Tuesday marked the second anniversary of the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan.
As the US and Nato forces withdrew from the war-torn country after two decades of warfare, Taliban fighters made lightning advances, seizing control over the whole country in a matter of weeks.
On 15 August 2021, they overthrew the government of the then-current President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, and took control of the Afghan capital. And subsequently, they declared 15 August to be a national holiday – which is not recognised by any country in the world.
Taliban fighters, supporters were joined by some Kabul residents as they gathered on the streets. Vehicles carrying soldiers and children waving black and white flags were also seen driving slowly in informal parades.
But is there much to celebrate after two years?
At home, there is no force strong enough to stand in the Taliban's way. They have managed to sidestep any internal divisions by wholeheartedly rallying behind their unwavering leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada. They have also managed to keep a struggling economy from going under, in part by holding investment discussions with capital-rich regional countries – despite the international community's lack of formal recognition.
The government has implemented measures to enhance domestic security by undertaking rigorous operations against armed factions, notably the Islamic State. Additionally, they have expressed their commitment to combating corruption and curbing opium cultivation.
But this relative stability has come at a heavy humanitarian cost with Afghan girls and women bearing the brunt of it as they continue to be largely excluded from civic life, formal schooling and the job market.
Despite making public commitments to protect and promote human rights two years ago, the Taliban has been accused, by human rights organisations like Amnesty International, of sustained attacks on human rights, persecuting minority groups, violently clamping down on peaceful protests, using extrajudicial executions and disappearances to spread fear among Afghans.
Moreover, the country is experiencing a massive humanitarian crisis due to the combined effects of decades of war, regular extreme weather events, corruption and widespread unemployment.
With not much help heading their way in the form of foreign aid, dark clouds linger.
A humanitarian crisis
Afghanistan has become one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, with more than 28 million people – two-thirds of the population – in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. The United Nations has reported that four million people are acutely malnourished, including 3.2 million children under 5.
Food insecurity has been a major issue in Afghanistan for two years. Many jobs have been lost, especially those held by women who, in many cases, were the sole breadwinners in their families.
Thousands of Afghans who had fled the country remain in limbo in countries like Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Turkey living in poor living conditions.
A fall-off in development aid has seen job opportunities shrink and the UN estimates more than two-thirds of the population need humanitarian aid to survive.
The international community provided about 80% of the funding for the previous Western-backed Afghan government's budget. The now-cutoff funding supported not only hospitals, schools, and factories but government agencies as well.
Malnutrition, climate change, a lack of medical supplies and the Covid-19 epidemic have all contributed to an already dire situation in Afghanistan. Even basic necessities, including medical care, are now being provided by aid organisations.
Afghanistan is dealing with its third consecutive year of drought-like circumstances, a continuing decline in family income, and foreign banking restrictions.
An economy on the mend
Since the Taliban takeover, the economy has not collapsed as some had expected. In fact, the economy is slowly emerging out of its slump.
Just last month, the World Bank announced the native currency, the Afghani, appreciated versus major currencies. Customers who made individual deposits before August 2021 can withdraw more money, and the majority of government employees are getting paid.
The World Bank claimed revenue collection was 'healthy' and that despite low demand, the majority of necessities were still in stock.
China and Kazakhstan are two nations in the region with which the Taliban have discussed investments. In January, a privately run Chinese oil company Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co (CAPEIC) signed a contract to extract oil from the Amu Darya basin, the first major extraction deal the Taliban administration had signed with a foreign company since retaking power.
Lingering dark clouds
With the Taliban on the wheel, human rights have largely taken a backseat. Since the Taliban retook power, girls over the age of 12 have been mostly left out of schools. For most Western countries, the ban is a main obstacle to any hope of formal recognition of the Taliban regime.
The Taliban, who say they respect rights in line with their strict interpretation of Islamic law, have shut down beauty parlours, prohibited women from entering parks and restricted women's movement without male accompaniment in Afghanistan.
But most Muslim-majority countries and Islamic scholars have rejected the Taliban's stance on women's rights.
Journalism, which flourished under the two decades of rule by Western-backed administrations, has been severely repressed. Human rights organisations have expressed concern about the incarceration of media workers and civil society activists, including notable education advocate Matiullah Wesa.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Taliban's strict restrictions on local media, which include preventing international media broadcasts, have made it difficult for Afghans to get information and no one can report critical information without fear of arbitrary arrest and detention.
The Taliban have not commented in detail on these issues but they claim that their law enforcement and intelligence agencies investigate suspicious activities to 'seek explanation.'
On the flip side, there has been a reduction in corruption that emerged following the influx of Western funds subsequent to the removal of the Taliban in 2001, according to the UN special.
Additionally, there are indications that the implementation of a Taliban prohibition on the cultivation of poopy has resulted in a significant decrease in poppy production in the region that has consistently been the world's largest producer of opium, a trade which the Taliban profited from in the past. (Fun fact: more land is used for opium in Afghanistan than is used for coca cultivation in entire Latin America).
However, the UN says there have been dozens of attacks on civilians, some claimed by Islamic State rivals of the Taliban.
Although no country has recognised the Taliban government officially, on July 30 and 31, a US delegation held discussions with senior Taliban representatives and technocratic professionals in Doha, Qatar for the first time since their return to power.
The delegation was led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West, alongside Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls and Human Rights Rina Amiri, as well as Chief of the US Mission to Afghanistan based in Doha Karen Decker.
According to reports, the two sides discussed confidence-building measures during the two-day talks, including the lifting of sanctions and travel bans.
The Taliban will be hoping that the advancements will also contribute to international recognition and the release of about $7 billion in central bank assets that were frozen at the US Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2021 – half of which was later transferred to a Swiss trust.