Taliban declare February 15 Soviet exit holiday

KABUL: The Taliban on Tuesday declared February 15 a national holiday to mark the anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan — six months after they stormed into Kabul to topple the US-backed government.

After invading on Christmas Eve in 1979, the Red Army pulled out a decade later having lost nearly 15,000 troops fighting Western-backed Mujahideen forces, precipitating a civil war that gave rise to the Taliban and their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

Forty years of conflict has left Afghanistan one of the world’s most impoverished nations, and the Taliban’s return on August 15 plunged the country deeper into a humanitarian crisis the United Nations says threatens more than half its 38 million population.

Thousands marched through Afghan cities on Tuesday to protest against President Joe Biden’s decision last week to seize almost half the country’s overseas assets — about $3.5 billion — as compensation for victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda that prompted the US-led invasion later that year.

“If someone wants compensation, it should be Afghans,” said Mir Afghan Safi, the chairman of the country’s forex traders association, as he marched in Kabul.

“Their two towers have been destroyed, but all our districts and all of our country have been destroyed.”

The Taliban, who said they wanted good relations with Washington after the US withdrawal in August, called the asset seizure “theft”.

Many Afghans have agreed, including those in exile after fleeing the country to avoid the Taliban’s rule.

Some in the crowd chanted “death to America”, and “death to Joe Biden”.

The Taliban warned late Monday they would be forced to reconsider their policy towards the United States unless Washington releases the assets.

“The 9/11 attacks had nothing to do with Afghanistan,” the group’s deputy spokesman said in a statement.

Rights eroded

It is not clear what action the Taliban could take, but they have previously said they would allow thousands of Afghans who worked for the United States and other Western powers to leave the country for promised sanctuary abroad.

The Soviets introduced laws giving women rights in education, work and marriage, benefiting mainly those in cities. The United States introduced similar measures over the last 20 years, but these have been drastically eroded since the Taliban’s return.

Women are effectively barred from most government employment, while schools for teenaged girls are shut across much of the country.

The Taliban have also cracked down hard on protests against their rule, including detaining women activists, prompting strong protests from the United Nations and rights groups.

“The Soviet withdrawal was not an achievement but only the start of crises,” said exiled Afghan analyst Ahmad Saeedi.

“Afghanistan is again at the brink of failure with challenges only increasing,” he told AFP.

He said the Taliban had “lost a lot of time” in the six months since taking power.

“Because of this situation they are also not able to form an inclusive government… and that is expected to increase pressure on them from within the country and outside.”

While signs of the US-led occupation are still starkly apparent on the streets of Kabul — from the weapons the Taliban plundered as they swept to victory, to the concrete barriers erected to try to stop their 20-year insurgency — there is little evidence of the Soviet era.

Still, veteran Hayatullah Ahmadzai, who fought with the Mujahideen against Moscow’s might, says the Taliban are a direct consequence.

After the Soviets left, the 74-year-old told AFP, the situation “ended up in disorder, giving birth to the Taliban”.