Afghanistan celebrated a national holiday today as the Taliban marked a year since they stormed the presidential palace in Kabul and dramatically swept to power.
Taliban leaders and supporters have been parading the streets in the southern city of Kandahar, the birth place of the movement, while the group’s signature black and white flags fill Kabul’s main square, some placed against a mural with the words: “By the grace of God, we defeated America.”
While it’s a day of celebration for those now in charge of the country, it’s a grim anniversary for many of the 38 million Afghans still living there – and a day marred with shame for many in the West.
Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP who chairs the foreign affairs committee and served in Afghanistan, has described Western allies’ botched withdrawal from Afghanistan last August as “the UK’s biggest foreign policy disaster since Suez”.
Although the global news cycle appears to have moved on, the chaos left in the wake of the withdrawal is far from over.
Early hopes of a moderated Taliban 2.0 have proven naive. In March, the Taliban reversed its decision to allow girls to return to high school, making Afghanistan the only country in the world to actively place a ban on female education.
Aside from the woes of living under such draconian laws, the population is suffering from a deepening economic and humanitarian crisis.
The former Afghan government was heavily reliant on international aid. Indeed, around 75% of public spending came from foreign grants. But the the US and its allies have cut off billions of dollars in development funds and frozen £7bn of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves since the Taliban rose to power, sending the already shattered economy into free fall.
Withholding Afghanistan’s bank reserves gives the international community some leverage to negotiate with the Taliban. But at a considerable cost. Afghanistan is experiencing record levels of food insecurity, with almost half the population – 19.7 million people – facing potentially life-threatening hunger.
What’s more, the terms of the peace deal signed between the US and the Taliban – a deal which facilitated the group’s return to power – appear somewhat shaky. In it, the Taliban pledged to prevent the country from once again becoming a breeding ground for terrorist groups. Yet the fact that Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was living in a safe house in Kabul – up until his recent assignation by the US – has heightened suspicion that Al-Qaeda members are being offered sanctuary under Afghanistan’s new leaders.
Back in the UK meanwhile, around 10,000 of the 17,000 Afghans who sought refuge under the government’s resettlement scheme, are still waiting to be rehoused. A year since fleeing their homeland, they are stuck in limbo, living in hotel rooms – at a cost of £1m a day to taxpayer – and struggling to rebuild their lives. Unlike Ukrainian refugees, they also have no official sponsors to help integrate them into communities.
Since Britain’s withdrawal, the government says it has continued to fly between 400-500 Afghans and their families to the UK every month, most of whom make their way via Pakistan. But around 6000 Afghans who worked with the UK military and are eligible to come to the UK, are still stranded in Afghanistan.
While the British government may feel powerless to affect many of the dynamics currently unfolding under Taliban rule, it can still help many Afghans by ensuring its resettlement efforts don’t dwindle.