The Taliban’s Reign of Terror: Dissecting the Past While Cautiously Awaiting the Future

September 23, 2021

Farahnaz Ispahani has dedicated her life to advocating for human rights and has made her impact throughout the world. In addition to efforts she has made in the past toward achieving women’s rights while serving as a prominent politician in Pakistan, she authored the book entitled, “Purifying the Land of the Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.” Ispahani presently serves as a Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute and as a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center.

On September 11th, Ispahani joined with Robert Reilly, the director of the Westminster Institute, to discuss the relationship between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s citizens and particularly the situation for women and religious minorities. The Taliban began its reign in 1996, with only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE recognizing it as a legitimate government authority. While in power, the Taliban enforced a wide range of restrictions based on their interpretation of Sharia Law. The suppression of women, denial of religious liberties, and constant evocation of fear defined the nature of Taliban rule.

Under Taliban law, men had to grow beards and wear turbans; girls couldn’t attend school anymore; women had to wear burkas and their shoes couldn’t make any noise.
– Farahnaz Ispahani

When the Taliban refused to surrender Osama bin Laden into the hands of the United States, they provoked the ire of U.S. policymakers. The United States worked to establish an Afghan democracy and train a well-equipped military, with the goal of establishing a democratic, self-sustained country. Since 2001, the United States has provided 29 billion dollars to causes of citizen advancement within the country, in hopes of offering a quality of life that would ultimately dissuade future generations from joining terrorist coalitions. Under the U.S.-supported Afghan government, religious minorities slowly began to flourish, with a current estimate of 10,000-20,000 Christians in Afghanistan. Girls began attending school and women pursued careers, setting the country on an unprecedented path towards inclusion and advancement. 

As a result of U.S. civilian assistance, more than 3.5 million girls were enrolled in primary and secondary schools; and 100,000 women attended universities; and 85,000 Afghan women started to work as teachers, lawyers, law enforcement officials, and in healthcare, until just a few days ago.
– Farahnaz Ispahani

Despite the tremendous strides made over the past 20 years, there is ample reason for concern regarding the trajectory of Afghanistan’s progress. According to Ispahani, U.S. policymakers refused to recognize religion as a major point of contention within the country, so they failed to capitalize on the efforts moderate Muslim leaders made to counter the regime’s ideology. Additionally, Ispahani believes that the international community is faring much worse today than it was two decades ago, thus placing both Afghanistan and the United States in a far more precarious situation. Turkey, Qatar, Iran, China, and Russia are each very interested in Afghanistan. The ensuing destabilization following the U.S. withdrawal has been devastating. Taken together, these factors put U.S. national security at high risk. And failure to curb the Taliban’s radical ideology will allow it to resume its central position in the lives of all Afghans now that it has recaptured political power in Afghanistan. 

Something did happen. We opened up a space for a lot of the Afghan people to be their best selves and to be universal; to be proud of themselves, proud of their history, proud of their country, but also be members of the world community.
– Farahnaz Ispahani

Though it is easy to conclude that the past 20 years in Afghanistan have been for naught, Ispahani takes a more objective view. Currently, there is an entire generation born and raised in that country free from the brutal tyranny of the Taliban. These young Afghans were given the opportunity to pursue their interests, embrace their history, and follow their religious beliefs. Once a people have tasted freedom, it is extremely challenging to subdue them again. Ispahani concludes her interview by eloquently pointing to the reality of those whose only hope of survival is escape. She states, “These refugees have fled because their reality is no longer what they had hoped we had built…”, and now in response to their desperation she encourages us to “…open our hearts.”