In the fall of 2017, during a private meeting on the Taliban’s nature and tactics in Kabul several years before they returned to power, a senior Iranian official shrewdly characterized the Taliban group as a “wild black horse” on the loose. He stressed to his Russian and Afghan counterparts that efforts to “whitewash a black horse” were futile. What really matters, he emphasized, is who tames and rides the wild black horse and in which direction it’s then led to gallop.

At the time, Russia and Iran, while increasingly critical and suspicious, were at least cooperating with the Western-backed government of Afghanistan, in which I served. Fast-forward seven years, and the diplomatic circus surrounding the United Nations-led Doha meetings of special representatives for Afghanistan, set for a third round from June 30 to July 1, reminds me of that conversation. Since then, the wild horse has gained a vast territory to trample with the Taliban’s recapturing control of Afghanistan in 2021. The wild horse has been nourished well on sweeteners from neighbors and others eager or reconciled to both whitewashing the regime and riding this steed however hard it bucks. The horse, in turn, has put on weight and refuses to move anywhere it doesn’t want to go.

The Doha Meeting: A Failure of Inclusion and Vision

Almost three years after the Taliban’s military takeover, regional and international players continue with their futile attempts to “whitewash” the Taliban in hopes the extremist group might change, when the regime and the group writ large really hasn’t changed at all. As the preparation for another round of Doha meetings is underway, regrettably, once again, the absolute majority of people of Afghanistan who are not Taliban, especially the younger, emerging civil and political opposition both inside and outside the country, are being overlooked or disregarded. This neglect is a grave concern, because it undermines the potential for a truly inclusive and effective diplomatic process.

The intent of the Doha meetings is to gather representatives from major regional and international stakeholders to find a way forward in relations with the country as a whole. No country thus far has granted the Taliban official recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. But the objectives of this third meeting for both regional and international players appear to be disappointingly limited and even counterproductive. Western countries, with the U.N., appear to be making an all-out effort to get the Taliban delegation to show up at the meeting, whether or not that advances a political process; for another group of powerful players – Russia, Iran, China, and to a certain extent Pakistan — it is to prevent the Taliban from attending at all.

The first meeting of Special Envoys and Special Representatives on Afghanistan was held in Doha in May 2023, and the Taliban were not invited. During the second Doha meeting in February this year, Taliban representatives were invited but insisted that anyone not connected with the group be excluded, including Afghan women and civil society. When the U.N. rejected that demand, the Taliban refused to attend.

For this coming meeting, however, the Taliban appear set to attend. The U.N. and envoys based in Doha are excluding Afghan women and civil society from the main meeting, pledging only a separate meeting the next day. Essentially the U.N. and other hosts have capitulated to the Taliban’s conditions on protocol, agenda, and participants for Doha.

In addition, States across the region and beyond have renewed their own incentives to the Taliban. Those concessions include the promise of removing the Taliban from their terrorist lists, offering to support the Taliban’s membership of the China- and Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and regularly inviting Taliban ministers for official visits, such as the recent delegation that attended Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on trade and investment.

That the Taliban is attending the Doha meeting indicates they have received a waiver of a travel ban on sanctioned members of the Haqqani Network leadership who are in the Taliban government. The United States also seems to be less than serious about its $10 million “Rewards for Justice” fugitive notice for Sirajuddin Haqqani – the FBI has not even bothered to update the sketch and semi-covered profile photo of him on its poster for him, even though he became part of the Taliban government in 2021 and photos of him are widely available. Such concessions by the West are far more significant than any attempt by some regional countries such as Russia and Iran to dissuade the Taliban from going to Doha and instead attend their own diplomatic convenings, including a recent meeting of Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan (known as the “Moscow Format”) in Tehran, which even the Taliban declined to attend.

On the Agenda vs. On the Menu

News reports suggest that the “Doha 3” official agenda will cover a wide range of items intended as inducements to get the Taliban on board with issues that too many in the international community apparently consider a higher priority than human rights and the subjugation of women. These apparent priority issues include discussions on counter-narcotics measures and related incentives to offer alternative livelihoods to opium poppy growers, as well as issues related to climate change and the environment, banking and financial flows, and the role of the private sector in all of the above (in a weak effort by the organizers to demonstrate that they are engaging with players other than the Taliban).

Under “any other business at the end of the meeting, some participants have indicated they might, if time permits, raise other issues such as the Taliban’s assault on human rights, girls’ education and permission for women to work, and questions related to migration, a potential national dialogue that some advocates have called for, and the possible appointment of a U.N. special representative, which the Taliban has resisted.

