Rethinking Talks with the Taliban
Rethinking Talks with the Taliban
An Afghan man distributes bread to the people in need outside an eatery in Kabul on February 19, 2022.
An Afghan man distributes bread to the people in need outside an eatery in Kabul on February 19, 2022. Ahmad SAHEL ARMAN / AFP
Commentary / Asia 18 minutes

Rethinking Talks with the Taliban

Negotiations with the Afghan Taliban have failed to make their regime more politically inclusive or respectful of women’s rights. The diplomatic agenda should be more focused, with issues like security cooperation and economic stability insulated from a main track regarding international recognition of the Taliban.

For more than two years, diplomats from around the world have tried, and failed, to make headway in high-level talks with the Taliban. A large share of the blame rests with the Taliban, who refuse to compromise on their hardline policies on women’s rights or their administration’s lack of inclusivity in exchange for promises of better relations with foreign governments and global institutions. But the impact of this deadlock falls not so much on the Taliban themselves as on the Afghan people, particularly women, who continue to endure one of the world’s worst economic and humanitarian crises, due partly to Afghanistan’s isolation. It is time for outside powers, particularly in the West, to rethink their precepts for how to deal with the pariah regime in Kabul.

After the Taliban swept back to power in 2021, many regional and Western officials kept their distance from the regime, which no country has recognised, but were still able to conclude agreements with it on practical matters that required immediate attention: protection of embassies, evacuation of allies and humanitarian access. Pragmatic engagement with the Taliban expanded over time to include talks about counter-terrorism, debt repayment and trade. Yet the track record of foreign officials trying to use diplomacy and pressure to persuade the Taliban to compromise on women’s and girls’ rights, and a more inclusive government for Afghanistan, is dismal.

The latest embarrassment occurred in February, when UN Secretary-General António Guterres invited the Taliban to meet with international envoys in Doha, Qatar, and the Taliban refused to attend. The Taliban snubbed the Secretary-General partly because of protocol concerns – they wanted to be the sole Afghan representatives at the meeting, something the UN rejected – and partly because they mistrust international efforts to wrangle concessions from their regime. To make matters worse, the failed Doha meeting highlighted the growing rift between the West and countries geographically closer to Afghanistan regarding how to best engage the Taliban. There is little international consensus about what needs to be discussed. Afghanistan’s neighbours have largely accepted that, like it or not, the Taliban hold power and will remain key interlocutors on regional security and economic development, which directly affect their own national interests. By contrast, Western countries are less willing to accept the status quo. Afghanistan is not a priority for Western policymakers, but when they spare a moment for the Taliban, it is often to demand that their regime include minorities and respect human rights, especially women’s rights.

Talks with the Taliban will not produce results in the short term.

The bruising experience in Doha was only the latest indication that, at the highest levels, talks with the Taliban will not produce results in the short term. No path around the impasse exists at the moment, as neither the Taliban nor outside interlocutors are ready to make the concessions required for achieving a “grand bargain” that would see the Taliban gain international legitimacy in exchange for progress on women’s rights and inclusivity. Indeed, given their current strength in Afghanistan, it is hard to see any scenario in which the Taliban give up their monopoly of power; nor will any modification they could conceivably make to their repressive edicts on gender issues live up to international norms. On the other side, it is politically impossible for Western leaders to offer olive branches, such as lifting sanctions or allowing the Taliban a seat at the UN, without greater responsiveness from Afghanistan’s de facto authorities to their demands. No matter how many skilled diplomats get assigned to bridge this gap, a fundamental divide seems likely to persist for years between the rulers in Kabul and the countries that until 2021 were fighting them.

The best way forward is to keep talking with the Taliban, but to chip away at specific issues, one by one. Even after the Taliban boycotted the Doha gathering, Guterres rightly concluded that work should continue toward the objective of reintegrating Afghanistan into world political and economic structures. He even predicted that subsequent meetings would include the Taliban. “It will happen in the near future”, he said. But all such efforts in recent years have suffered from two fundamental flaws: first, excessive ambition – it should be clear, by now, that trying to radically change the nature of the Taliban and their government amounts to wishful thinking; and secondly, making the resolution of too many urgent problems affecting Afghans contingent on a breakthrough at the top level of negotiations, where progress will happen slowly – if at all.

