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Nearly nine months since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the economy is in freefall and about half the country is nearing acute food insecurity. But even with this widespread suffering, the Taliban on Sunday ordered all women be completely covered - head to toe - when leaving their homes, requiring them again to don the burqa that was a telltale of their first rule. Jane Ferguson reports.
It's been almost nine months and a long winter since the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
The economy is in freefall, and people are suffering. The World Food Program estimates half of the country's population will be acutely food-insecure this year, and nearly nine million of those people could endure famine-like starvation.
But even with his widespread suffering, the Taliban yesterday announced a new priority, ordering all women be completely covered head to toe when leaving their homes, requiring them again to don the burqa that was a telltale of their first rule.
Special correspondent Jane Ferguson has this update on a nation in crisis.
The holy month of Ramadan is not only a sacred time for Muslims to fast from dawn to dusk. It is also a time for giving to the poor.
April marked the first such holy month under the new Taliban government in Afghanistan. This year, the ranks of the poor included almost everyone, like Bibi Gul, a widow with six children to feed in Kabul.
Bibi Gul, Widow (through translator):
I have a lot of hardships, like the rent, electricity bill, and medicine when the children get ill.
Life is hard. I earn a dollar-and-a-half a day, sometimes nothing. I go outside to find food and sell plastic bags. Sometimes, I make money, and sometimes nothing. The children need bread. I must find food for them.
As poverty has spiked and hunger set in following the collapse of the former government last August and the chaotic American withdrawal, Afghans who can help are organizing, pooling their money to keep fellow citizens alive as best they can.
Obaidullah Baheer, Save Afghans From Hunger:
It's not that Afghans have rolled over and accepted their fate.
Obaidullah Baheer was an academic researcher before the collapse. He believes local smaller charities must step in as the international community falls short in its support.
There are kids in our hospitals who are wasting. Wasting is the extreme end of starvation, where your body is eating itself up. I have helped such patients. I have seen such patients die, right?
We already have statistics of thousands of babies in Afghanistan dying from starvation and malnutrition. And now, with the changes, with the international community putting sanctions on Afghanistan, the Taliban aren't suffering from this. It's the common Afghans.
When the Taliban seized power last August, the U.S. immediately placed sanctions on their government, making it difficult to send money into the country. Some exceptions have been made for aid, but the freezing of billions of dollars of state assets in foreign banks has caused Afghans to lose access to their savings and contributed to the economic collapse of the country.
As the Taliban have tightened their draconian rule, especially with regards to women's rights, the situation has worsened. Women are barely able to work. They are so heavily policed if they leave home, running businesses and going out to sell their goods in markets is all but impossible now. Whatever struggling economy there is, they have been cut off from it.
For Ramadan, the Taliban made a rare exception and permitted women to have their own market. Roya Hafizi founded the Women's Chamber of Commerce five years ago. She represents a whole generation of female small business owners now effectively shut in their homes most of the time.
Roya Hafizi, Afghanistan Women's Chamber of Commerce (through translator): We have witnessed a political revolution in our country, where all the achievements, all the gains of the past 20 years now seem like a lie. They have vanished.
This is an extremely rare opportunity for these women to get out of the house, gather together, and sell their wares again. To outside observers, it seems like a publicity stunt by the Taliban. Now that Eid is over, the full rules are back in place.
Rahila Askari has her own handcrafts business. But her future, as she had once pictured it, seems impossible now.
Rahila Askari, Founder, Raheel Handcrafts:
Going outside, having the work, having a job, and having even the basic right of education, it is difficult for us.
And to go outside, we don't have this right without a mahram, like father, brother, son. Without these people, without men, we are nothing. And it is a bad thing for women, for a human, because when we say you have the right of a human, it is not just for men. When I say I live in this situation, I just want to cry.
Others are more defiant, like Aziza Zahra Naeimi. She owns a honey-making business.
Aziza Zahra Naeimi, Owner, Farhan Honey (through translator):
I can't tolerate this situation anymore for a day, two days, three days, a week or for a month.
How long they will silence us? But a point will come where we would say, even if you kill us, we can't tolerate this anymore. This system won't work with violence, darkness, and force. For how long? No one can hold a nation hostage.
The Taliban have their own crisis too, beyond economics, an identity one.
Kamran Bokhari, New Lines Institute:
The Taliban now need to shift from being a jihadist insurgency to a ruling group. And that regime needs to do business with the outside world, so they are going to have to be pragmatic.
And it's a difficult balancing act. For 20 years, you have built an organization that was designed to fight, and you motivated people to engage in suicide bombings. They don't turn into people who are government officials overnight.
Kamran Bokhari is an expert on Afghanistan and extremist groups with New Lines Institute, a magazine.
They cannot govern without compromise. And if they compromise, they cannot maintain ideological purity. And you they cannot maintain ideological purity, you are going to lose people to ISIS, which is a far more radical group. ISIS was watching this, and saw it, had gamed this out.
ISIS in Afghanistan, known as ISIS Khorasan or ISIS-K, has been a bitter, rising rival of the Taliban for years.
Last August, during the deadly American-led evacuation efforts from Kabul, it was an ISIS suicide bomber who blew himself up at the gates of Kabul Airport, killing over 150 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. As the Taliban struggle to govern, they are stuck between those inside their rank and file who don't think they are hard-line enough and the new generation of Afghans and wider global diplomatic community pushing back against their repressive rule.
What we have left behind is a vibrant civil society that is used to certain freedoms, where women are shoulder to shoulder in society.
There is no way the Taliban can cow those people down. So that's a challenge for the Taliban. So the Taliban are not designed to govern, and they are only designed to fight. And ISIS is looking at this and saying, this is a — the environment we are looking for, the conditions that we want to exploit.
Civilians are suffering from that exploitation the most cruelly. Bombings by ISIS in Afghanistan have been increasing throughout Ramadan, some even targeting small boys in school.
As Ramadan ends and Afghanistan approaches summer, bringing with it a potentially more complicated and vicious fighting season, that violence is likely to increase. Afghanistan's people will struggle to feed themselves, while sheltering from those fighting over the carcass of the last war.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson.
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Jane is a New York-based special correspondent for the NewsHour, reporting on and from across the Middle East, Africa and beyond. She was previously based in Beirut. Reporting highlights include the lead up to and aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, front-line dispatches from the war against ISIS in Iraq, an up-close look at Houthi-controlled Yemen, and reports on the war and famine in South Sudan. Areas of particular interest are the ongoing cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Islamist groups around the world, and US foreign policy.
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