Editor’s note: This article is part of Just Security’s ongoing coverage of the U.S. military withdrawal and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
Yesterday, almost 20 years since the fall of the Taliban in September of 2001, the world watched in horror as the Taliban took the Presidential Palace in Kabul – the last symbol of control held by the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The news cycle has been filled with stories asking how and whether the Taliban has changed since 2001, how they have taken control so quickly, and what is next for Afghanistan and its people.
What the simplistic debate over the exit of the United States and international armed forces misses is just how cynical a picture these actions paint of global counterterrorism mechanisms and their commitments to human rights and rule of law when it matters most. Counterterrorism is meaningless when we abandon the Afghan people to their fate under the rule of a terrorist organization. As the Security Council hosts another emergency meeting this morning, world leaders should have no illusions about what the abandonment of the Afghan people involves: a terrorist organization is in the process of taking over a democratic state.
The Taliban was designated by the United Nations as a terrorist group over two decades ago, and many of its associated entities and individuals remain designated accordingly. In 1999, the Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, passed resolution 1267, designating the Taliban as a terrorist organization. This came largely because of its refusal to transfer Osama Bin Laden and his associates to the United States after they were indicted for the 1998 terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. That resolution, which was adopted unanimously, reiterated, in the most forceful of terms, the Security Council’s “deep concern over the continuing violations of international humanitarian law and of human rights, particularly discrimination against women and girls,” and strongly condemned “the continued use of Afghan Territory, especially areas controlled by the Taliban, for the sheltering and training of terrorists, and planning of terrorist acts.”
It was a unanimous affirmation of the council’s “conviction that the suppression of international terrorism is essential for the maintenance of international peace and security.”
The listing of the Taliban and the work of the Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (Monitoring Team) has proceeded steadily for more than two decades since that first resolution. It also has proceeded under the adoption of two further measures dealing with al-Qaeda and the Taliban – resolutions 1989 in 2011 and 2253 in 2015. During that time, the United Nations has continued to document the Taliban’s grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, as well as the international threat of al-Qaeda. Member States have also listed the Taliban and al-Qaeda at the national level. Both groups remain listed as U.S. Specially Designated Global Terrorists (though not as U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations).
De Facto International Acceptance of the Taliban
So, how have we gone from unanimous condemnation in 1999, to an apparently quiet international acceptance of the Taliban’s aggressive attack on Afghanistan?
Today, the deal has come to fruition, but for only the two parties involved: the United States has withdrawn and the Taliban is in charge. The Afghan government and the robust civil society that had developed in the country for decades, with international support, had been shut out of that “peace process,” leaving little more than a withdrawal agreement. So, no one in the United States or elsewhere should be under any convenient illusions that there is a “partner for peace” taking over Afghanistan, or that the security assurances given in the negotiations in Doha were worth the paper they were written on.
A Taliban spokesman yesterday went so far as to say, “We have reached what we were seeking, which is the freedom of our country and the independence of our people.” Yet, the dark mark of that deal and the reality facing the international community is that the Taliban, despite its political rhetoric about change and peace, continues to demonstrate its regressive policies on women’s rights, its lack of authority over diffuse factions, and, perhaps most importantly as it relates to the origin of the Taliban’s international status as a pariah organization, its continued ties with al-Qaeda.
Most recently, in June 2021, the U.N. Monitoring Team in its report to the Sanctions Committee and Security Council was clear-eyed and unambiguous in its statement:
Al-Qaida is present in “at least 15 Afghan provinces … and, according to Member States, Al-Qaida maintains contact with the Taliban but has minimized overt communications with Taliban leadership in an effort to “lay low” and not jeopardize the Taliban’s diplomatic position…”
The team also reported that it was “impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future international threat emanating from Al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida and like-minded militants continue to celebrate developments in Afghanistan as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global radicalism.”
The buck now stops at the Security Council. The recent statement by the Security Council affirming “that there is no military solution to the conflict” and “that they do not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate” would appear to be a redline, but we have yet to hear and see what it actually means in practice.