Setting Impossible Goals

The first error results from trying to satisfy grand aspirations about Afghanistan’s future, especially the dreams nurtured by Afghans living in exile. Since fleeing Taliban advances on the battlefield, a variety of groups that oppose the Taliban – old warlords, resistance fighters, urban intelligentsia, human rights activists – have tried in various ways to regain influence in Kabul. One tack has been to call on Western powers to force the Taliban into power-sharing negotiations. But this demand is unrealistic, as the Taliban will never agree to give back any portion of the government to the Afghans who worked against them in past decades. The Taliban are stamping out pluralism itself, having banned political parties. That is a tragic waste of the talent in the vibrant political class of Afghanistan, and it flouts the country’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but the time has long since passed when foreign pressure could shape the form of government in Kabul. Crisis Group concluded two years ago that such requests were futile, given the Taliban’s military strength on the ground; since then, their regime has tightened its grip, while opposing groups remain too weak and discredited to have real influence. At this point, the idea of coercing the Taliban into revising their government to meet some kind of international standard for diversity is far-fetched.

To be clear, the international push for inclusivity has not always been a matter of coercion: at times, it has consisted simply of well-meaning suggestions. Visiting diplomats have advised the Taliban to govern with greater transparency, responsiveness to citizens, and inclusiveness toward women and minorities for their own government’s sake. A diplomat who spent years in talks with the Taliban said the new rulers of Kabul should draw lessons from previous governments that collapsed, in part, because they failed to include all Afghans: “a process that helps the Afghan people have a greater voice in their governance would enhance stability and potentially lead to better outcomes for the Afghan people”. That might be true, but the chaos and bloodshed of two decades of U.S.-led military intervention has damaged foreigners’ credibility. It is evident that Western officials did not have workable ideas about how to stabilise Afghanistan in the past, and now the country appears to be reasonably stable under Taliban rule. Besides, the UN General Assembly is full of regimes that themselves do not qualify as “inclusive”. Diplomats can continue offering advice about inclusivity, but they should not present it as a demand when negotiating with the Taliban.

A more prominent item on the international agenda, the rights of women and girls, cannot be dropped.

A more prominent item on the international agenda, the rights of women and girls, cannot be dropped. It is entirely reasonable for diplomats to ask the Taliban to restore education of girls and women of all ages, lifting the barriers they imposed on girls studying beyond the sixth grade. The Taliban complain that such demands amount to foreign meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs, but the political reality is that the Taliban’s restrictions on the rights of Afghan women are an affront to the very first words in the UN charter. To the Taliban’s dismay, the UN has so far kept the previous administration’s appointee in Afghanistan’s seat in New York. If they truly want representation at the General Assembly, the Taliban will need to persuade a UN committee, which they can expect to defend the organisation’s basic principles. Admittedly, the UN also includes member states that do not champion women’s rights. But many Muslim countries expressed horror at the Taliban’s edicts barring women from aspects of work, education and public life. It seems inevitable that the Taliban’s policies on women will continue to block them from taking over Afghanistan’s seat. Given that the Taliban, whose leaders are known for their stubbornness, will almost certainly hold fast to their core values, including their views on gender issues, UN envoys could wind up shuttling back and forth for years without reaching any result. Diplomats should not give up such efforts. They should continue seeking ways of squaring the circle between the Taliban’s ultra-conservative views on gender and the country’s lack of representation on the world stage, but they must brace themselves for protracted talks.

Slow Politics Blocking Urgent Issues

At the same time, the people of Afghanistan should not be condemned to wait for years before their country regains a more functional relationship with the world. They urgently need banking, electricity and all the benefits of integration with modern life. The Afghan poverty crisis ranks among the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, and its burdens fall most heavily on women and girls. Sanctions and other economic pressures do not have much effect on the Taliban, but they do drive up rates of malnutrition among children and disease among vulnerable families, especially female-headed households that often struggle in a patriarchal society. Western officials emphasise that much of Afghanistan survives on small-scale agriculture and informal economies that are not badly affected by lack of formal access to global markets. Still, it is undeniable that the regime’s pariah status puts a drag on the Afghan economy at a time when acute poverty has left half of the population in need of humanitarian aid.

