Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

What We Wrote, What You Read in 2023: Daily struggles, edicts and orders, falcons flying high

Kate Clark 8 min

2023 was a busy year for AAN, with just over 50 publications. They ranged from in-depth investigations into the economy, public finance and the aid industry to a poetic journey into the world of falconry. We introduced a new form of report – short, first-person accounts by Afghans of what they are doing to survive – and try to prosper – which we have called The Daily Hustle. We also posted two major publications on Islamic Emirate thinking and law-making, a translation of Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada’s orders and edicts, with accompanying analysis, and a review of a book by the Chief Justice outlining what he believes a properly constituted Islamic state should be like. Our most widely-read report of 2023 also gave readers a window into the thinking of Afghanistan’s new rulers: five former Taleban fighters spoke about life in the capital, with some unexpected comments. Here, Kate Clark looks back at 2023 – what we wrote and what you read – and introduces some of AAN’s plans for 2024.

Kneading dough, doing homework inside a makeshift tent in Nayeb Rafi village in Zendejan district of Herat province, after homes were destroyed in the devastating earthquakes of October and November 2023. Photo: Mohsen Karimi/AFP

What we were writing in 2023

2023 was a year in which the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) really bedded down and our reporting reflected that: we looked at the Amir’s decrees – what he felt had needed banning, promoting or making obligatory – and the way the IEA has extended control over higher education. We also looked at its spending priorities. Indeed, the economy proved to be a strong constant throughout the year. 

Little had changed in how the outside world and the IEA dealt with each other since it re-established its rule over Afghanistan in August 2021. Given the financial dependence of the Islamic Republic, and indeed the Afghan economy, on outside funding, and the subsequent and lasting rift with donor countries, the economic consequences of the 2021 change of government persist. Our work tried to unpick this, with reports on IEA perceptions of the aid industry, the parallels and differences between its ban on women working for NGOs and the United Nations in the 1990s and now, and a candid look at aid diversion. We also scrutinised international attitudes towards the IEA, with in-depth reports on the various meetings and initiatives for regional and international actors to thrash out a way forward to deal with a government that has not wanted to heed their demands. 

These ‘top-down’ or ‘big picture’ views of the economy and politics were balanced by reports that zeroed in on the local, sometimes hyper-local level: how shopkeepers, civil servants and farmers in the formerly heavily contested Andar district have found prosperity since the end of the fighting, the struggle by three women now selling goods on the streets of the capital to try to feed their families, or how one girl, banned from secondary education, has found a job teaching younger girls, trying to “help [their] dreams come true.” Reports on rights and freedoms, especially those of women and girls, featured strongly, as they have done in earlier years. 

Some subjects continue regardless of who is in power in Kabul, for example, the long dispute between Afghanistan and Iran over water from the Helmand RiverChinese investments in Afghanistan – motivated by economic interest or security fears? – and the fate of Afghans held in the United States prison camp in Guantanamo, something that we have reported on every year for the last decade. Actually, in 2023, there was just one Afghan left, Muhammad Rahim, held without charge or trial since 2007. We reported on his efforts to persuade the authorities to release him. Unfathomably, even though it is now two years after the last American troops left his country, the US continues to argue that the war is, in fact, not over and Rahim remains a threat to its national security.

In 2023, we also rolled out two new types of report. The first, The Daily Hustle, trialled in late 2022 became a firm feature on our website. It tells the stories of individual Afghans: surviving a Kabul winter, opening a girls’ home school, or the journey to Pakistan to visit family. The second is what we are calling ‘themed reports’. Grounded in in-depth research and/or dealing with complex subjects, we hope they will have a long shelf-life and so present them as graphically designed PDFs. Our aim is to facilitate the ease and enjoyment of reading them. We used this format for reports on, for example, how Afghan musicians are faring, on various aspects of the aid industry, and for a review by former BBC journalist and Deoband graduate, John Butt, of the IEA’s Chief Justice’s theory of jurisprudence‘Al-Emarat al-Islamiya wa Nidhamuha’ (The Islamic Emirate and its System of Governance).

