Afghanistan’s Taliban have declared Monday a “national holiday” to mark one year since they retook power from the then international-backed government amid the precipitous withdrawal of the United States and NATO troops.
The Taliban takeover was swift, hardly facing any resistance from U.S.-trained security forces of the ousted Afghan government and enabling the insurgents to enter the capital, Kabul, on August 15 after overrunning the rest of the country.
“August 15 is a national holiday in the country to mark the first anniversary of the victory of the Afghan jihad [holy war] against the American and its allies’ occupation,” said a brief Taliban announcement Sunday.
U.S.-led foreign troops withdrew from the country after almost 20 years of war with the Taliban.
The Islamist group had agreed not to allow Afghanistan to be used by transnational terrorists, including al-Qaida, to target America and its allies. The group also pledged they would respect rights of all Afghans, including women, and not bring back the harsh polices of their previous government in Kabul from 1996-2001.
But since retaking power, the hardline group’s men-only government has significantly rolled back women’s right to work and education and placed restrictions on civil liberties, saying they are in line with Afghan culture and Sharia or Islamic law.
The killing of fugitive al-Qaida leader Aymen al-Zawahiri in a U.S. drone attack last month against his safe house in the heart of the Afghan capital has raised questions about the Taliban’s counterterrorism guarantees.
The Taliban condemned the strike, saying they were not aware of al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul and promised to conduct a “serious” and “comprehensive” investigation into the matter.
The human rights and terrorism-related concerns have so far kept the international community from recognizing the Taliban government and lifting economic sanctions on the group.
The curbs, aid groups say, have deepened an already bad humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan stemming from years of war and persistent drought.
Taliban defend policies
Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi said on the eve of the anniversary of their return to power that their “nascent government” has quickly brought security to the country and it “has begun treading the path of peace, stability and prosperity.”
Balkhi told VOA in a detailed interview that relevant ministries are making all possible efforts and have effectively addressed urgent domestic economic challenges like stabilizing the local currency, creating jobs through increased trade and transit activities.
“It is now for foreign countries, specifically the United States, to do their part in alleviating the pain of Afghans by lifting all unilateral economic sanctions to let the banking and economic sector function optimally,” he added.
Balkhi renewed the demand for Washington to unblock Afghan central bank’s foreign cash reserves, largely held in the U.S., to enable Kabul to stabilize the national economy and encourage foreign investments in the country.
U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order in February aimed at unfreezing half of the $7 billion for humanitarian aid to benefit the Afghan people. The rest would be held for ongoing terrorism-related lawsuits in U.S. courts against the Taliban.
Balkhi urged Muslim countries and the world at large to recognize the Taliban government “if they truly seek an Afghanistan that can realize its full potential as a partner in peace, stability and prosperity.”
He dismissed international criticism of restrictions the Taliban have placed on women and claimed no crackdown was underway against media or civil liberties in Afghanistan.
“Just as we do not interfere in the internal affairs of others, we also demand other states not interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and to show respect for a people that are trying to heal organically after decades of foreign imposed prescriptions.”
Deteriorating human rights
The United Nations and global human rights groups in their repeated assessments concluded that the Taliban takeover has seen daily and continuous deterioration in every aspect of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.
On Saturday, Taliban security forces in Kabul fired shots into the air and beat women protesters demanding the right to education, work and political participation. The violence received strong condemnation from domestic and international rights activists.
The Taliban have barred most teenage girls from resuming secondary school and women employed in the public sector have been told to stay at home, except for those who work for the ministries of education, health and a few others. They have ordered women to use face coverings in public and banned them from traveling alone beyond 72 kilometers.
The hardline group after taking power in Afghanistan announced, “amnesty for all,” including foreign government and security officials. But critics remain skeptical whether the Taliban have upheld the pledge, citing targeted killings of former officials and other violence against civilians.
Balkhi argued the amnesty was being enforced across the country and noted, however, that “some cases of homicide” had been registered with the ministry of interior. He said “some culprits” had been brought to justice and others were still under investigation.
“These isolated cases have not deterred hundreds of thousands of former administration employees not only staying put but also being integrated into the workforce. Furthermore, hundreds of notorious figures that had earlier left the country have returned to resume their normal lives through the efforts of (a special) reconciliation and return committee,” he said.