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A Reality Check on Afghanistan’s Isolation Under the Taliban

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A Reality Check on Afghanistan’s Isolation Under the Taliban

Beneath the U.N. secretary general’s claims of consensus in Doha, a clear division is visible among countries regarding whether and how to do business with the Taliban.

A Reality Check on Afghanistan’s Isolation Under the Taliban

Secretary General António Guterres briefs reporters on Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, May 3, 2023.

Credit: UN Photo/Khava Mukhieva

The two-day meeting of regional and national special envoys for Afghanistan convened by the U.N. Secretary General António Guterres in Doha ended on February 19 with consensus among the participants over “what needs to happen.” But there was almost no unanimity about how the international community should engage with the Taliban. The Taliban continue to demonstrate no signs of backtracking on their policies and show no interest in forming an inclusive government and restoring the rights to education, employment, and movement that girls, women, and minorities enjoyed for two decades. 

Worse still, beneath the U.N. secretary general’s claims of consensus, a clear division is visible among countries regarding doing business with the present regime.    

The meeting provided an opportunity for important stakeholders, regional as well as global, to converse on the future of Afghanistan and the steps required to arrest the country’s downhill slide under the Taliban. More importantly, the meeting aimed to bring the Taliban face-to-face with Afghan human rights and women activist groups on its sidelines, for a frank exchange of views. No such dialogue has been possible in Afghanistan. 

The Taliban, however, refused to attend as their demand for recognition as the sole governing entity of Afghanistan in the meeting was not met. This would have amounted to the world body recognizing the so-called Islamic Emirate. In addition, the Taliban refused to meet any of the human rights and activist groups. The Taliban also rejected the idea of a new U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan given that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is already functioning in the country.

The Taliban’s reaction was to be expected. The group is seeking to make the international community accept it without conditions. Time and again the Taliban regime has made it clear that it views such recognition as its right and it must not be linked to any improbable change in its policies or Afghanistan’s governing system. Under this view, another U.N. special envoy, one tasked with promoting dialogue between the Taliban and Afghan opposition groups, is unnecessary, as the Taliban have no intention of sharing power with anyone else. 

At the meeting’s conclusion, Guterres expressed hope that it would be possible to discuss the conclusions arrived at in the meeting with the de facto authorities of Afghanistan, the Taliban, “in the near future.”

While the West is still holding on to its hopes of being able to pressure the Taliban to change its policies through the strategy of non-recognition, the group of countries that are willing to do business with the Taliban has quietly expanded. Short of formally recognizing the regime, the level of engagement has continued to increase, possibly adding to the belief in the Islamic Emirate that the rest of the world will eventually follow suit.

Only six countries (China, Russia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Iran) kept their embassies open in Kabul after August 2021. That list has now expanded to 17. Although China is the only country to appoint an ambassador to Kabul and also receive one from the Taliban, the rest have found novel ways of seeking relevance in the country. During the Doha meeting, Guterres noted the “ongoing cooperation between Afghanistan and neighboring countries,” in areas of “trade and infrastructure development or bilateral arrangements on combatting illicit drug trade.” 

The most recent to join the bandwagon is Azerbaijan, a key U.S. partner during the two decades of international presence in Afghanistan. On February 15, Azerbaijan officially reopened its embassy in Kabul, following through on a pledge made last year. The newly appointed ambassador to Afghanistan, Ilham Mammadov, arrived in Kabul and handed an official letter to Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.

India’s engagement with Afghanistan, which started formally through the deployment of a technical mission in July 2022 that works out of the Indian embassy in Kabul, continues to grow. The Taliban now manage the Afghan embassy in New Delhi and the consulates in other cities. In January this year, the Indian embassy in Abu Dhabi even invited Badruddin Haqqani, a prominent Taliban figure serving as the charge d’affaires of the Afghan embassy in the UAE, to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations.

It is apparent that the Taliban regime now believes that its international isolation is only a matter of perception, while the on-ground situation is changing rapidly in its favor. On January 29, 2024, the Taliban convened a regional conference in Kabul, which was attended by Russia, India, China, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Chairing the conference, Foreign Minister Muttaqi highlighted the “strides the country has made under the Taliban” including “organizing security forces, neutralizing threats, banning poppy cultivation, and initiating major development projects.” He urged participants to accurately represent Afghanistan’s current realities at the Doha meeting.

Not surprisingly, statements made by Russian, Chinese, and Iranian delegates at Doha were sympathetic to the Taliban’s position and chafed against the “consensus” underlined by Guterres. Russia declined to attend the sessions addressed by Afghan civil society groups. China demanded that the United States unfreeze Afghanistan’s overseas assets and lift the unilateral sanctions on the Taliban. And Iran articulated why it was difficult for the Taliban to attend the Doha meeting.

As things stand today, a global consensus on Afghanistan remains farfetched. While the faraway West can stay detached and continue to apply pressure, the perspectives of regional countries are different. It will indeed be a huge challenge to synergize these two contrasting approaches and find a way to open a channel of dialogue between the various Afghan groups and the Taliban. The U.N. will need to use its good offices and innovative negotiating skills to stitch together an alliance of the willing by bringing together countries in the region and groups inside Afghanistan on a common platform to achieve the goal of inclusion, peace, and stability in the conflict-ridden country.