Can Office Work Destroy the Taliban?

Image Source: World Press Photo

In August 2021, the United States and its allies evacuated Kabul after twenty years of what the Department of Defense (DoD) described as waging “a necessary war of self-defense” following the September 11 attacks. In the words of former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in 2002, the United States got involved “to help the Afghans establish long-term stability in that country” in order to prevent it from providing “sanctuary for terrorists.” At the time of the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban assured the world with promises of a more “progressive” rule compared to their previous time in power. Unfortunately, many Afghans today would not describe the takeover as such, and are disillusioned with how the Taliban have run the country for the past twenty months. Not only is Afghanistan experiencing economic and women’s rights crises, but the Taliban men who miss jihad are experiencing an office life crisis. Could the disillusionment of former jihadists with their new lives be enough for the Taliban to lose power?

Guarantees that women could return to work and continue to study in schools did not last long after the takeover. Only a year later, retired Army General Jack Keane described the Taliban’s current administration as the revival of “their draconian rule of the 1990s.” The regime was known for public executions, the prohibition of music and television, and denying women equal human rights. This included banning women from leaving the house without a male chaperone, accessing health care services from a male doctor, working outside the home, speaking or showing skin publicly, studying at schools or universities, and serving in government. In addition to the reimposition of these restrictions, Afghan women are also now forced to cover their faces completely and are unable to travel on a flight without a chaperone. Voicing concern for half of the population of Afghanistan, United Nations Women Executive Director Sima Bahous described the many regressive violations of women’s rights and humanitarian principles as “a virulent attack on women, their contribution, their freedom and their voice.”

But some men in the Taliban believe they do not have it easy either. A handful of former soldiers who now have government jobs in Kabul decided to speak with independent researcher Sabawoon Samim about their dissatisfaction with city life and working nine-to-five. These are their stories: 

Once a sniper, Huzaifa now works at a police station in Kabul. Ironically, he misses when the Taliban “used to be free of restrictions” and now considers his life “wearisome” because he is not a fan of working at a computer desk everyday. Another issue that Huzaifa expressed was getting used to speaking with “strange women.” Huzaifa and his colleagues were told by Taliban leadership to stop ignoring and hiding from women who needed police assistance. 

Kamran, a former deputy group commander who currently works at the interior ministry, shares similar negative views about office work. He confided to Samim that, “We used to live among the people. Many of us have now caged ourselves in our offices and palaces, abandoning that simple life.”

Despite working in a high-ranking government position in Kabul, Omar Mansur expressed that his monthly salary of USD $180 is not enough to cover his family’s living expenses when they move with him to Afghanistan’s capital city. Mansur also bemoaned the “ever-increasing traffic holdups.”

Samim also noted that many of the Taliban members felt that “the public had also stopped respecting them.” Abdul Salam, a farmer turned jihadist, explains the disillusionment felt since the United States left Afghanistan. Prior to 2021, he enjoyed it when “people would also do their best to help, shelter and buy us clothes, shoes and petrol for our motorcycles” and did not have to contribute to the wellbeing of his family while he was undertaking jihad. But since “it’s no longer jihad” his family expects him to use his whole salary to help feed them. Abdul also misses when Afghans would give him free rides since he still does not own a car. He did not expect the time an elderly man stopped his car not to offer Abdul a ride, but to instead mock him and let him know that the Taliban “no longer deserve help” and that it is their “turn to pay back all the help” the community once gave them since the Taliban are now running the government. These interactions appear to have Abdul quite stressed, as he adds “Whatever happens in Afghanistan, people blame us.”

After the U.S. exit from Kabul in August 2021, “other nations stopped providing foreign aid and froze billions of dollars of government reserves deposited abroad.” This crippled Afghanistan’s economy. A year later, severe droughts compounded Afghanistan’s economic depression. 

Despite the World Bank’s March 2023 Afghanistan Economic Monitor report, claiming that inflation has improved and that the U.N.’s most recent cash shipment of USD $240 million has “continued to underlie currency stability”, the U.N. still estimates that half of Afghanistan’s population today is at risk of starvation due to lack of food and jobs. The U.N. is instrumental in keeping the country insulated from the harsh realities of a Taliban-run government. Without this international aid, would Taliban government employees who dream of returning to jihad be content taking on the economic policymaking jobs Afghanistan will need to be truly self-governing?

The World Press Photo Foundation 2023 regional contest winner The Price of Peace (shown above) displays one aspect of the distressing economic reality of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan today: the growing illegal organ trade. Originally shot in January 2022, the photo features then-fifteen-year-old Khalil Ahmad from Herat showcasing a healed surgical scar underneath his shirt, following his organ procurement surgery. His parents sold his kidney for USD $3,500. 

So can office work destroy the Taliban’s motivation to stay in public service? If men are miserable in their administrative jobs, women are miserable because their rights from the past twenty years have been revoked, and parents have to sell their children’s organs to meet costs of living, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban will be successful in governing Afghanistan after losing the faith of the whole population. 

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