The United Nations is preparing to host its third meeting of international envoys to Afghanistan in Doha later this month. This is a promising initiative aimed at developing a coherent and unified international approach to engagement with the Taliban at a time when women are facing extreme repression by the fundamentalist regime and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) is using its base in the country to launch international attacks. ISIS-K conducted a major strike in Moscow in March that killed more than 140, which followed an ISIS-K attack in Iran in January that killed almost 100.

The Taliban refused to take part in a previous U.N. meeting in Doha in February, citing the participation of non-Taliban Afghan civil society representatives and human rights activists. But Taliban leaders have said they are considering participating in the forthcoming gathering. The group’s presence in Doha would be desirable, but only if the U.N. and international community continue to press them on human rights — especially of women and girls — and to include participation of other Afghan activists and civil society leaders in the discussions. If the Taliban refuse to accept these conditions, the U.N. should still host the meeting without the group’s participation and focus it on developing a more unified and coordinated international approach to dealing with Afghanistan’s challenges.

Keep Up U.N. Momentum on Human Rights 

There was hope that recent U.N. activity on Afghanistan was beginning to create an international process through which the Taliban would be held to account on human rights issues. In November 2023, the U.N. released its Independent Assessment on Afghanistan, which laid out a road map for engagement with the Taliban that required improvement in women’s rights before the U.N. would consider officially recognizing the group as the governing entity of the country. In December 2023, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2721 calling for Afghan women to be involved in a political process on Afghanistan and for the establishment of a U.N. envoy on Afghanistan that would lead international engagement in the country.

However, it has been six months since the resolution was passed, and there is still no U.N. envoy. There must be more urgency to U.N. efforts, including the initiative to designate “gender apartheid” (what is currently taking place in Afghanistan) as a crime against humanity.

Unfortunately, countries like China and Russia are starting to normalize diplomatic ties with the Taliban, despite its egregious human rights record. China accepted a Taliban ambassador in Beijing in January 2024, and the Taliban again attended an annual economic forum in St. Petersburg this week that has long been one of President Vladimir Putin’s personal flagship events. Moscow also is likely to soon remove a terrorist ban on the Taliban that has been in place since 2003. The delisting will mean little in practical terms, since the U.N. continues to sanction several Taliban leaders for their involvement in terrorism and these U.N. sanctions are binding on Russia, but the move would improve Russia’s ties to the Taliban still further and put Moscow one step closer to official recognition of the group. Unless the U.N. maintains momentum on its Afghan human rights initiatives, the international community will lose a valuable opportunity to try to bring the country more in line with international human rights standards.

ISIS-K Threat Requires Nuanced Engagement with the Taliban

The international community also must focus more on the growing terrorism threat emanating from Afghanistan. ISIS-K’s growing sophistication and ability to conduct large-scale attacks both inside and increasingly outside Afghanistan demands more effective monitoring. This will require some degree of engagement with the Taliban but should not result in diminished pressure on the regime over human rights concerns.

According to a recently released paper from West Point’s Counterterrorism Center, in the last four years, the focus of ISIS-K leadership has been on diversifying its membership and expanding its international reach. In addition to major attacks in Moscow and Iran in the last six months, ISIS-K gunmen killed three Spanish tourists and their Afghan guides in May in Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have been trying to encourage international tourism.

ISIS-K has increased efforts to recruit foreign fighters to undertake operations abroad, especially nationals from Tajikistan. In July 2023, nine Central Asians linked to ISIS-K, including suspects from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan, were arrested in Germany and the Netherlands and charged with plotting attacks. Tajik nationals were also involved in the January attacks in Iran and in another ISIS-K attack on a church in Turkey in January.

While the Taliban opposes ISIS-K and has had some success in eliminating the group’s leaders and disrupting their operations inside Afghanistan, this does not merit the Taliban getting a pass from the United States (or anyone else) when it comes to its atrocious human rights record, especially on women and girls.

And those who think the Taliban’s opposition to ISIS-K makes them a good counterterrorism partner of the United States must think again. For starters, the Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda is strong and growing. Al-Qaeda recently established eight new terrorist training camps in the country, and several al-Qaeda leaders have been given key posts within the Taliban regime. In addition, the Taliban is committed to replacing the current system of education with religious schools that follow a curriculum based on extremist interpretations of Islam that likely will promote terrorist ideologies and inculcate a whole new generation of young jihadists.

Even the Taliban’s persecution of women and girls not only violates international human rights norms and conventions, but also may be linked to the risks of violent extremism. There is a growing body of research on the connections between repression and abuse of women and girls in a society and support for violent, extremist ideologies.

Developing a Coherent International Response

The complicated terrorism situation and severe human rights conditions in Afghanistan require a nuanced international approach that involves a combination of engagement with the Taliban on the ISIS-K threat and pressure to improve women’s rights and to sever ties with other terrorist groups. In a recent report published by the Center for a New American Security, Annie Pforzheimer and I recommend steps for the international community to pursue to achieve these objectives, including expanding the role of the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Afghanistan; supporting the U.N. Credentials Committee in preventing the Taliban from obtaining a seat at the U.N.; elevating discussions with Afghan human rights activists, civil society leaders, and the political opposition; and imposing additional human rights and terrorism sanctions on Taliban leaders.

The recent U.N. efforts provide the best chance for galvanizing the international community around a set of principles and practical steps, such as those listed above, for engaging in Afghanistan in a way that both helps minimize future terrorist threats and protects Afghan women from gender persecution.

IMAGE: Afghan women hold placards as they gather to demand help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for asylum abroad, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on May 12, 2022. (Photo by FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images)