Violence, poverty and terrorism: Afghanistan fears a bleak, unpredictable future under the Taliban

With the Taliban working to consolidate its victory after seizing Kabul following a rapid advance across Afghanistan, no one knows exactly what the country will look like in coming months and years.

Though the Taliban has made vague reassurances, many recall the brutality of the 1990s

Afghans gather on a roadside near the military part of the Kabul airport on Aug. 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's takeover. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)

Waheed Arian cries as he watches the deadly chaos unfolding in Kabul.

He remembers the last time Afghanistan's "holy guerrillas of the jihad" — various groups of mujahedeen — entered Kabul back in 1992. The Soviet Union had withdrawn its forces and Afghanistan's Moscow-backed government crumbled, much like the country's Washington-backed regime has now.

"The bullets and rockets were flying over our heads, hitting the walls and ceiling," Arian said. "We left everything, stepping over dead bodies to find safety. My family spent four years travelling to different towns and cities."

They watched as the Taliban — fighters whose creed was rooted in an ultraconservative version of Islam — split off from the mujahedeen, or emerged from religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to take over the whole country. 

The Taliban quickly imposed its puritanical rules, with brutal public punishments, like flogging and mass executions, enforcing a sharply limited role of women in society.

Waheed Arian was born in Afghanistan, though he now lives and works as a doctor in London, England. As a young boy, he and his family travelled around the country frequently due to the rise of the Taliban, and the conflict that came with that. (Submitted by Waheed Arian)

Back then, Arian was nine years old. Today, he's a doctor living in London and running a charity that provides telemedicine to Afghan patients.

"People there have experienced these extremes … it's very easy to predict that the future is bleak," he told CBC News. "If the international community completely abandons Afghanistan, it's very likely that the country will go in that direction again — the economy, health care, education, if not the military [conflict]."

Now, with the Taliban working to consolidate its victory after its rapid offensive across the country, no one knows exactly what Afghanistan will look like in coming months and years.

As many Afghans desperately tried to escape this week, Taliban spokesmen in Doha attempted to reassure them — and the world — that they shouldn't fear retribution. Women, they told a news conference, are a "key part of society," whose rights would be guaranteed "within the limits of Islam."

That last part provided little comfort, just as other Taliban statements sounded a lot like a return to their hardline approach from the 1990s.

The future government in Afghanistan is "clear," they said: It will be Islamic, and "of course, there will be no democratic system at all."

Armed Taliban fighters stand next to an imam during Friday prayers at the Abdul Rahman Mosque in Kabul on Friday, less than a week after the stunning takeover of Afghanistan was finalized. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)

The actions of Taliban fighters on the ground seem to confirm this. Scattered protests against the new rulers have been met with violence across Afghanistan. There are reports of officials in Kandahar and Badghis being executed after giving themselves up. 

Eyewitness accounts and an internal United Nations report describe door-to-door manhunts for those who collaborated with U.S. and other NATO forces. "The Taliban are arresting and/or threatening to kill or arrest family members of target individuals unless they surrender themselves to the Taliban," said the UN document, seen by the BBC.

"How can we trust the Taliban with what they have shown in action?" said Murwarid Ziayee. "This puts everyone in so frightening a situation."

Ziayee is with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, a group that has established education and literacy programs for women and girls in the country. Efforts like these are now in question despite Taliban promises that they welcome foreign help.

An Afghan woman passes by a destroyed armoured vehicle belonging to ex-government forces in Kabul on Oct. 30, 1996. When the Taliban last had control of the country in the 1990s, it imposed a strict interpretation of Shariah law, which was often brutal and particularly limiting to women. (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

They certainly need foreign aid. 

Last year, some 43 per cent of Afghanistan's economy was financed by global donors, according to the World Bank. The United States and other countries have now moved to freeze billions of dollars in Afghan government reserves held abroad. 

These and other links to the outside world established by individual countries, NGOs and UN agencies in the past 20 years offer hope for some.

