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West on course for more engagement with Taliban, but normalized relations a long way off

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on June 11, 2018, at the United Nations in New York. (Li Muzi/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The Taliban enters the new year still emboldened by the lightning military victory that propelled it to power in Kabul, defiant as ever in the face of international efforts to moderate its behavior, and still lacking the legitimacy it craves.

Yet the spiraling humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the extremist group’s potential to fight regional terrorism and limit drug trading has led to a cautious revival of the West’s engagement with the Taliban, keeping alive the idea that recognition and normalized relations could one day become reality if the hard-line Islamist group was to adhere to international standards of governance.

Initial efforts to build relations with the Taliban evaporated just weeks after the group seized power in August 2021, when it quickly reneged on its promises to uphold human rights by banning secondary education for girls.

The move led the international community, and the United States in particular, to halt the limited discussions that were going on, according to Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Switzerland-based Center on Armed Groups.

“The thinking was that if they stopped engagement, if they stopped all of the processes and incentives that they were offering to the Taliban for good behavior, that the Taliban would realize this was a mistake and reverse course,” Jackson said. “That was never going to happen, and now the U.S. and others have realized that.”

Today, the Taliban government remains unrecognized and isolated, with no seat in the United Nations and only a handful of diplomatic offices around the world.

But Jackson said that there has recently been a “very subtle and slight course correction” when it comes to how the international community approaches the Taliban.

There have been ample examples of this in the past year, including rare discussions this summer between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives on critical issues such as the deteriorating human rights situation in Afghanistan, particularly the treatment of women and girls.

Avenues of cooperation in the delivery of international humanitarian aid were also addressed, as well as the state of the hard-hit Afghan economy and the Taliban’s role in stemming opium-poppy cultivation and denying safe haven to extremist groups.

The United Nations, for its part, this year assessed ways to develop a coherent international approach toward Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, even as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres held back on inviting the Taliban to join talks this spring on the situation in the country.

And a small number of countries — including Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and Japan, along with the European Union — maintained a physical presence on the ground in Afghanistan, joining representative offices of UN bodies and various aid groups heavily involved in tackling the devastating humanitarian crisis, the world’s largest.

Mixed Messages

Observers widely note that the international community’s engagement with the Taliban does not conflict with efforts to get the hard-line group to reverse its draconian policies and will not rise to full recognition any time soon.

As evidence, Nader Nadery, who participated in intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha in 2020-2021 between the former Afghan government and the Taliban, cited the UN Security Council’s unanimous decision on December 14 to renew sanctions against the Taliban for another year.

“The international community is not in a rush to change course and will sustain its position,” Nadery, senior fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, told RFE/RL in written comments. “The informal global consensus to not recognize the Taliban until they change their behavior toward women and their exclusionary governance model is the strongest leverage that is left with the international community.”

But mixed messages suggesting that normalized relations with the Taliban could be in the offing have caused confusion.

Comments made by UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed were a lightning rod for controversy when she announced plans for a UN conference to discuss the recognition of the Taliban.

“We hope we will find those baby steps to put us back on the pathway to recognition, a principled recognition,” Mohammed said on April 17. “Is it possible? I don’t know. [But] that discussion has to happen. The Taliban clearly want recognition, and that’s the leverage we have.”

A day later, in a statement celebrating the end of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, reclusive Taliban chief Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada reiterated his demand that other countries stop interfering in Afghanistan’s affairs, and underscored his resolve to complete “the religious and moral reform of [Afghan] society” through the implementation of Shari’a, or Islamic law.

The Taliban has used its interpretation of Shari’a law to justify its consistent degradation of women’s rights, including barring women from public spaces and education, and the jailing of women’s rights activists who dare protest.

News that UN Secretary-General Guterres would host the Afghan conference in May led to outcry that the idea of normalizing relations with the Taliban might be gaining steam, including through the social media hashtag DoNotRecognize Taliban.

