As the World Watches Ukraine, Afghanistan Goes Full Taliban

The Taliban are using detentions, repression, censorship, and killings to tighten their grip on power.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Vendors work at a market in Kabul.
Vendors work at a market in Kabul.
Vendors work at a market near a billboard displaying the Taliban founder and late supreme leader Mullah Omar and late leader of the Haqqani network Jalaluddin Haqqani in Kabul on March 1. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

While the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine, Afghanistan has plunged into darkness. The Taliban are tightening their control amid growing reports of detentions, rapes, and summary executions of minorities, rights advocates, women, and people associated with the old government or the new resistance.

In the weeks since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the Taliban have extended bans on many parts of what was once normal life before they took over the country last summer. Clampdowns on media, entertainment, and traditional holidays have been extended as the Taliban revive old practices, such as kidnapping foreigners for political leverage.

Journalists continue to be detained and beaten, and hundreds of media organizations have been closed down, ensuring that Taliban activities—including arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings—are not reported. A high-ranking Afghan security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said China is helping the Taliban build a TV station.

While the world’s attention is focused on Ukraine, Afghanistan has plunged into darkness. The Taliban are tightening their control amid growing reports of detentions, rapes, and summary executions of minorities, rights advocates, women, and people associated with the old government or the new resistance.

In the weeks since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the Taliban have extended bans on many parts of what was once normal life before they took over the country last summer. Clampdowns on media, entertainment, and traditional holidays have been extended as the Taliban revive old practices, such as kidnapping foreigners for political leverage.

Journalists continue to be detained and beaten, and hundreds of media organizations have been closed down, ensuring that Taliban activities—including arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings—are not reported. A high-ranking Afghan security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said China is helping the Taliban build a TV station.

Celebrations to mark the Zoroastrian new year on March 20 were canceled. The Afghan flag has been replaced with the Taliban’s white banner. Television networks are not permitted to air foreign programs, and music and dancing are banned. Journalists must work within strict limitations; employees of Tolo TV, which made concessions to the Taliban to stay in business, were detained after reporting on censorship.

After keeping girls out of school since the group took power, the Taliban announced that girls will be able to go back to the classroom but must remain segregated from boys. A shortage of women teachers will further curtail learning, and the boys’ curriculum includes glorifying suicide bombers.

“Afghanistan is finished,” said Waliullah Rahmani, a media entrepreneur who fled the country immediately after the Taliban retook power on Aug. 15, 2021. Like many Afghans in exile, he fears global attention on Russia’s war in Ukraine is enabling the Taliban’s excesses as they eradicate all remnants of the previous government.

Since the Taliban takeover, untold numbers of people have been detained and tortured to intimidate others into silence. Most vulnerable are minority nationalities like Hazaras, who are Shiite and considered apostate by the Sunni Taliban, who are mostly Pashtun. Sources in Afghanistan said abductees are held at secret prisons across the country. 

“Many women never disclose that they have been detained after their release because of the questions that would inevitably be raised about whether they had been raped,” said the security source.

Shah-Hussain Maluf Ashrafi, 30, is a Hazara television journalist who also worked with the former government before the Taliban takeover. He was detained on Dec. 13, 2021, and held overnight while being interrogated and beaten “because I’m a journalist, because I’m Hazara, and also because of my work with the previous regime,” he said. His brother and brother-in-law were arrested because of their association with him, he said, and the family’s vehicles were confiscated. He has recently left Afghanistan for his own safety.

Faisal Mudaras, a 24-year-old YouTuber, said he fell afoul of the Taliban after reporting on the death of a boy in the Panjshir Valley, where anti-Taliban sentiment dates back decades. He was held for eight days in January and tortured until his father promised the Taliban that his son would never speak out against the regime again. He has also left the country after giving an interview to an international news agency that was later broadcast in Afghanistan, he said.

And the Taliban are terrorizing foreigners too, including arresting Andrew North, who was working with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and businessman Peter Juvenal. A source close to the Taliban leadership said two Americans and eight Britons are currently being held incommunicado and without charge, including Juvenal and Mark Frerichs, a 59-year-old American engineer and Navy veteran detained in January 2020. North was released within days of his detention in February.

Targeting foreigners is a way for the Taliban to crack down on what they see as their local enemies. An Afghan living in exile said a relative was abducted after being lured to a location by a text he believed had been sent by a foreigner he’d been working with though he didn’t know had been detained. His own phone was then used to lure at least two other people to bogus meetings, where they were also kidnapped. Mudaras, the YouTuber, said he was detained after being invited to a fake meeting.

Afghanistan’s economic woes, already catastrophic before Russia started the war in Ukraine, have only gotten worse. Now, hunger and poverty stalk the population. The loss of much-needed imports of Ukrainian and Russian wheat as well as fewer exports of Russian fertilizer needed for agriculture are spiking food prices. 

The World Food Program (WFP) purchases up to 70 percent of its wheat for distribution to countries like Afghanistan from Russia and Ukraine. Poor harvests last year in some producing countries had already sent prices up by around 30 percent. Human Rights Watch said that since January, around 13,000 babies have “died of malnutrition and hunger-related diseases,” even as U.N. agencies like the WFP said they are distributing food.

But the price of bread in Kabul has doubled again in recent months, according to a video producer who said his family bought an oven to bake their own bread because “being seen carrying bread home from the bakery can be dangerous. People attack you for it.”

Like Rahmani, tens of thousands of middle-class, educated Afghans have left the country, with many more clamoring to leave. The Afghan foreign ministry is flooded with passport applications, though few countries grant visas to Afghans

But the contrast with the welcome they see being extended to Ukrainians fleeing war—more than 3.5 million people have now left Ukraine, according to the United Nations—is cruel, as many Afghans have felt Western countries’ cold shoulder, making it difficult for them to enter let alone settle down.

“It hurts,” said a middle-aged Afghan businessman who spent seven months avoiding falling into what he calls the “asylum trap” of applying for refugee status and giving up the right to live, work, and move freely.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.