A Persistent Threat
The security assessments by U.N. entities and national security agencies over the past 20 years are deeply inconvenient at this time, but they are no less true. The Taliban remains a consistent terrorist threat to the people of Afghanistan and to the wider international community. Al-Qaeda remains operative on the territory of Afghanistan and understands precisely the opportunity that has been handed to it in the face of a hasty withdrawal and an abandonment of the Afghan people (again).
In the past few weeks, the world has again witnessed the brutal and arbitrary nature of the methods used by the Taliban in its unrelenting assault on a democratic government and its institutions. Civilians are being indiscriminately targeted; summary executions are routine; the targeted, deliberate, and gleeful killing of human rights defenders, civil society actors, journalists, and educators has not only shown no sign of abating, but has increased in regularity and brazenness.
For women in Afghanistan, this moment is catastrophic. Early data from those on the ground in areas under Taliban control is incontrovertible. We are back to the proverbial stone age for women: forced, early, and child marriage; forced burka wearing and restrictions on women’s attire; prohibitions against working outside the home; and restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, including the requirement of traveling with a husband or other male relative.
The U.S.-Taliban deal put on the table not only the withdrawal of U.S. forces with very few prerequisites, but also the removal of the Taliban from sanctions regimes with “the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations” (Part One (D)-(E)). The U.N. Security Council’s acknowledgment of the agreement, although unanimous once again, wisely recognized this possibility with greater caution. The Security Council stated, “Taliban action, or the lack thereof, to further reduce violence, make sustained efforts to advance intra-Afghan negotiations, and otherwise cease to engage in or support activities that threaten the peace, stability and security of Afghanistan, will affect the review.” The level of violence perpetrated by the Taliban in the recent weeks and months alone has made a fool of such good-faith consideration by the council.
Despite the Taliban’s blatant disregard — or perhaps better put, its assault — of the preconditions set for peace among the international community, the Afghan government, and the Taliban, the international community now sits on the sidelines, wrings its metaphorical hands, and looks the other way. The current U.S. administration, busy pursuing a shameful abandonment, passes blame to a prior administration, as it shuffles hastily out the door in Kabul, and even fails to acknowledge the devastating impact and loss of civilian lives since their major withdrawal in July.
Many have sought to shame world leaders for their abandonment of Afghanistan, stressing that miscalculation of this magnitude by the Biden administration and the international community has already imposed lasting harm on the Afghan people and nation. The waves of mass displacement and killing of civilians and the exodus of intellectuals, civil society actors, civil servants, journalists, and others create a new cycle for those generations who have lived through war and Taliban rule as well as a new generation of Afghans who will be terrorized and traumatized by ongoing brutality and new war.
In the runup to this debacle, Afghanistan’s civil society demonstrated courage and determination to do what it could to forestall an impending disaster, by issuing appeals and offering ideas. In an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Aug. 6, the chairperson of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, Shaharzad Akbar, called for the council to leverage its role “to prevent catastrophe” and urged the Human Rights Council “to establish a fact-finding mission.” She warned, “We cannot wait and watch history repeat itself.” Deborah Lyons, the special representative of the Secretary-General and head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan stated that the next few weeks would be decisive and urged the council to take “swift action.”
Yet the Taliban’s decisive strategy in Afghanistan has now resulted in the taking of Kabul and the so-feared trajectory of a new era of Taliban rule. We have yet to see that decisiveness from the international community.
After two decades of building a global architecture of counterterrorism – much of it, as I have noted, misused by opportunistic states with few constraints – and in the moment of undisputed terrorist threat, these same leaders find it inconvenient, costly, and inopportune to take a meaningful stand against terrorism, to protect victims of terrorism, to defend the rule of law, and to protect human rights.
The cynics will be right to judge both our words to prevent and suppress terrorism as meaningless, and our words that suggest the valuing of the lives of ordinary victims of terrorism — men and boys, women and girls — as worthless. It is an ignoble end to counterterrorism, as we inch towards the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Editor’s note: The third and fifth paragraphs have been updated to correct terrorist designation information.