Haleh EsfandiariDistinguished fellow and Director Emerita of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center
The United States, European governments, and international organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund should be in no hurry to recognize the government of the Taliban, nor should they extend aid and financial assistance to them.
But they should continue talking unofficially to the current Taliban leadership that sits in Kabul and has already formed a government.
The United States and its European allies should make it clear that recognition, financial aid, and other forms of assistance will come only when the Taliban prove they will not revert to the policies as when they were in power twenty years ago and that they will respect women’s rights, human rights, and the current Afghan constitution.
The last time the Taliban were in power, women were relegated to their homes and rendered voiceless. In the past twenty years, since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghan women, with support from the West, have gained access to education and employment and to political and economic participation; they have been able to express their opinions; and they regained a public voice.
Once again, it is up to the West and international organizations to exert pressure on the Taliban in order to preserve the meaningful gains Afghan women have made in the last two decades.
Jacqueline HaleBrussels Director at Crisis Action
A key question to ask is: what’s the aim? Is it to protect the people of Afghanistan and ensure no further harm comes to them? The reality on the ground is that many neutral, independent organizations already have to talk to de facto authorities to broker vital access to people in need and to provide lifesaving services beyond the limits of the state’s capacity.
And following the withdrawal the needs are huge. It is one thing if engaging with the de facto authorities means that aid and financing can flow to the civilians who most need it—chiefly women whose rights and lives are under threat as well as children and marginalized and rural communities.
It is quite another if diplomatic engagement is used to confer legitimacy on those who wield power through the barrel of the gun and violate human rights.
And what about prioritizing those who don’t carry guns? What do most Afghan civilians, including marginalized and at-risk groups, want? Is the international community willing to listen to their voices and empower them?
Protecting civilians and their rights all too often gets overlooked in diplomatic calculations with the tragic consequences we have already witnessed in Kabul and beyond.
François HeisbourgSenior advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
The short answer is yes. Twenty years of war have shown that is not an option. Prior to that, diplomatic and economic isolation of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the mid-nineties didn’t turn out as planned either: the Taliban crafted their own rather special “windows on the world” (the reference to the name of the Twin Towers hallmark restaurant is deliberate), operating with al-Qaeda as their strategic partner. Unless one is determined to do the same thing over and over again, all the while expecting different results, that leaves diplomacy as the default.
Diplomacy, which is about talking to people with whom one disagrees, is not a great option, since the Taliban will present recognition as an endorsement. Women’s rights are also unlikely to benefit through the mere presence of Western diplomatic missions.
But, simply put, diplomacy is the only option we haven’t tried. China, Russia, and Turkey have decided to go down that road although they had refused to do so in the mid-nineties, a time when the Taliban were recognized by only three countries—Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.
China, Russia, and Turkey are authoritarian powers, but they hardly view the Taliban as natural partners. Nevertheless, they have decided to fill the diplomatic vacuum.
Shada IslamManaging Director of the New Horizons Project
Having spent so much time and money on women and girls’ empowerment in Afghanistan, the EU is right to worry about their future under the Taliban. Reassurances given so far by some Taliban leaders are not convincing.
Moving forward, the EU will have to press the Taliban and Afghan leaders who are working with them to make a strong public statement assuring that women can continue to go to schools and to work—and that implementation of those rights will be monitored.
It was a big mistake not to insist on women’s rights during the U.S.-led talks with the Taliban in Doha.
Second, the EU must make sure that any aid that is given to the new government is conditional on its fair treatment of women and girls.
Third, remember that the Taliban’s peculiar version of Islam is shunned by all of its neighbors. The EU should therefore use its networks in Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and the Central Asian countries to ensure that they also convey a similar message.
Finally, the EU should beware of double standards. Its concerns about Afghan women would secure more traction if there was real action to prevent well-documented discrimination, abuse, violence, and Islamophobia facing European Muslim women.
Markus KaimSenior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
I think this question has long been answered by the concrete actions of Western governments: on the basis of their own interests, they are talking to the Taliban about continuing the evacuation of local Western embassy staff, further humanitarian aid, and possible development cooperation. It is revealing in this context that the United States has only moved its embassy to Doha and has not severed diplomatic relations with Afghanistan.
Those who believe they do not need to talk to the Taliban fail to recognize three things:
- The West has suffered a painful defeat in Afghanistan and in a few weeks has gone from being a hegemon to a petitioner in the country. In such a situation, political conditions can no longer be dictated.
- Western statements about how many levers they have on the Taliban and how effective they are only camouflage their own powerlessness and perpetuate the imperial hubris that has been part of the problem in Afghanistan.
- In an international order characterized by the rivalry of great powers, the West cannot afford to simply leave the country and the region to other powers. Although a Western policy toward Afghanistan must now be developed and formulated from scratch, there is no doubt in my mind that the country will continue to have a certain strategic significance in the future.
