Tobias Ellwood is right: re-engage with the Taliban

The British MP's phrasing was unfortunate, but the international community's current approach of shouting demands from afar is pointless

A market in Kabul during Eid Al Adha last month. EPA
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British Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood was recently criticised for a video and opinion piece he produced after a visit to Afghanistan. Mr Ellwood started by listing positive changes in the country and concluded that the UK government should resume its diplomatic mission there.

His comments generated a social media storm that ended with Mr Ellwood taking down the video and offering a clarification of his remarks. Although there were many heated opinions regarding his comments, there is a need to pragmatically assess the merits of what he said.

There is no denying that engagement with the Taliban is the only rational path forward for the international community. There is no desire for a military intervention in Afghanistan nor is there any viable alternative to the Taliban that could be brought to power without further escalating the suffering of the Afghan people. However, it is important not to conflate engagement with recognition.

Recognition should be an incentive used to obtain concessions from the Taliban on vital human rights issues. Establishing communication channels will help contain and, hopefully, reverse the expanding trust gap caused by inconsistent policies and incohesive messaging from both sides.

The current approach of shouting demands from afar has not produced a favourable outcome, since it increases the cost of compliance by making Taliban leaders appear weak to their own ranks. It also applies pressure on the same members of the Taliban movement who have been willing to co-operate with the international community but have been unable to do so.

Afghanistan has seen a real end to its conflict through the total victory of the Taliban

The international community would do better by encouraging those Taliban leaders who have expressed their displeasure with the current policies to push for an inclusive government and the drafting of a constitution. An inclusive set-up will add moderate voices to the government, further tipping the scales in favour of the camp that is demanding policy changes. A constitution will help divide power and put limits on Taliban leaders’ unchecked authority. There might be other ways to force the Taliban to change their behaviour, but these can be attained only through meaningful engagement.

There is a Persian saying – “Seeing all the suffering around me, I’m ashamed of smiling.” This contains an important lesson for those who want to highlight the positive changes that have taken place in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover.

Discussions on Afghanistan’s situation should always start with acknowledging the large-scale suffering caused by the Taliban and the international community. The Taliban have all but completely erased women from public life in Afghanistan. They have banned them from high schools, universities, most government posts as well as most non-governmental sector jobs. They have also been banned from operating beauty salons, from accessing parks and gyms, and face many more restrictions. There is also the issue of arbitrary detentions.

The international community, in turn, has placed sanctions on Afghanistan and frozen its federal reserves, which has further choked a starving nation. However, it is important to acknowledge the positive changes as well.

The three most highlighted positive developments are the improved security situation, the reduction in corruption and the eradication of poppy production from the country. Most argue against any improvement in security by stating that the Taliban have been behind a number of killings. This argument ignores the fact of Nato’s invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent atrocities that fed into an intractable war.

Afghanistan has seen a real end to its conflict through the total victory of the Taliban. To many Afghans in the country’s rural areas, this is a blessing that they are cognisant of. Afghanistan has gone from being one of the most corrupt countries for years to one that is funding most of its own projects, despite the absence of the foreign money that once flowed into the country for two decades. Poppy eradication is not only documented in reports but is a fact that can be seen through satellite images.

These developments do not dismiss the deplorable human rights situation in the country, but they are vital changes that engagement can build upon. Highlighting the challenges in Afghanistan and advocating for engagement are not mutually exclusive – one can do both simultaneously, albeit in the right order.

It is a shame that a sensible call from Mr Ellwood was dismissed due to his problematic phrasing and conflation of engagement and recognition. We can only hope that it does not deter rational voices from endorsing engagement in the future. It is also worth remembering that Afghanistan and its most vulnerable groups do not exist on social media. We have to engage in order to save those who need the international community to play a positive role in making their voices heard.

Published: July 23, 2023, 2:58 PM