The livelihoods of millions of people should not be indefinitely held hostage to efforts at political dialogue.

The economic woes point to the serious consequences of the second error committed by most diplomats who deal with the Taliban: bundling too many issues together in a single package. The livelihoods of millions of people should not be indefinitely held hostage to efforts at political dialogue, especially as those talks remain indefinitely stuck on issues of women’s and girls’ rights. Urgent economic and security issues need to be insulated from the main track of engagement with the Taliban so they can be resolved in a timely fashion, topic by topic. These include climate adaptation, civil aviation, customs integration, international payments and other day-to-day matters for which ordinary Afghans get snared in complications arising from the Taliban’s banishment from the world order. Such a piecemeal approach would also allow more time for focused conversations with the Taliban about the international concerns that stem from their return to power, such as countering terrorism, controlling migration and curbing the supply of illegal narcotics.

The good news is that the UN Security Council signalled a degree of approval for such approaches in December 2023, voting to encourage all UN member states to adopt a set of recommendations delivered by UN Special Coordinator Feridun Sinirlioğlu, a former Turkish foreign minister who was tasked with reviewing international policy on Afghanistan. His report had flaws, giving too much credence to the feasibility of future intra-Afghan talks under the auspices of a new UN special envoy, for example. Such plans will be hard to implement, as the Taliban refuse to negotiate issues related to their own legitimacy, especially not with an envoy whom they view as an emissary of the West, and certainly not with Afghans handpicked by the UN. But Sinirlioğlu’s vision for a political “roadmap” should not eclipse his more practical recommendations. Much of his report is devoted to useful suggestions about how to cooperate with the Taliban regime in order to address immediate problems the Afghan population faces – even if the “roadmap” leads nowhere. These steps do not require formally recognising the Taliban government, but they would mean working with the regime to some extent, on a clearly defined range of problems.

Most urgently, the Special Coordinator called for development and technical assistance to Afghan state institutions that deliver essential services, particularly in areas where the central government remains the only way of serving all Afghans sustainably. He wrote: “Because of political sensitivities, aid is deliberately bypassing government systems … often at high costs with insufficient coordination, and not at a scale needed across the country”. His list of priorities that require action “immediately”, without waiting for political negotiations, was necessarily lengthy in an impoverished country ravaged by decades of war. It included climate adaptation and resilience; agriculture and water management; support for livelihoods and food security; demining and ordnance disposal; public health campaigns; support for clinics and hospitals; completion of near-finished infrastructure; rehabilitation of the central bank; assistance for people with disabilities; counter-narcotics programs and treatment for drug users; deployment of frozen assets for exchange rate and price stabilisation; airport safety and civil aviation; and provision of consular services such as issuing passports. He also called for focused efforts to help Afghan women with, for example, micro-finance loans and online education.

External actors should compartmentalise such vital issues when dealing with the Taliban, whether out of humanitarian concern for the Afghan people or because foreign governments see stability in the country and the region as serving their own interests. Troop deployments to Afghanistan in recent decades represented NATO’s largest operations outside Europe in its history, with the central premise of promoting stability to prevent terrorism. After the Taliban takeover, foreign officials continued with the same logic, pushing the Taliban to uphold commitments on security and counter-terrorism. At the same time, however, Western policy, notably sanctions and other forms of isolation, arguably made it harder for the regime to maintain order and rebuild the economy. The conflicting nature of those aims was mitigated by the billions of dollars in humanitarian aid channelled to Afghanistan, which have softened the impact of Western economic restrictions over the last two years. But the aid funding is dwindling and the population’s needs are growing, while the contradictions of Western policy toward the Taliban remain unaddressed.

