In its Taliban travel ban vote, the UN missed an opportunity

The world needs to start moving towards a more targeted approach in its Afghan sanctions

The UN Security Council voted to extend a suspension on a long-standing travel ban against Taliban leaders. AFP
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The UN Security Council has decided to impose a travel ban on two relatively junior members of the Taliban leadership, while extending a suspension – possibly for up to 90 days – of a long-standing travel ban on the rest of the group. The suspension was originally put in place three years ago to allow for peace talks taking place at the time between the Taliban and the then Afghan government to progress smoothly.

But with the Taliban now in power, and considering the group’s deplorable human rights record in the past nine months, at the heart of the discussion in the Security Council was whether or not a re-imposition of the ban would help make the Taliban face consequences for their actions.

Many Afghans would argue that the last thing Afghanistan needs is more sanctions, and they would be right. But I would argue, perhaps counterintuitively, that the enforcement of targeted measures, such as travel bans, on individual Taliban members could be a useful warning to the group of the consequences of a continued deadlock on engagement. It would also help encourage a possible future shift to punishing the group itself without punishing Afghans.

It is necessary to acknowledge at the outset, given Afghanistan’s dire economic situation, the moral superiority of targeted bans and sanctions over more sweeping sanctions that do not discriminate between the ruling class and the general population. This is the case even if targeted sanctions against individual Taliban members do not hurt the group as a whole.

And in practical terms, they will not. Many countries will continue to engage with the Taliban on their own terms, and the majority of the group’s non-sanctioned members will continue to travel for meetings.

Proponents of tougher measures argue that even the current sanctions regime, manifestly, is not hurting the Taliban enough, evidenced by its unwillingness to reform. But the reality is that there is not much more the world can do to hurt the rulers of Afghanistan, and the result of the present paradigm is a stalemate.

Generally speaking, stalemates provide an important illustration of how likely opposing parties are to go back to the negotiation table. For rational actors, the result is usually a negotiation, as the parties realise they cannot make any new gains without a significant added cost. In the Taliban’s case, the sheer extremist religiosity of the groups hard-line core changes the calculus. Their battle assessment has always accounted for imagined, soon-to-come help from the divine. This changes the group’s perception of what is harmful to it in the long run, and – barring any change in the group’s composition – makes dramatic concessions unlikely.

The Taliban have always accounted for imagined, soon-to-come help from the divine

The relatively less extreme majority within the Taliban recognises the utility of international engagement, but it tends to complain in private meetings that the international community keeps moving the goal posts and will never be satisfied. This, of course, is untrue; the demands of the international community have been consistent and clear, and have expanded only in response to increased restrictions imposed by the Taliban. But the Taliban majority's frustration reflects the pressure it faces from the hardliners, who criticise advocacy for international engagement and see it as an agenda to strip them of their sacred values. The hardliners also unfairly exploit their suspicions to label all of the international community’s demands to be in opposition to religious principles and national interests, even when they are not.

But targeted travel bans can be a good step in a different direction, even if the punishment they inflict seems relatively minor. They may be useful for the West, and the international community as a whole, as a means of continuing to signal displeasure with the Taliban while breaking the stalemate unilaterally. Though at present targeted travel bans are not thought of as a replacement for the current economic sanctions on the whole country, the UN reinstating them for more than just two Taliban members could have helped inspire a broader shift towards such a policy among western powers – particularly the US.

Keeping the US's increasingly polarised political landscape in mind, there is a possibility that inaction from the Biden administration now would only lead to more drastic action later from the Republican Party as it achieves a likely majority in the coming midterm elections for Congress. US engagement with Afghanistan's new government is stagnate. A clear policy shift in Washington towards targeted sanctions would show pro-activeness while also de-escalating the stand-off. This would head off the prospect of the US walking down an even more brutal path than the one it is on now and re-open the path of engagement.

More engagement is absolutely necessary because the present stalemate prevents the dialogue and empathy needed on both sides – the international community as well as the Taliban – to reach an understanding on three categories of issues before travel bans become the only option left to pursue.

The first is national issues, such as the structure of the government and constitution, which should be left to the discretion of the Afghan people. The international community can push towards a more inclusive order but should not be nominating individuals or dictating what the system looks like as a whole. They can support the political dissidents to make sure they are acknowledged as legitimate actors by the Taliban in the government-making process.

The second is international human rights issues, such as freedom of expression and girls' education. Considering the current infringement on these rights by the Taliban, in the form of measures like the abduction of critics and closure of girls' high schools, the international community is morally bound to apply pressure to force a change in policies. The Taliban like to conflate this category with the first, or claim that they are doing what religion orders them to do. Both are excuses to evade criticism for violating the innate rights of their own citizens. But for the international community and the less extreme members of the Taliban to clarify the distinction in a mutually agreeable way, they must engage, and they cannot do that when Afghanistan is on its knees.

The third category lies somewhere in between the first two, and involves the matter of moral policing by the Taliban and their forceful imposition of a distorted reading of Islam on the population’s private lives. The international community will have to live with this reality considering the Taliban’s military victory, and let the Afghan civil sphere resist the changes while hoping the Taliban realise that no social order can be sustainable unless it is organic and achieved through an understanding with the population. Under sweeping sanctions, there is no space for these organic processes to happen.

Though the Security Council’s targeting of two members is largely symbolic, one would hope that the Taliban perceive it as a sign of a willingness to move past the current model of sweeping sanctions while also making it clear that the patience of the international community is finite. A decisive shift towards more measures like this, which restore what ought to be a careful balancing act in the world’s response to the Taliban, is a better way forward than the collective punishment of all Afghans for the actions of a few.

Published: June 21, 2022, 2:31 PM