Editor’s note: This article is part of Just Security’s ongoing coverage of the U.S. military withdrawal and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
During their first week back in power, the Taliban leadership has gone to great lengths to show the world their movement has evolved on issues of governance, terrorism, and women’s rights since they ruled the country 20 years ago. However, the international community must approach the Taliban pledges with skepticism and wait to see if their actions on the ground match their early statements. While countries like Russia and China with little interest in defending civil liberties may rush to recognize the Taliban, the United States and its like-minded partners must condition diplomatic recognition on the Taliban meeting human rights and counterterrorism standards.
Taliban Charm Offensive
On Tuesday the Taliban leadership in Kabul offered amnesty to those who worked for the government of President Ashraf Ghani, who fled to the United Arab Emirates as the militants advanced on Kabul. They vowed there would be no reprisal killings. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters that women would be allowed to work and study and could participate in society “within bounds of Islamic law.” He went on, “when it comes to experience, maturity, vision, there is a huge difference between us in comparison to 20 years ago.” Another Taliban leader even allowed himself to be interviewed by a local female journalist.
At the same time, there were reports in other parts of the country of women being prevented from entering a university campus and told to stay home unless accompanied by a male relative. Many girls’ schools also remained closed. The United Nations reported that the Taliban apparently had lists of people it seeks to question and punish, mostly former police and military officials, and there are numerous accounts of the Taliban knocking on doors and threatening people.
There’s good reason to be suspicious of the Taliban claims of amnesty. It’s only been two weeks since the Taliban assassinated the former Afghan government state media chief as part of a systematic campaign to assassinate government officials, civil society leaders, human rights activists, and journalists. Indeed, I have argued that the United Nations should sanction senior Taliban leaders for those atrocities. Taliban leaders may have decided to declare amnesty for government officials because they recognize they need some bureaucrats to keep the wheels of government turning. It is unclear how the Taliban will treat those workers once they resume their duties.
Terrorism Links Persist
Just as they are trying to polish their human rights credentials, the Taliban are also seeking to convince the world that they won’t allow the country to re-emerge as a terrorist haven. Here again, the facts on the ground tell a different story. Within hours of taking control of the capital the Taliban emptied jails filled with terrorists of all stripes, including al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others. Do we really think these individuals will live peaceful, normal lives, especially when their comrades-in-arms have just taken control of the country? Consider the thousands of U.S. military and intelligence operations and billions of U.S. dollars that went into capturing terrorists who now roam freely across Afghanistan.
Former Defense Secretary and CIA Chief Leon Panetta is clear-eyed about the dangers that lie ahead with a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He said there is no question the country will re-emerge as a terrorist hotbed. I witnessed first-hand the Taliban’s obstinance to breaking ties with al-Qaeda during countless hours of negotiations in Doha, Qatar. The most the U.S. negotiators could extract from the Taliban was a flimsy pledge to “not allow” al-Qaeda to “use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
Across Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States never recognized the Taliban government during its five-year reign in 1996-2001, in large part due to its human rights record. We can afford to wait now.
So, what happens when al-Qaeda doesn’t ask the Taliban for permission to conduct a terrorist strike against the United States or one of its allies? My guess is the Taliban will dissemble and argue they didn’t know about it, similar to claims they made after the 9/11 attacks. But just like they refused to levy any consequences on al-Qaeda for the 2001 terror strikes, they will never risk breaking ties to the global terrorist outfit, even if al-Qaeda uses Afghan territory for launching attacks in the future.
Biden Must Avoid Another Misjudgment
It is understandable that U.S. military commanders must talk to the Taliban at this moment to secure the safe evacuation of U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked alongside the United States. When the evacuation is complete and the dust settles from the catastrophe that has unfolded over the last week, the U.S. must evaluate objectively what is happening on the ground. Across Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States never recognized the Taliban government during its five-year reign in 1996-2001, in large part due to its human rights record. We can afford to wait now.
Unfortunately, given both the Trump and Biden administration’s desire to have the fig leaf of a peace process to justify troop withdrawals, there has been a concerted effort to paint rosy assessments of the Taliban from those in the U.S. government who believed it was time to end the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
It is now time for the Biden administration to judge the Taliban by their actions, not their rhetoric, on both human rights and terrorism issues. The Biden administration already faces questions about its failure to foresee a rapid Taliban victory and to prepare accordingly. It should avoid making a second blunder of prematurely accepting the Taliban at face value, risking even greater damage to U.S. global credibility.