Not the same Afghanistan

Sally Armstrong believes the Taliban won't be able to govern a country that has been transformed by all the "nation building" that's been taking place since the 1990s. Armstrong is a Canadian journalist, author and human rights activist who has focused on Afghanistan, and she served as UNICEF's special representative to the country in 2002.

"All 49 countries involved in Afghanistan were trying to help the Afghans get on their feet — and look at what they did," she said. "It's astonishing."

Many social indicators have shown improvement. Average life expectancy has gone from 56 years in 2001 to around 65. The literacy rate has shot up to around 56 per cent among young females, from 25 per cent. And from 62 to 74 per cent among young males. Maternal mortality — the rate at which women die after giving birth — has been halved.

"So can the Taliban hang on?" said Armstrong. "How can they when you have flourishing universities all over the country? These kids are post-Taliban!"

WATCH | How the Taliban's takeover is creating a 'brain drain':

Taliban takeover creating Afghan 'brain drain,' says scholar

1 year ago
Duration 7:02
Many Afghans, particularly those that helped U.S.-led foreign forces over two decades, are desperate to leave the country. Obaidullah Baheer, lecturer at American University of Afghanistan, is concerned that if everyone leaves, the country would become a 'Taliban echo chamber.'

More than half of today's population is too young to remember a time when the Taliban ruled. The hope is they won't put up with being ruled by tribal leaders and warlords with methods that many have described as medieval.

"Afghanistan is different today," said Zubaida Akbar. "The people of Afghanistan are different."

Akbar runs an NGO called Hadia — meaning "gift" in Farsi — which works with children in orphanages and women in shelters and prisons. The NGO is now being shut down, with most of its volunteers and staff scrambling to escape Afghanistan. So is Akbar's family. 

Akbar, who lives in Washington, worries that with the exodus, the economy will also collapse. 

"We can't afford to lose all these young, educated Afghans," she said. "They have sacrificed everything to get an education. And now they risk their lives to a group of terrorists who can't read, who can't write, who won't talk to us."

'A proxy army'

In the early days of the U.S. military control of Afghanistan, Canada's first ambassador to Kabul was Chris Alexander. He went on to work for the UN mission to Afghanistan and later became a minister in former prime minister Stephen Harper's cabinet.

The Taliban's speed in retaking the country after the U.S. withdrawal came as a result of support from Pakistan, he said, which sees an opportunity to control Afghanistan and extend its influence into Central Asia.

Former immigration minister Chris Alexander, shown here in a 2017 file photo, says the Taliban’s speed in retaking the country came, in part, as a result of support from Pakistan. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The Taliban "is very much a proxy army of the Pakistani military," Alexander said in an interview, though Pakistan has denied the connection

Many of the Taliban's fighters sought refuge from American forces in Pakistan over the past two decades and were educated in Islamic madrassas — or religious schools — across the border. They have since returned, but strong links remain.

"This is now a Pakistani protectorate," said Alexander. "A breeding ground, again, for the kinds of terrorist groups that have been thriving [in the region] for decades," with the support of Pakistani military and intelligence officers.

It was the presence of terrorists from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan that prompted the U.S. invasion of the country in 2001, in the wake of the group's Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

Muslim men leave after Friday prayers at the Jama Mosque in Herat, Afghanistan on Friday. (Aref Karimi/AFP via Getty Images)

And the Taliban government has been cautiously welcomed by neighbouring China, which has promised to "respect the will and choice of the Afghan people." 

But Beijing is also nervous that the Taliban will once again allow terrorist groups to operate freely, and perhaps even to launch attacks across the border into Qinjiang. China has carried out a tough crackdown against ethnic Muslims in the region — condemned as genocide by Canada and others — with the justification that it needs to prevent the threat of terror.

This week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said China hopes the Taliban will "earnestly honour the commitment of not allowing any force to use Afghan territory to threaten the security of its neighbours."

Arian, the London doctor, also fears that Afghanistan will once again become a base for terrorist groups or get squeezed by the interests of regional powers. He worries that the people in his country will face violence, religious restrictions and economic hardship. 

But he offers optimism from his days growing up under similar circumstances.

"I survived because I was hanging on to just a tiny bit of hope from one day to another."


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.