A year ago today, as rifle-toting Taliban were rolling into Kabul, a flood of questions coursed through the mind of Deborah Lyons, Canada’s former ambassador to Afghanistan.
Serving at the time as the United Nations secretary general’s special representative to the long-suffering country, she watched in utter disbelief the swift, merciless collapse of the western-backed government she had devoted so much professional and personal energy to building, nurturing and, occasionally, defending in the rhetorical sense.
In the blink of an eye, it was all gone.
“How do we contend with this? How do we respond to it?” Lyons asked herself as the black, red and green Afghan flags were ripped down and replaced with the white and black Taliban banners.
The western world writ large is still asking itself the same questions twelve months later as, slowly but surely, the Taliban government winds the clock back on all the social, economic and political reforms implemented since the hardline Islamist movement was driven into exile in 2001.
Despite its early pledges to the contrary, the Taliban have driven women out of public life and have made every effort to control their private movements as they work to restore the repressive patriarchy that made them an international pariah during their first go-round in government.
Western leaders at times described the two-decade war in Afghanistan as a fight for the rights of Afghan women and girls. No longer.
Other symbols of western culture have been jettisoned by the hardline regime.
Music is banned. There are restrictions on press freedom.
In a recent interview with CBC Radio’s The House, Lyons tried to remain optimistic.
“I hope we’re at the bottom now and that the Taliban will see that they cannot be isolated” from the international community,” she said.
“They say they don’t want to be. So now we have got to see them respond on a more positive level to a number of the concerns that have been expressed.”
Good luck with that.
During peace negotiations with the United States, the Taliban promised national peace talks that never took place and vowed to prevent al-Qaeda and other militants from operating in Taliban-controlled territory.
A ‘major mistake’
That pledge was blown away when the United States killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in central Kabul several days ago.
Lyons called the decision to host the al-Qaeda leader “a major mistake on the part of the Taliban.” She said it has reawakened counter-terrorism concerns in the West while leaving the international community wondering whether the regime can be trusted to keep its peace and security promises.
“We’re seeing this now move to a whole new level,” she said.
In short, the West is trying to come up with an answer to Lyons’ question — a way to “contend” with Taliban’s broken promise regarding al Qaeda, the one almost everyone had hoped they would honour.
A recent U.S. spy agency assessment cited by the New York Times concluded that al Qaeda has not regrouped in Afghanistan since the American withdrawal last August and that only a handful of hardcore members remain in the country.
Following last year’s Taliban victory, Afghanistan’s economy imploded. Many people are struggling to find enough money to eat and to access services.
Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN secretary general’s resident and humanitarian coordinator in the country, said it’s been tough to measure how far Afghanistan has fallen.
“Let’s be very honest,” he said. “There’s no way to compare the situation before and now in terms of the operational economy.”
The previous government had a budget of $13.5 billion. There are no reliable figures on what the Taliban is taking in and spending.
Alakbarov said that what he does see is people on the streets of Kabul selling belongings to make ends meet.
Food aid blocked
At times in the past year, as many as 10 million Afghans had no access to food. Recently, two containers of food from Canada were blocked from being shipped to Afghanistan because federal law prevents aid agencies in this country from dealing with terrorists.
Canada’s allies and the UN have carved out exceptions to their laws and policies in order to facilitate the delivery of food and medicine to ordinary Afghans. Alakbarov urged Canada to do the same.
A Parliamentary committee examining the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul and the effort to bring as many as 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada has recommended such a move.
Since then, crickets.
WATCH: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland discusses Afghan refugees
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada is, at the moment, focused on those who fled the events of a year ago.
“I think our focus needs to be on, first of all, bringing Afghan refugees to Canada and on the people of Afghanistan,” Freeland said on the weekend.
“Speaking very personally, I’m particularly focused on the women and girls of Afghanistan who are suffering tremendously and have suffered real setbacks.”
What Freeland did not address was how that could be achieved for women still in Afghanistan without involving the Taliban.
And so, one year after the fall of Kabul, it seems that Lyons’ question remains unanswered.