The Taliban are back. Less than five years after British and American troops drove them out of Afghanistan, they are launching increasingly audacious attacks, including an ambush of British troops in Helmand province last weekend. British soldiers were jumping from helicopters when they came under fire, beginning a battle in which 21 Taliban fighters were killed. On Tuesday, one observer warned that British troops must regain control of Helmand or "the whole of southern Afghanistan will be lost to the Taliban insurgents".
I could make a sarcastic remark about another great success in President Bush's war on terror, but the situation in Afghanistan is too horrifying. At the same time, I can't help recalling the lunatic optimism of the President's wife a few weeks into the Afghan campaign in 2001. "Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes," Laura Bush declared. "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."
Well, we've seen what a nonsense that is in Iraq, where women dare not venture outdoors unless they are covered and the government is turning out to have a worse record than Saddam in some respects, repealing legislation giving inheritance rights to women. In Afghanistan, the Taliban's status as public enemy number one persuaded many foreigners that their defeat was all that was needed to free women from tyranny, an assumption that doesn't stand up to five minutes' scrutiny.
The return of the Taliban is undoubtedly bad news, but more than three decades of war have left Afghan women vulnerable to a dire combination of warlords, jihadists and patriarchal attitudes. To this day, most continue to wear the burqa, fearing reprisals from extremists whose leaders sit in President Karzai's government. It isn't just the Taliban who want to enforce sharia; on 23 April last year, a 29-year-old woman was stoned to death for adultery following the decision of a court in the northern province of Badakhshan.
Rape, forced marriage and domestic violence are at horrific levels, leading to the almost unimaginable practice of self-immolation: 154 cases were reported in the western zone last year, according to Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, and 34 in southern and eastern parts of the country. Five years ago an underground women's rights group estimated that 25,000 women were working as prostitutes in Afghanistan but extreme poverty is forcing many more into the sex trade, putting them at grave risk.
The resurgent Taliban have resorted to their old tactic of targeting schools, trying to put an end to girls' education; in December, a suspected Taliban fighter dragged a headmaster from his classroom in Helmand province and shot him in the head when he ignored warnings to stop teaching mixed classes. This time, though, they seem to be trying to destroy education for all Afghan children. The UN has recorded 30 serious attacks on schools in recent months.
With impeccable timing, the Bush administration has chosen this moment to wind down its operations in Afghanistan, leaving Nato troops to struggle with the Taliban. If the President and his advisers ever stop to wonder why so many people hate them, they need look no further: they talk about exporting democracy and freedom but what does any of it mean to women in Helmand province? Much as I dislike the Bush administration, this is one occasion when I wish it kept its promises.