Engaging the Taliban

Published February 25, 2024

DEALING with the Taliban — Afghanistan’s de facto rulers — continues to present a diplomatic dilemma for the global community. Isolating the radical group would mean pushing them into a more extreme direction, quite possibly into the hands of bloodthirsty militant outfits. On the other hand, rewarding them with recognition as they continue to trample on women’s rights is clearly problematic. In fact, the Taliban are making things difficult for themselves due to their rigidity. An example of this was the group’s boycott of a recent two-day UN-sponsored moot in Doha convened to discuss Afghanistan. A number of states, including Pakistan as well as multilateral bodies, participated, but the Taliban were missing in action. Apparently, the rulers in Kabul stayed away because they were not happy with the presence of some of the other Afghan delegates, while they also oppose the appointment of a UN special envoy on Afghanistan.

It was a mistake for the Taliban to boycott the Doha moot when they are trying to get the global community to accept them as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. Their room to manoeuvre is limited, and instead of setting preconditions, the group should use every forum to engage with their neighbours, and other regional states, as well as multilateral bodies. Yet it is also true that if the global community insists that the Taliban deliver on a list of demands before recognition is granted, the conversation will go nowhere. Both sides — the international community and the Taliban — need to meet halfway. Demands that the Taliban end their brutal curbs on women’s education, movement and employment are entirely justified. Yet expecting the ultra-conservative movement to immediately bow to these demands is naïve. Instead, a quid pro quo can be proposed: a timeline for global recognition can be envisaged, provided the Taliban take incremental steps to lift the curbs on women. Moreover, scholars from Muslim states should convince the Taliban’s Kandahar-based leadership that women’s education does not flout religious norms. Similarly, the Taliban must be told that there will be zero tolerance for hosting terrorist groups on Afghan soil, and the recognition process will be frozen if they allow militants to use Afghanistan as a base for destabilising neighbours. Engagement with the Taliban should continue, as isolating Afghanistan internationally will not harm the country’s rulers as much as it will millions of ordinary Afghans.

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2024

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