Some foreign actors seem content with this state of affairs. Members of the U.S. Republican party, the German foreign minister and the French government, among others, insist that the Taliban obtain no material benefit whatsoever from international donors, a stricture that makes it almost impossible to solve urgent problems facing Afghanistan and the region. The most blatant example is the poverty crisis: lifting millions of people out of penury will require stimulating economic growth in Afghanistan, which will have the knock-on effect of filling the state treasury with taxes, customs and other revenues. While some Western politicians shudder at this thought, more revenues would help the Taliban pay salaries of schoolteachers and, eventually, cover the full cost of the public health system instead of depending on foreign donors. The same foreign donors also have an interest in the Taliban continuing to pay salaries for the Afghan police and soldiers who are fighting militants.

Encouraging signs are emerging that some Western governments are prepared to un-bundle their agendas and work on economic issues separately.

Encouraging signs are emerging that some Western governments are prepared to un-bundle their agendas and work on economic issues separately. U.S. special envoy Tom West met with the Taliban in July 2023 and promised to hold talks specifically on the question of how to stabilise the Afghan economy. That dialogue started without publicity in October, and it continues despite the disagreements about how to revive the Afghan central bank, which needs U.S. approval and other steps to regain access to its frozen assets abroad. Still, low-key conversations between technical experts are likely to make better progress than using such economic issues as bargaining chips in high-stakes talks. After all, Western politicians might remain at loggerheads with the Taliban on most topics, but they could nonetheless reach the conclusion that Afghanistan should have a viable financial system and, eventually, wean itself off the aid they are providing.

The biggest test of this nascent piecemeal approach will get under way in the coming months as construction resumes on CASA-1000, an electrical corridor connecting Central Asia with Pakistan via Afghanistan. The World Bank’s board decided to revive the project, which had been frozen after the Taliban takeover, in part because regional governments have already borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars to finance it. Although it was not the primary objective behind the decision, the new power lines will bring much-needed electricity to Afghanistan. Among other benefits, keeping the lights on is important for girls who study at home, keeping them connected to the internet and the world. But sending Indian contractors back to finish the job will be risky, as they will depend on the Taliban to keep them safe (the security challenges could be even more daunting in Pakistan). The Bank also faces scrutiny from donors who want to make sure that the Taliban do not benefit financially; as part of the agreement, Afghanistan’s pre-negotiated fees for transmission will need to be sequestered in offshore accounts. Another challenge arises from the Taliban’s worsening relationship with Pakistan, which needs fresh supplies of energy but seems wary of depending on power cables running through Taliban territory. Still, if successful, this ambitious project could serve as a model of how to work with the Taliban on economic development even as Kabul remains isolated on the world stage.

What the West Wants: Security

Another early test of the topic-by-topic model of engagement has been foreign officials’ dealing with the Taliban on security. Most criticise the Taliban’s brutality in enforcing law and order, voicing entirely justifiable outrage about crackdowns on Afghan dissidents and women’s rights activists. But at the same time, some of these officials hold off-the-record discussions with the Taliban, in which they tend to amplify calls to deal with militants who pose transnational threats. The U.S. has maintained a channel in Doha, where Taliban security officials and their U.S. counterparts work on counter-terrorism; so far, to their credit, both sides have managed to protect that discussion from the ups and downs of the political track. Other countries have sent security officials to Kabul for confidential meetings, including delegations from the same European countries that publicly lambast the Taliban. Special Coordinator Sinirlioğlu recommended expanding this kind of engagement to combat terrorism, illegal narcotics and human smuggling. If this approach is feasible on security-related issues, it should be possible to apply the same logic of having separate tracks of engagement on other topics that need urgent attention.

Easing the isolation of the Taliban would benefit the Afghan people, regional stability and global security.

Each track of engagement with the Taliban should be judged on its own merits. The Special Coordinator called for such cooperation with the regime as a way to “build confidence” between the Taliban and the world, in the hope that the hardened politics on each side would soften over time, leading to a grand bargain with the regime. Given the current state of affairs, that is overly optimistic. Easing the isolation of the Taliban would benefit the Afghan people, regional stability and global security – but would probably fail to result in major policy reversals from the ideologues who run the country. For this reason, among others, some Western officials are discontented with the Special Coordinator’s report: they have valid concerns that the UN assessment’s recommendations amount to a gift basket for the Taliban, offering economic goodies “for free” without linking them to transactional deals and compromise on issues the West cares about.