At AAN, individual researchers generally focus on what interests them, a strategy which we hope keeps our publications lively and fresh. At the same time, we try to cover a broad range of topics, so set ourselves to cover eight key thematic categories:

  • War and Peace
  • Economy, Development and the Environment
  • Culture and Context
  • Political Landscape
  • Rights and Freedoms
  • Regional Relations
  • International Engagement
  • Migration

In the table below, it can be seen that three of these categories dominated our research in 2023: Economy, Development and the Environment, followed by Rights and Freedoms, and then Culture and Context. That last category is where we try to provide a wider and deeper context for thinking about Afghanistan that goes beyond economics and politics: music, history, literature and wildlife. They are often our favourite reports to write. Indeed, we ended 2023 with two such reports, about falconry in Afghanistan: the first surveyed the poetry and literature going back into history of falcon and falconer; the second explored how every year, raptor birds migrating across Afghanistan, are “caught and sold, often abroad, to be trained to hunt other prey in turn,” while wealthy hunters from the Gulf come to Afghanistan to hunt bustards with falcons. Finally, it was noticeable that War and Peace dominated our reporting in earlier years – in 2021, two out of every five reports fell into this category, as did 14 of the 20 most-read reports. In 2023, just one report fell into that category. 

 AAN CategoryPublishedTop 20 read
 NumberPercentNumberPercent
Economy, Development, Enviroment1938630
Rights and Freedoms1122630
Context and Culture918525
International Engagment 51015
Poltical Landscape36210
Migration1200
War and Peace1200
Regional Relations1200
Table by AAN.

What you were reading in 2023

As to what you, our readers, were interested in, the same three categories dominated our list of the twenty most-read reports. Way out ahead, with almost ten times as many page views as the second most-read report was ‘New Lives in the City: How Taleban have experienced life in Kabul’, by guest author Sabawoon Samim. He interviewed five former fighters, asking what they thought about living in a city previously viewed as at the heart of the ‘foreign occupation’ and with a population degraded by Western ways. Much of their experience, however, was positive. They liked the modern facilities and relative cleanness of the capital and the ethnic diversity: “You can see an Uzbek, Pashtun and a Tajik living in one building and going to the same mosque,” commented one man, who also said: “Unlike villages where a lot of people go to the mosque to impress others, people in Kabul go there just for the sake of Allah.” Our report was picked up by foreign media, used to vilify the Taleban, who discovered with astonishment that they shared some experiences with the former fighters – chafing at the dull and restricted nature of office life, for example. Our second most-read publication was a dossier of reports on women’s rights, published in 2021, a reminder that concerns about the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan remain evergreen. 

Other publications from earlier years also featured in the top twenty most-read reports. An investigation into the damage and threat of the climate crisis by guest author Mohammad Assem Mayar was widely read, as were two reports on the cultural history of hashish in Afghanistan, on production and consumption, both published in 2019. The crossover of those interested in Afghanistan and in drugs has pushed up reader numbers for these two reports to our most-read reports every year since they were published. 

As for readers of our reports in Dari and Pashto, the five most-read were very varied. Way out in front, with almost twice as many page views as any other report was ‘From ‘Slavers’ to ‘Warlords’: Descriptions of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in Western writing’, from 2014. It was a rare survey of how Uzbeks have been portrayed by Western media and authors from colonial times to modern-day, much of it with racist overtones. Other reports, which were also popular in earlier years and featured in the top-five list, were Mayar’s look at climate change and a charting of a then new Afghan migration route through the Balkans, published in 2016. At number five, though, was a report published late in 2023 – the review of the IEA’s Chief Justice’s theory of jurisprudence. The book was written in Arabic, so perhaps it is not surprising that readers wanted to read a scholarly analysis of it in Pashto. 

The year ahead

In 2024, it looks inevitable that Economy, Development and the Environment, International Engagement (or non-engagement) and Rights and Freedoms will form a large part of our research portfolio, as they did in 2023. Regional Relations also look likely to loom large; the IEA, at least, puts great store in them, and difficulties with the neighbours can have major repercussions, as the forced migration of Afghans from Pakistan has shown (almost half a million since September, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR). 

