August 15, 2021, is a day Afghanistan will never forget.
It’s the day the former president, Ashraf Ghani, ran away as Taliban forces were barreling toward Kabul, the city that had become the hub of IEDs and targeted killings over the previous year. Ghani had spent the preceding 11 days in silence, never once mentioning a single province that had fallen to the Taliban. After he jetted off to safety, he didn’t bother to issue an apology until several weeks had passed. Even now, his administration—full of ministers, ambassadors, and generals who had long been dogged by accusations of corruption, sexual harassment, fraud, incompetence, and war crimes—has never had to face questioning in Afghanistan. Those officials are now in Dubai, Istanbul, and New Delhi.
While Ghani was making his escape, more than 32 million Afghans were left to fend for themselves against a group that had claimed to be fighting a foreign occupation but was better known for sending suicide bombers to attack civilians: people celebrating a birthday at a lakeside restaurant 20 minutes from the city; media workers on their way home from the office; families gathering for dinner on the eve of the Persian New Year.
It was as if Thanos had snapped his fingers and half the world disappeared.
Overnight, the old decision-makers were gone. Game shows, singing competitions, and insipid Turkish serials went off the air. Thousands of people flocked to the airport, hoping to catch the last flight out of Kabul.
And then the economy crumbled as the US Federal Reserve, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund cut off the country’s access to billions in assets, assistance, and loans. Western Union quickly followed suit. The world, particularly Washington, wanted to punish the group that Donald Trump had signed a peace deal with just 18 months earlier and Joe Biden had watched strong-arm its way back into power. Even as they refused to open their doors to refugees, countries said it would be “impossible” to recognize the Taliban’s caretaker government.
The Afghan people were left alone and broke.
Once the initial shock of the Taliban’s return to power wore off, the devastation of being without cash, employment, and an income started to sink in. Suddenly the streets of Kabul were lined with refrigerators, TVs, silverware, rugs, air conditioners, and anything else people could sell—always at a massive discount—to buy food, pay rent, and keep the lights on. Today, more than half the population—some 22.5 million people—face a winter of catastrophic food insecurity; as many as 1 million children could die.
Among the many lessons of the last four months, one that has become criminally clear is that, over 20 years of occupation, Afghanistan’s economy became an aid-dependent husk. As soon as the foreign aid was cut, the entire structure crumbled, trapping the people in what the United Nations is calling a “humanitarian” catastrophe. Even commercial endeavors, which should have been independent businesses, were somehow tied to foreign contracts, international NGOs, embassies, or grants. As those offices closed, the many who depended on them began to suffer: the small shops where office staffers purchased their groceries; the travel agents who booked tickets for their trips; the tailors who sewed the suits they wore; the money changers who converted their currencies.
Through it all, of course, the Taliban leadership hasn’t suffered. Nor has Ghani or his globe-trotting co-conspirators. Those who are suffering today are the same ones who suffered during the 20 years of Western-backed occupation and the Taliban’s alleged fight against it—the people. Crime has not dissipated. The so-called Islamic State continues to be a force. The Taliban have beaten up and detained journalists. They are accused of forcibly evicting people from their land. There are reports that they have intimidated or killed hundreds of former members of the security forces in retribution for their association with the Western-allied government. Teenage girls are still largely unable to go to school. Thousands of women are either afraid or unable to return to work.
None of this was inevitable, of course, but all of it might have been expected. It is the direct result of a single day in August that was 20 years in the making. As the world heads into the uncertainty of 2022, one thing is certain: The people of Afghanistan are still on their own.