The UN moved quickly to walk back Mohammed’s comments, stressing that the meeting in Doha would not focus on Taliban recognition and that the conference was merely “intended to achieve a common understanding within the international community on how to engage with the Taliban.”

The Taliban, it turned out, would not get an invite, with Guterres saying after the meeting in May that it was not the right time for him to engage directly with Taliban representatives.

That idea of normalization, as well as the meeting between U.S. and Taliban representatives in July, nevertheless became a cause celebre for many Afghan women to make sure their views on the issue were heard.

During a rally in Pakistan in July, Vahida Amiri told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi that she and other Afghan women had gathered to protest the conference.

“Our main message to the world is that they please do not recognize the Taliban,” Amiri said, adding that doing so would be “a crime against the people of Afghanistan.”

‘Gender Apartheid’

In Germany in September, Afghan activists launched a hunger strike to protest what they called the “gender apartheid” taking place in Afghanistan.

And in Afghanistan itself, many women who spoke or wrote to Radio Azadi made it clear that formal recognition of the Taliban would be devastating to their cause.

“Unfortunately, when the Taliban came to power, they closed the gates of universities and made women stay at home,” said one Afghan woman who declined to provide her name out of security concerns. “In my opinion, if the Taliban are recognized, the restrictions on women will be even greater.”

Some Afghans, however, were more open to the idea considering the harsh humanitarian and economic situation in Afghanistan.

“Although some of the actions of the Taliban are not right, its government should be recognized for the sake of the people so that the lives of the people of Afghanistan will improve,” Khan Pacha, a resident of the northern Nangarhar Province, wrote to Radio Azadi.

Just how the international community plans to balance engagement with efforts to maintain pressure on the Taliban to change its ways is unclear.

After the UN this year commissioned an independent assessment of how to develop a coherent international approach toward Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, a draft copy of the document revealed some inconsistencies.

The document that surfaced in November said that “any formal reintegration of Afghanistan into global institutions and systems will require the participation and leadership of women,” and said that the situation of girls and women in the country was the “single most common” issue in consultations with Afghans.

But Jackson said that the report, which has been rejected by the Taliban, was “incoherent” and could inadvertently give “a lot of countries cover to do whatever they want with the Taliban government at this point.”

Such an uncoordinated approach, she said, would be a real danger moving forward from past mistakes in dealing with the Taliban.

Jackson said that the United States and other Western countries “wasted months on a flawed strategy of stopping engagement, of trying to freeze out the Taliban, acting as though they had leverage which they knew, or they should have known, that they didn’t possess over the Taliban.”

Jackson, whose work focuses on negotiating with armed groups and has written extensively on Afghanistan and the Taliban, said that the approach made women’s rights “collateral damage.”

“We know how the Taliban reacts to these kinds of things — it cracks down even more,” Jackson said. “And I think what we’ve seen is that by Western countries trying to hit the Taliban over the head with women’s rights, the Taliban has taken that and said, ‘Oh, so this is the only thing you care about. It’s the only leverage we have. So, we’re going to take it away from you.”

Jackson said engagement does not imply normalization or recognition, but that what is needed is for the West to develop a clear and realistic path toward recognition, while asking: What kind of engagement?

“What kind of aid, what kind of strategy will help the U.S. and Western countries achieve their objectives?” Jackson said. “My fear is that most Western countries just want to forget about Afghanistan, they want to keep it off the front pages.”

Nadery said that the Taliban felt emboldened in its rights to legitimacy by its negotiations with Washington and the previous Afghan government prior to taking power after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021.

Nadery said that that the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East could limit the ongoing cooperation with the Taliban on humanitarian grounds, but that he did “not see any sign of normalization of relations any time soon” with the militant group.

“Limited engagement has been enough to facilitate humanitarian aid,” Nadery said. “Attempts to increase engagement in return for Taliban relaxing, for example, its stand on women’s rights has not borne any fruit.”

The group’s actions and policies have isolated it not only from the international community, but from the Afghan public, according to Nadery.

The Taliban, he said, “need to do a lot to gain Afghans’ confidence and international trust.”