The Taliban dilemma

Published September 13, 2021
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

THERE was little surprise in the Taliban’s announcement of an all-male government composed almost entirely of its old guard and with top posts going to hardliners. It was nevertheless a disappointment and at odds with their earlier statements and assurances to the international community that they would form a broad-based government. The cabinet is anything but inclusive and hardly reflects the country’s ethnic diversity. Almost half its members served in the Taliban’s government in 1996-2001.

Taliban spokesmen described it as a ‘caretaker’ arrangement that kept open the door to later expansion by accommodating others. There is however little to suggest they will do this. It is at the start of their rule that the Taliban needed to demonstrate to their people and the world that they were willing to depart from the past. If they had included non-Taliban members from minorities and women, they may have been able to change the international conversation and perception of them.

Editorial: The Taliban’s promises of inclusivity appear to be ringing hollow

But the opportunity was squandered. Flushed with victory Taliban leaders seemed to have followed their instincts rather than exercise prudence. They may also have mistaken engagement for acceptance by the international community. Engagement on practical issues is not endearment. The global community’s engagement is for now focused on immediate considerations — evacuating nationals and partners from Kabul by Western countries and providing assistance to avert a humanitarian crisis.

The international reaction to the new government has been circumspect including from Pakistan. Western countries have in fact responded sceptically with officials pointing out that this was not the promised ‘inclusive government’. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern about “the affiliations and track records of some of the individuals” in the government — a reference to those on the UN sanctions list or who have a US terrorist designation. This indicated that Western states will likely withhold recognition or legitimacy until the Taliban deliver on their promises, especially to ensure that Afghanistan’s soil is not used against any country by terrorist groups that reside there.

To win international support the Taliban must show flexibility and deliver on promises.

Whether the Taliban made a miscalculation about how the world would react to their government or simply didn’t care, their leaders also seem to underestimate the pushback that can emerge against their actions at home. Early signs of this were scattered protests that erupted in several places by hundreds of, mostly, women demanding their rights. The harsh manner in which these peaceful demonstrators were dealt with and intimidation of journalists, hardly burnished the new government’s credentials. It also attracted criticism from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights whose spokeswoman called on the Taliban to cease the use of force against peaceful protesters.

In seizing control of Panjshir the Taliban may have succeeded in eliminating armed resistance but that does not rule out public resistance down the road. After all this is not Afghanistan of the 1990s. Adept at fighting, the Taliban confront governance challenges fundamentally different from when they were last in power. They also have to learn to accommodate the needs and aspirations of a new, better educated generation including women, or face rising discontent. It would be a mistake for them to think that the popular sentiment against foreign occupation and wariness with more conflict is the same as support for them.

Moreover, the fraught economic situation can spawn public discontent even unrest over time. With its foreign exchange reserves frozen by the US, assistance from the IMF/World Bank suspended and people facing food and cash shortages as well as rising prices the danger looms of a serious economic crisis. That should be reason enough to urge the Taliban government to show flexibility and be responsive to international expectations to secure the flow of funds to avert an economic collapse.

The international community has a shared interest in Afghanistan’s stability and is offering assistance to address the humanitarian crisis. In his quarterly report to the UN Security Council of Sept 2 Secretary General António Guterres warned that along with internal displacement “the combination of natural disasters, severe drought, flooding and the third wave of the pandemic have put nearly half of the population of Afghanistan in dire need of humanitarian assistance”. The international aid conference called by him on Sept 13 aims to elicit financial pledges for urgent humanitarian relief.

But beyond humanitarian help the international community remains apprehensive about the country’s future. As Guterres put it there is “deep disquiet about what lies ahead”. In meetings of regional states, recently chaired by Pakistan, and the virtual meeting of 22 states, including the EU and Nato, chaired by Secretary Blinken on Sept 8, the common concern was for Afghanistan’s stability and the need for the Taliban to abide by their commitments to counter terrorism and respect human rights.

The Sept 9 debate in the Security Council on Afghanistan also reflected the international mood and the terms of engagement spelt out by key members. While pointing out that the US remained the single largest donor of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan the American envoy said “any legitimacy and support will have to be earned” by the Taliban, adding that “the standards the international community has set are clear”. In similar vein the UK representative said her country’s approach will be shaped by what the Taliban do. The Chinese ambassador while urging constructive engagement urged the Taliban to “learn lessons from history, honour its commitments, unite all ethnic groups, build a broad-based and inclusive political architecture, pursue moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies, protect the rights of women and resolutely combat terrorist groups”. The Russian envoy pointed to “the risk of militants infiltrating the region” and reiterated that Russia’s interest was in Afghanistan’s stabilisation.

Major powers and regional states all want to see a stable Afghanistan. By staying united and avoiding divergent approaches the international community can play a positive role in helping to influence Afghanistan’s future. But for the Taliban to win external support and stave off an economic and humanitarian crisis their leaders must also deliver on their pledges, exercise moderation and above all acknowledge that Afghanistan today cannot be governed the way it was under their previous rule.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK & UN.

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2021



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