitarian aid and protect refugees and civilians.”
International help, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be on the way—with many criticising the US military withdrawal—and neither will it be coming from its own government after new reports surfaced that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban entered Kabul. The women of Afghanistan have reported that they feel abandoned by the world of democracy that they once felt a part of. Women’s rights activist and member of the delegation which aimed to negotiate peace with the extremist group before the US’ withdrawal, Fawzi Koofi, told NBC News that Afghan women felt “betrayed” and now fear a “dark” future.
She added that “women in Afghanistan are the most at danger or most at-risk population of the country.” The Taliban’s recruitment of freed prisoners (to gain numbers in its ranks) poses a dangerous threat of individuals “who [have been] upset with women becoming powerful in the last 20 years.”
Suhail Shaheen—a spokesperson for the Taliban—told BBC News, “We will respect the rights of women… our policy is that women will have access to education and work, [and will be allowed] to wear the hijab.” This statement conflicts both with the threat to women that the extremist group has historically posed as well as the current endangerment and abuse Afghan women and girls are suffering at this very moment.
This statement simply doesn’t seem to hold, given the reports of female Afghan journalists’ on the local scenes. With their names changed—to protect their identities—a couple of journalists spoke to The Guardian about what they had seen and heard. ‘Aaisha’ reported that the female journalists’ coverage of the takeover over the last few weeks had led to an influx of death threats from the Taliban as well as others who do not believe women to be equal. Another journalist called ‘Ferebya’ reported to The Guardian that there have been many stories of women and girls being forcibly taken, beaten and sexually assaulted. Stating her fear for her own safety, she said, “Firstly I am worried about myself because I am a girl, and also a woman journalist.” Adding that “in provinces they took some girls for themselves and used them as slaves.”
This comes after findings from The Wall Street Journal that the Taliban is reportedly requesting girls over the age of 15 and widows under 40 to be married to its fighters. Experts analysing the situation have noted that this demand is even more extreme than that of the regime of the 1990s. It continues the pattern of enforced marriage and sexual slavery from extremists in Syria and Iraq. Reuters also reported in the newly-taken over Taliban regions to have seen public floggings of women who are also forced to stay at home—unable to leave unless with a male companion.
With the usual bustling streets of Kabul now empty and images of women depicted in advertisements being painted over with rollers and buckets of white paint, the freedoms fought for over the past 20 years are now quickly unravelling. Afghan women’s rights activist Koofi also spoke to Reuters on the future of women in the country. “Women are still doing their best. You have seen from across Afghanistan, every woman is in the media. They are trying to talk about what’s happening to them, their communities. We have always been optimistic. We will continue with our struggle. But it’s becoming more and more difficult for women’s rights defenders.”
Despite Trump’s relentless efforts to undermine the election results and stage an illegal coup, it seems that president-elect Joe Biden will, as his clear victory warrants, assume office come January and become America’s 46th president. But Biden’s real ordeal will only begin once he enters the White House, as he will inherit a country split along political lines and a highly divided Democratic Party.
Against this backdrop of a nation in turmoil, Biden will not be able to play the Trump card anymore come January. He will have to prove to voters that he is more than just a palliative to the catastrophe the nation has endured over the past four years, and that he can deliver real changes based on a clear political vision—something he currently lacks.
Although Biden has won the election by over five million votes, Democrats have overall fared rather poorly on 3 November: they saw their majority in Congress shrinking and lost most of the Senate seats they were hoping to flip. But instead of waiting for all of the election data to become available and engage in a sensible retrospection about what went wrong, centrist Democrats immediately attacked the party’s progressive representatives, claiming that it was their calls to defund the police, ban fracking, and adopt a Green New Deal that had lost them those seats. In doing so, centrists have all but ignored the extensive grassroots campaigns launched by progressive candidates in urban centres in swing states like Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which proved to be crucial in securing Biden’s victory.
Biden, on his part, has seemed more eager to reach out to colleagues across the aisle than to engage in genuine, productive conversations with his own party’s left wing. In order to sustain the full support he had won in order to defeat his predecessor, Biden must make a real effort to give progressives and the more left-leaning members of his party a seat at the table in his new administration, recognising that they represent a great swath of young Americans and acknowledging that they constitute the true source of excitement behind the party. This would mean, among other actions, taking bolder steps against the fossil fuel lobby (which he is presently tied to) and expanding his parsimonious healthcare solutions (Biden’s current plan will do little to ensure quality, truly affordable health coverage to all Americans).
On the national stage, Biden’s challenges are just as sizable. The hordes of MAGA demonstrators flooding cities across the nation in support of the president and his bogus claims of election fraud signal that Trumpism is here to stay, at least for now. After all, Trump did win more than 73.5 million votes (second only to Biden in the most votes cast for a president in US history). And so, facing a visceral resistance from conservatives and the Republican-controlled Senate, Biden’s instinct to appear palatable in the eyes of as many Americans as possible and his effort to undermine attempts at portraying him as an extremist are understandable. But while this tactic was sufficient to get him just over the finish line in the race to unseat a dictator-in-the-making, it will most certainly not be enough to make him a successful president.
As he strives to mend the nation’s divisions, Biden will have to take courageous steps on major issues that matter a great deal to huge portions of the population—in areas like the environment, healthcare, and immigration, to name a few—without fear of alienating conservatives and centrists. Giving people real access to healthcare, ensuring their communities are clean and safe from state-sanctioned violence, and including them fully in the transition to a more sustainable economy could prove far more efficient in getting an increasing number of Americans on board with Biden’s agenda. Advancing bold, humane policies with confidence and gusto will surely, in the long run, leave a much more favourable impression on people than buttering the public up with paltry, half-baked resolutions that produce little change.
Biden’s ascent to the presidency was made possible, arguably, by the absurdist horror show staged by his predecessor. For many Americans, their vote in the 2020 election wasn’t so much for Biden as much as it was anti-Trump. Biden’s mandate, therefore, is narrow and conditional to his performance.
And let’s not forget that Democrats’ failure to address the core issues of socio-economic, racial, and environmental crises, as well as their obstinate flirting with corporate powers seeking to preserve a crumbling status quo played a huge part in getting us to our current state of emergency. In order to seize on the opportunity given to him to heal the nation and set it on a more positive path, Biden must slough his good-ol’-Joe persona, drop his ‘return-to-normal’ act, and effect genuine change through brave policy. Ultimately, it boils down to where his loyalty lies—with big money interests or the people who made him president.