Such critiques are right to the extent that relaxing the financial chokehold on Afghanistan may involve giving up a degree of leverage over the regime, which could, in theory, make it harder to squeeze concessions from the Taliban. But while offering the Taliban cooperation instead of punishment might fail to soften the hardliners, it is the most realistic way of delivering urgently needed assistance to vulnerable Afghans, particularly women and girls. Helping the Afghans most in need is a matter of doing what is possible in spite of the Taliban, not waiting for more acceptable edicts from the theocratic rulers. After all, no matter what gets decided in Western capitals, it is very likely that the clerics in Kandahar will continue making rules for Afghan society that will be unacceptable to the rest of the world. As a result, every careful step by governments and global institutions toward cooperation with the regime should be taken strictly for its own sake, insulated from any wider political agenda aimed at encouraging the Taliban regime to evolve in a positive direction. Economic stability and security cooperation are important in their own right, even if they cannot serve as stepping stones toward, for example, the Taliban reopening girls’ secondary schools.

The Need for More Granular Discussions

All of the above has implications for the next time the Taliban are invited to a diplomatic gathering. UN officials are considering another meeting in Doha for later in 2024, again involving senior envoys to Afghanistan. The Secretary-General himself does not seem likely to attend, but lower grades of diplomatic representation could prove useful for a more hands-on discussion of a focused topic, perhaps economic matters. This approach would be more likely to start a meaningful dialogue, as the Taliban may be willing to participate if the agenda holds some prospect of tangible results.

Foreign delegations, representing at least two dozen countries and multilateral institutions, should make use of preparatory meetings to think about how to narrow the scope of what needs to be discussed with the Taliban. As mentioned, they should, in particular, leave off the agenda for Doha efforts to push for an inclusive government, which is a sure way of stalling any meaningful conversation. Women’s rights will remain a major item on the agenda, as will demands for Taliban cooperation on security and counter-terrorism. Besides deciding what to ask of the Taliban, diplomats must also clarify what they are willing to give. Leverage does not work if the lever itself can never be used, so the diplomats should reconsider the criteria for removing Taliban from various lists of sanctions. The UN lists of sanctioned individuals, for example, are outdated, to the extent that it is technically impossible for any member of the Taliban to be removed with the existing criteria, which means the sanctions no longer offer any incentive for good behaviour.

A track of negotiations must exist on the eventual normalisation of relations between the world and the Afghan state.

Whatever the negotiators in Doha decide should be the give-and-take scenario for eventually allowing Afghanistan to rejoin the international community, they should dig in for an extended period of talks. Diplomats who worked on the bilateral U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Doha from 2018 to 2020 remember that the Taliban’s style of negotiation often involved long stretches of internal consultations between rounds. Every little detail of the back-and-forth had to be chewed over by the religious leadership, sometimes at length. Foreign officials have debated about the right format for holding such talks, whether to form a “contact group” of concerned countries, a conclave of neighbours with the most at stake in Afghanistan or ad hoc gatherings on given topics. The role of a new UN envoy, if one is appointed, also needs to be clarified. In any of these scenarios, the key ingredient for success will be allowing sufficient time for a protracted diplomatic process. The road to recognition of the Taliban regime will be long and bumpy, and there may be setbacks when the clerics find new ways of provoking outrage. Still, as the Special Coordinator correctly said, a track of negotiations must exist on the eventual normalisation of relations between the world and the Afghan state.

Now that the UN Security Council has given its blessing, in principle, for such normalisation talks with the Taliban, the UN should also clarify what does not belong in those discussions. Any future envoy or contact group seeking high-level talks with the Taliban should be tasked with political affairs, not economic or security issues. As the Special Coordinator rightly stressed, some problems require action immediately. Those topics should be hived off from the main negotiations and dealt with independently, one by one. The format of such engagements could be flexible, depending on the topic: border security concerns the neighbours, whereas the fate of the country’s overseas assets involves mostly Western actors. Addressing the poverty crisis is especially urgent. Progress is overdue on the restoration of electricity, irrigation, central banking and other basic services. Making headway on those prosaic topics would restore a bit of normalcy to the war-stricken lives of Afghans – even if they continue suffering under an outcast regime that is far from normal.

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