In the first week of January, we heard from one of those Afghans who had spent the last 35 years of his 55 years in Pakistan. “It’s not easy to start a life, especially at my age,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d have to start all over again, but I’m an Afghan. I know from experience that life is full of unexpected twists and turns.” At AAN, we expect to be covering such unexpected twists and turns, as they affect Afghanistan and look forward to sharing the year’s journey with you.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour


AAN’s 20 most-widely read reports in 2023 (English)

  1. New Lives in the City: How Taleban have experienced life in Kabul, Sabawoon Samim, 2 February 2023
  2. Dossier XXX: Afghan Women’s Rights and the New Phase of the Conflict, AAN Team, 29 July 2021 
  3. The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (1): A cultural history of cannabis cultivation and hashish production in Afghanistan, Jelena Bjelica and Fabrizio Foschini, 7 January 2019
  4. The Bride Price: The Afghan tradition of paying for wives, Fazal Rahman Muzhary, 25 October 2016
  5. “We need to breathe too”: Women across Afghanistan navigate the Taleban’s hijab ruling, Kate Clark and Saeda Rahimi, 1 June 2022
  6. Taleban Perceptions of Aid: Conspiracy, corruption and miscommunication, Sabawoon Samim and Ashley Jackson, 30 July 2023
  7. A Taleban Theory of State: A review of the Chief Justice’s book of jurisprudence, John Butt 3 September 2023
  8. The Climate Change Crisis in Afghanistan: The catastrophe worsens – what hope for action?,, Mohammad Assem Mayar, 6 June 2022
  9. What Do The Taleban Spend Afghanistan’s Money On? Government expenditure under the Islamic Emirate, Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour, 16 March 2023
  10. The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (2): The cultural history of hashish consumption in Afghanistan, Fabrizio Foschini, Jelena Bjelica and Obaid Ali, 10 January 2019
  11. Bans on Women Working, Then and Now: The dilemmas of delivering humanitarian aid during the first and second Islamic Emirates, Kate Clark, 16 April 2023 
  12. Aid Diversion in Afghanistan: Is it time for a candid conversation? Ashley Jackson, 1 October 2023 
  13. The May 2023 Doha meeting: How should the outside world deal with the Taleban? Kate Clark, 30 April 2023 
  14. Global Warming and Afghanistan: Drought, hunger and thirst expected to worsen, Mohammad Assem Mayar, 6 November 2021 
  15. Disappointment over Karbala: A pilgrimage off-limits in 2020… and memories of 2019, Rohullah Sorush, 8 October 2020
  16. From Land-grabbing to Haircuts: The decrees and edicts of the Taleban supreme leader, Kate Clark, 15 July 2023 (The original Dari and Pashto and English translations of the Amir’s orders, edicts and instructions can be read on the Resources section of the AAN website.)
  17. Gender Persecution in Afghanistan: Could it come under the ICC’s Afghanistan investigation? Ehsan Qaane, 26 May 2023
  18. A Worsening “Human Rights Crisis”: New hard-hitting report from UN Special Rapporteur, Kate Clark 6 March 2023 
  19. The Emergent Taleban-Defined University: Enforcing a top-down reorientation and unquestioning obedience under ‘a war of thoughts’ Said Reza Kazemi, 6 August 2023
  20. Conflict Management or Retribution? How the Taleban deal with land disputes between Kuchis and local communities, Fabrizio Foschini, 22 December 2022 

AAN’s five most-widely read reports in 2023 (Dari and Pashto)

  1. From ‘Slavers’ to ‘Warlords’: Descriptions of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in western writing, Christian Bleuer, 17 October 2014 (English version here)
  2. Afghan Exodus: The re-emergence of smugglers along the Balkan route, Martine van Bijlert and Jelena Bjelica, 10 August 2016 (English version here)
  3. Who Gets to Go to School? (1): What people told us about education since the Taleban took over, Kate Clark and the AAN Team, 26 January 2022, (English version here)
  4. The Climate Change Crisis in Afghanistan: The catastrophe worsens – what hope for action?, Mohammad Assem Mayar, 6 June 2022 (English version here)
  5. A Taleban Theory of State: A review of the Chief Justice’s book of jurisprudence, John Butt, 3 September 2023 (English version here)

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