So, even as representatives of the international community, regional countries, the Taliban, the U.N., and development agencies gather at an elegantly decorated table in a luxury hotel in Doha on June 30, those who are not at the table — civil society, women activists, human rights defenders, and opposition political figures — appear to be on the menu.

A Potential Silver Lining?

Ambassador Feridun Sinirlioğlu, a seasoned Turkish diplomat who conducted an independent assessment commissioned by the U.N. Security Council and released last November, underlined the imperative of a “much-needed impetus to shift from the current status quo.”

There is, rhetorically at least, also an agreement among Security Council members on what a sustainable outcome should look like. As described in the independent assessment and reinforced by Security Council Resolution 2721 that followed in December, the end goal is “an Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors, fully reintegrated into the international community and meeting international obligations.” The resolution also says the Council “recognizes the need to ensure the full, equal, meaningful and safe participation of Afghan women in the process throughout.”

In the bigger picture, then, the current race-to-bottom between the regional and international players to appease the Taliban at the cost of ignoring the rest of non-Taliban Afghanistan and achieving their long-term mutual interest does not have to be the definitive trajectory of this crisis.

The Taliban, while being personally enriched by gains from regional and international incentives, surreptitious efforts to circumvent sanctions, and likely substantial sums of unaccounted-for domestic revenue, already are facing administrative, economic, political, and security failures. Their administration is weakened by a severe shortage of skilled technical staff, as most professional cadres have fled the country and the remaining few have moved into higher-paying U.N. and international NGO jobs. Corruption and kleptocracy under the Taliban is rampant. Discrimination on an ethnic and linguistic basis, including in the few remaining public service and tax collection jobs, is routine. Despite the Taliban’s vow to improve security, incidents continue to occur, and probably at a greater rate than is reported, as such incidents often are hidden from media. And even as some international forces try to legitimize the Taliban, after almost three years in power, the prospect of establishing real domestic and international legitimacy is slipping further away.

Moving Beyond an Unsustainable Status Quo

The Taliban’s only proposition to the world that may at least seem attractive on its face, counterterrorism (though that in itself is a contradiction considering the group’s espousal and protection of extremist violence), has lost whatever credibility it may have had. It is increasingly apparent that the Taliban provides a conducive ideological and operational environment for various regional and international terror groups, including the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) and al-Qaeda, as evidenced by the symbiotic relationship between the Taliban’s rank-and-file and these groups. Terrorism and sabotage operations abroad from command-and-control centers inside Afghanistan, continuing irregular migration to Europe, and the proliferation of Taliban and other violent extremist groups sympathizers among irregular migrants to the United States are among the emerging security threats from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Additionally, recurring environmental disasters, severe poverty, high unemployment, looming public uprisings due to ethnic and regional discrimination, including among the Taliban themselves, and the increasing organization and recurring attacks by resistance forces are the main internal threats to the status quo.

Hence, despite the Taliban’s apparent confidence, the situation is more fragile than they may project.

With some significant international consensus on the status quo’s unsustainability and on the end goal’s desirability, there would seem to be some common ground to work from: the existing general agreement among all major stakeholders on issues such as the nonrecognition of the Taliban, the imperative of security cooperation, the restoration of fundamental human rights, and the establishment of an inclusive system of governance. Most crucially, achieving the end goal of a peaceful Afghanistan fully reintegrated into the international community and meeting international obligations requires not only engaging with the Taliban but also placing the non-Taliban constituencies, a clear majority of the people of Afghanistan, at the center of the engagement process.

Afghanistan is not doomed to the often-propagated binary choice of either the bad or something worse, such as the Taliban or the Islamic State, a dictatorship or a civil war. A viable third way for a vision of governance exists among the next generation of emerging professional civil, political, and former defense forces inside the country and in exile. Such forces are gradually reorganizing and converging, but they struggle to mobilize and consolidate significantly because of the lack of a conducive environment, political space, and support. That is what their integrated presence in Doha could achieve. Ensuring their space in important U.N.-led efforts could be a first step in the right direction.

There is still time to ensure proper sequencing of priority items and inclusivity of participants.  Otherwise, significant groups and/or representatives will boycott Doha, possibly spelling the end of a significant platform for achieving the worthy goal of a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

IMAGE: Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi(C) arrives for a meeting with foreign diplomats in Qatar’s capital Doha, on October 12, 2021. (Photo by KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images)