Afghanistan remains in the news, with U.S. congressional hearings shedding plenty of heat, but also some light, on the circumstances surrounding the exit of the United States and the collapse of the Afghan Republic in 2021. On Feb. 29, 2020, the United States had struck a deal with the extremist Taliban movement, ostensibly for “bringing peace” to Afghanistan. Instead of bringing a meaningful peace, it fatally undermined the Republic, which had been excluded from the negotiations. The results for ordinary Afghans have been disastrous, highlighting the extreme danger of overconfident engagement with a duplicitous and untrustworthy “partner.” To find a comparable example of diplomatic blundering, one would need to return to the Munich Agreement of September 1938. But with the United Nations (U.N.) Deputy Secretary-General now foreshadowing an international gathering to discuss recognition of the Taliban, yet another strategic blunder may be in the offing.
The two decades following the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan saw the country and its youthful population experience the full force of globalization. It went from being one of the most isolated countries in the world to one of the most connected. But with the Taliban return to power in August 2021, that youthful population’s hopes have been significantly dashed, and Afghanistan is once again experiencing the chill of isolation. This is squarely due to the repressive policy settings put in place by the Taliban.
Patterns of Repression
One reason why Afghanistan is isolated relates to the Taliban’s treatment of women. Since their rise to power, the Taliban have enforced gender apartheid. The Taliban’s gender ideology and gender policies have activated a multi-level power game to subjugate and subordinate women in all capacities and spaces, in public and private life. Women are banned from working, apart from limited activity in healthcare sectors; girls’ secondary schools are closed; women cannot travel more than 45 miles; and women and girls are prohibited from entering parks, public baths, gyms and sports clubs. The recent ban on women working for NGOs has limited humanitarian actors’ access to 50 percent of the population, including especially-vulnerable groups such as widows and women-led households. The latest U.N. report on the human rights situation in Afghanistan highlights profound concern over the rise of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, citing the high number of “unnatural deaths of women and children” taking place. The report calls onto the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to consider whether the “crime of gender persecution” is taking place under Taliban rule.
Another reason for Afghanistan’s isolation is the Taliban’s attempt to establish a coercive system of rule that actively discriminates against most of Afghanistan’s ethno-linguistic groups. With limited popular support, the threat of force is their default setting for maintaining control. Initially, the group’s public relations campaign aimed to spread the message that a “Taliban 2.0” would be willing to share power and accommodate the needs and demands of the country’s diverse population. In practice, the Taliban movement has reverted to its ethnic core of primarily southern and eastern Pushtuns who dominate the group’s interim cabinet in Kabul. The new provincial administrations are almost entirely composed of Pushtun members of the Taliban, including in areas where other groups form the local majority. Afghanistan’s Hazaras are completely excluded from the cabinet, and local Taliban allies have used their newfound power to evict thousands of Hazaras as well as other groups from their lands by force. In the meantime, a genocidal wave of violence towards the Hazaras has escalated since the Taliban’s return to power. Furthermore, former Afghan army soldiers, including many Pushtuns, are routinely dragged from their homes and murdered by the Taliban.
The Push to Engage
While one recent report, despite all these developments, has advanced the startling claim that “the collapse of their rule would not be in anyone’s interest,” the conduct of the Taliban, hauntingly reminiscent of their behavior in the late 1990s, has resulted in their once again becoming pariahs in the international system. Taliban attempts to suggest that in power, they would be a more tolerant force have proven to be nothing more than propaganda. Yet despite this, calls persist for high-level diplomatic engagement with the Taliban as an alternative to current approaches, with even the U.N. Deputy Secretary General stepping onto this thin ice. Many of these calls are doubtless well-intentioned, and some come from humanitarian players with a long history of activity within Afghanistan. But at the same time, the arguments advanced to support such calls are often naïve, and reflect little awareness of the complexities and limitations of diplomatic engagement.
One area where this immediately surfaces relates to the concept of recognition. Withholding recognition is a form of diplomatic signaling, sending a message both about the norms that a state expects to see upheld in the international system, and its assessment of the behavior of the actor seeking recognition. Since August 2021, not a single state has granted formal de jure recognition to the Taliban. The claim is sometimes made that establishing diplomatic missions in Kabul would not amount to recognition either. This, however, misses a key point. The Taliban would undoubtedly treat the establishment of missions by key western players as a form of de facto recognition – pointing to a weakening of human rights concerns, and legitimating the Taliban regime. The signal that this would send would be lamentable, and just as likely to prompt further Taliban intransigence as accommodation. In early 2021, a noted U.S. proponent of engagement claimed that the United States had “underestimated the leverage that the Taliban’s quest for sanctions relief, recognition and international assistance provides.” Events showed that almost the exact opposite was the case. Promising recognition is also a poor bargaining tactic since, once granted, recognition is difficult to retract, while commitments made to secure it may be easily dishonored.
