If there is a single place on Earth that is the opposite of everything the Taliban aspires to create in Afghanistan, it might be Norway. Yet, last week, a large and very senior Taliban delegation found itself there, in Oslo, wrapping up a set of meetings it described as “an achievement”. For the first time, the Taliban “shared the stage with the world”, said Amir Khan Muttaqi, Afghanistan’s acting Foreign Minister.
The meetings bore all the hallmarks of high-level talks – the Taliban were flown in on a private jet, and met with envoys from the US, France, the UK, Germany, Norway and the EU. But widespread anger among the Norwegian public, as well as human rights organisations and Afghan diaspora groups, at the Taliban being afforded such dignity and respect meant the event could be billed as nothing more than an informal summit. Every western country participating has been at pains to emphasise that nothing about the Norway talks constituted official recognition of the Taliban government.
In many ways, these are superficial concerns. In organising and hosting the meetings, the Norwegian government is pursuing an entirely pragmatic agenda. As one former Norwegian diplomat points out, Norway does not recognise governments. It recognises countries, and it has recognised Afghanistan for decades. A failure to talk to Afghanistan’s new government would be a failure to acknowledge reality.
Nonetheless, governments went into the Norway summit having to promise their domestic constituencies and human rights groups that they would approach the Taliban with a set of demands – “tangible demands”, as Norway’s State Secretary, Henrik Thune, called them. They include respect for human rights, universal access to education and health care, the right to employment, free movement and a mechanism for distributing aid directly to Afghan civilians.
A fairer criticism of the summit – or more accurately, perhaps, a criticism of its opponents – is that this public premise of negotiating over demands is deeply flawed, logically as well as morally. The Taliban did not need to fly to Norway to understand the West’s demands. They have been clear for months, and the Taliban has repeatedly failed to meet them. It has denied girls the right to education, refused to include women in government, shut ethnic and religious minorities out of government in anything but a tokenistic sense, suppressed Afghanistan’s media and tolerated its supporters carrying out a deadly vigilante campaign against its ideological opponents. Indeed, all of this, and the subsequent inability for most people in the world to stomach being in the same room as the Taliban, is the reason a summit such as the one in Oslo hasn’t happened sooner.
It is also the reason the US and European countries, which together hold nearly $10 billion of Afghan government assets in their banks, have refused to release those funds. In the meantime, Afghanistan is facing the most acute humanitarian crisis in its history. Nine in 10 Afghans face starvation, barely $100 of cash per person exists in the economy and the worst drought the country has had in more than three decades is setting in. The incentives for the Taliban to reform could not be greater.
The western argument – made most forcefully by the US – is that the Afghan state reserves make for good leverage, and the Taliban argument is that none of the reforms are possible without money. Neither of these positions wash; most of the reforms would not cost any money, and the money-as-leverage strategy clearly does not work. And the continued posturing driving both positions in full knowledge of the failure of their logic is morally repugnant.
So was the point of the summit to repeat a set of demands the Taliban will not meet, starving hundreds of thousands of Afghans in the process?
Unsurprisingly, no tangible results have come out of the meetings in Norway yet. And they are unlikely to emerge any time soon. That is because the reality – the real mess – of Afghanistan that the organisers of the meeting want to acknowledge, and sort out, requires something deeper than merely talking at the Taliban. It requires getting to know the Taliban. Bringing the Taliban to the table, engaging in a certain amount of puffery, and watching the group’s delighted swagger reveals something: the extent to which some elements of the Taliban want to “share the stage”, as Mr Muttaqi put it.
It also provides opportunities to form new, more effective strategies to exploit these elements and achieve actual results. It is clear, for instance, that money is not the reason the Taliban cannot have girls in school or include minorities in its administration. It already musters the resources to educate boys and appoint members of its own group. The real reason for its obstinacy is disagreement within its ranks – battles between its own pragmatists and hardliners. Getting to know the Taliban opens the door to finding ways to support the former over the latter, particularly in these early days, before it’s too late and the hardliners cement their power.
Those are longer-term benefits. There is another, more immediate potential payoff from getting to know the Taliban government better. The international community could reach an agreement with the Taliban to channel funds directly to Afghans, as the Norwegian government wants, in a way that is systematic, monitored and minimises the risk of misuse. With a measure of creativity, such a mechanism is possible to devise – more complicated things have been tried in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. This would allow the West to retain some control over the process, but also move the entire dynamic between it and Afghanistan away from a zero-sum approach.
All of this is a risky investment of time, effort and money. The Taliban could rest on its Norwegian “achievement”, give in to its most hard-line impulses and find ways to siphon off whatever aid it can, as many other terrorist groups in the region before it have done. But no risk is being taken that hasn’t been taken before, and no price would be paid that isn’t already being paid the longer the situation in Afghanistan drags on without resolution. And investments are more likely to succeed the more information investors have.
Whatever the public debate surrounding the Taliban’s visit to Norway, whatever the optics and whatever the participants claim, it is likely that the point of the meeting was not to make demands. It was to get to know who the Taliban are. In that sense, it was something of a coming-out party for the Taliban after all.