Mary KaldorProfessor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics
The West will have to talk to the Taliban about establishing safe routes for the evacuation of people in danger and the delivery of humanitarian aid. The international community should be aware that the Taliban will not be able to govern such a diverse country without external support and political inclusion. Additional leverage are the frozen assets and international public opinion.
The West should not cooperate with the Taliban in pursuit of the Islamic State-Khorasan or al-Qaeda. It will contribute to violent chaos in Afghanistan and will produce a mobilising counterreaction from these groups. Despite all the firepower targeted at the Islamic State, it is spreading across the world. There needs to be an alternative approach to dealing with terrorism that focuses on policing and intelligence and tackling the underlying causes.
Any talks about the political future of Afghanistan should be conditional on:
- An end to arbitrary executions, the ethnic cleansing of Hazaras, and the abuse of women, including violence against women, giving them as brides to Taliban fighters, and preventing them from going to school or taking jobs, as well as a reaffirmation of the right to leave and a guarantee of the safety of civil servants and those who worked for the previous government.
- The inclusion of civil society, women, Afghan members of parliament, and former members of the government, and members of the resistance.
There should be no recognition without preceding talks along the lines above.
Julian Lindley-FrenchChair of the Alphen Group and senior fellow at the Institute for Statecraft
Yes. One of the many confusions that have dogged the Afghanistan campaign has been the confusion of values with interests by both Americans and Europeans. Americans tended to eschew nation-building for counterterrorism and yet invested millions of dollars trying to make it work. Europeans claimed to be the champions of nation-building but made nothing like the effort needed to match their words with deeds. The result is that after four American presidents, thousands of lives lost, and millions of dollars invested, the Taliban has been replaced with the Taliban.
There is already evidence al-Qaeda leaders are filtering back across the Afghan-Pakistan border and the Kabul Airport attack by the Islamic State-Khorasan clearly demonstrate a continuing threat both to Afghanistan itself and the wider international community.
The West has already accorded the Taliban a form of legitimacy by coordinating evacuation efforts with it. Therefore, given the threat, and in spite of the Taliban’s ideology being counter to everything that liberal democracy stands for, the West has no alternative but to talk to the Taliban. The leverage? The West has frozen many of the assets the Taliban will need to rule.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Whether they like it or not, Western leaders will be compelled to talk to the Taliban. The question is: at what price?
August 31 marked a huge political victory for the Taliban over a powerful Western coalition, ending a twenty-year war with the complete withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops and the collapse of the previous Afghan government. In the short term, it is therefore unlikely that a balanced dialogue on rule of law can be launched between the West and a Taliban leadership.
This being said, a lasting Taliban political regime will need to rest in part on international cooperation if they want to ensure the country’s security, restore its financial system, trade its natural resources, and possibly open it for foreign investment.
Whether they choose to deal primarily with China or with Western powers, Taliban leaders will have to achieve a modicum of understanding with them.
Beijing will be highly wary of possible connections with the Uyghurs, while the West will be very prudent due to the application of Sharia law, a diminished role of women, and the prospect of a massive hunt for civil society activists and free thinkers.
Finding a balance between Western principles and realpolitik will be a very tough act.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
For the West, not talking to the Taliban risks playing into the hands of the most extremist blend of the movement. It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy at a time when the struggle for power inside the future Afghan government remains uncertain. Moreover, an absent West would leave the door open for its main regional and global rivals to increase their geopolitical influence.
Western countries have to face reality. If they want to resume as soon as possible the evacuation of friendly Afghan citizens, provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghan population, and eradicate terrorism and drugs in Afghanistan, they cannot just sit and wait for the political situation in Kabul to unfold, hopefully according to their wishes. They need to interact with the Taliban in one way or another.
Additionally, leaving Afghan civil society on its own to protect the very uncertain future of human rights in the country would only further undermine the credibility of the West.
Closing the door to any contact will only repeat the 2001 flawed choice of banning the Taliban from the national Afghan dialogue, an option which paved the way for the twenty-year civil war and, finally, for the Taliban’s return to power.
Catherine WoollardDirector of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE)
Yes. We should talk to everyone—armed groups, terrorists, other purveyors of violence. Ending conflict and reaching peace settlements is only possible through dialogue.
On the agenda now should be access to Afghanistan for humanitarian assistance and safe passage out for Afghans at risk of persecution. Talking does not mean recognition or support for the new regime. Indeed, the unequivocal and unwavering message should be that any eventual cooperation will be conditional on respect for the rights of all Afghans, and that there will be consequences for abuses that occur.
Possibly as hard as talking to the Taliban are the necessary parallel discussions with all the other global players rushing to exert their influence. But such talks are essential to have any chance of avoiding another round of proxy wars—a major cause of displacement.
For the EU, the talking should be done by the diplomats: this is the time for the European External Action Service to prove its value and for foreign ministries to get back in the game. And we could do without the hysterical speeches from interior ministers: fearmongering about the small proportion of displaced Afghans who might seek protection in Europe is stoking rather than averting a crisis.