Practicalities of Engagement
Beyond these issues of principle, some practical considerations make it unlikely that major powers will rush to re-establish diplomatic presences in Kabul. The locus of key decision-making has now shifted from Kabul to Kandahar, where the Taliban supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, has his office and power base. Recent suggestions that Hibatullah is not in a strong position are belied by the centrality to Taliban rule of a Führerprinzip, given the absence of any kind of formal constitutional structure. Missions in Kabul have little hope of engaging with the principal Taliban leadership, and when the U.N. Deputy Secretary-General visited Kandahar in January 2023, Hibatullah did not meet with her. What western embassies in Kabul would do is provide targets for terrorist groups that remain active within Afghanistan. In February 2023, the Saudis evacuated their mission in Kabul because of such security threats. The threats that could confront western missions would likely be much greater.
There is then the question of exactly what diplomatic engagement might actually achieve. Here, it is easy to overestimate the scope of what is possible. In a relatively-open environment with an institutionalized political system, classic diplomatic activities such as representation, negotiation, and information-gathering can be carried out with little difficulty. This is not the case when one is dealing with a deeply-opaque group such as the Taliban, and with a system based on complex networks rather than institutions. Unfortunately, in appraising the Taliban, western policymakers have a long history of seeing what they would like to see, and shaping their policies accordingly. The 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement provides a canonical example of where this can lead. Even if diplomatic missions were opened in Kabul, it is unclear whether they could easily be staffed with personnel whose knowledge of Afghanistan, and language skills, would allow them to make much sense of such an impenetrable and mystifying environment, and the hope that face-to-face engagement could convert the Taliban into a force even remotely compliant with key international norms is frankly utopian.
Perils of “Normalization”
There is no doubt that the push to “normalize” the Taliban at the moment is quite strong, at least in some U.S. circles. One energetic proponent of engagement, who happens to be male, has even written that “it is time for governments to tone down their sanctimonious posturing about women’s rights and democracy.” Such normalization is dangerous, and ignores the reality that international players have a vital role to play as critical defenders of fundamental human rights norms. This is the case not just for instrumental reasons. The willingness of states to defend fundamental norms tells us something about what kinds of states they are, or wish to be. To the extent that international organizations and humanitarian actors have cited their commitment to norms such as gender equality when touting their own credentials, they too have a responsibility to continue to affirm those norms, even if it proves inconvenient to have to do so when dealing with a misogynistic tyranny. There is no evidence that compromising with the Taliban will improve the lives of ordinary Afghans, but the disposition to keep trying while getting little or nothing in return seems deeply ingrained. The danger is that for the sake of “engagement,” states will end up making what the philosopher Avishai Margalit calls a “rotten compromise,” namely an “agreement that establishes or maintains an inhuman political order based on systematic cruelty and humiliation as its permanent features.”
The Taliban as the Problem
The problems faced by ordinary Afghans are profound, but their roots are political, and it is unwise to pretend otherwise. The Taliban are no friends of the vulnerable. A recent report quotes a close observer as saying: “They have an utter contempt for the poor, believing poverty to be retribution for bad behaviour.” In addition, western policies designed to address humanitarian needs can have unintended consequences that must be avoided. As a recent study has demonstrated: “If international aid pays costs that otherwise would have been covered by domestic revenues, it frees up funds in the Taliban’s national budget for other uses, such as prisons, the emir’s office, and the security sector, where spending has been buoyant.”
The Taliban are not short of funds. On the contrary, the revenues they raise – from customs and other sources – are used to bolster the coercive instrumentalities of the regime, and there is a real question as to whether aid funds flowing into the country are freeing the Taliban of their responsibility to serve the wider population. Rather than seeking to engage with the Taliban leadership, it would make far more sense for humanitarian actors to seek to engage directly with local communities “below the radar,” where the risk of funds being diverted to bolster a brutal and discriminatory system is much lower, and the needs of ordinary people can be better met.
One final and very obvious point is worth underscoring. States make decisions about how to engage with other actors on the basis of a range of domestic considerations and calculations – leaders have their own local politics to manage. Aid resources are scarce, and there are many deserving causes they could support. In light of the Taliban’s behavior and actions, it is unclear why western leaders would want to risk engaging with the Taliban when they could be excoriated by their own domestic opponents for doing so. Similarly, why would western governments commit scarce aid resources to Afghanistan – funds that the Taliban might be in a position to exploit – when they could much more safely provide assistance to vulnerable or needy people in other parts of the world?
The lesson here is stark. It is the very nature and character of the Taliban that currently condemns the people of Afghanistan to suffer, and the situation is not going to improve in any meaningful way as long as the Taliban remain in charge.