The Taliban have to be in the room for any meaningful talks on Afghanistan's future

The current hands-off approach leaves the world blind to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country and does little to stabilise Afghanistan or support its people

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group, in Kabul, on May 23, 2023. AP
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A UN-initiated conference on Afghanistan ended in Doha this week with little progress or detail.

Delegates from more than 20 countries converged last Sunday to discuss Afghanistan’s ongoing crisis. The aim of the two-day summit was to engage with all stakeholders, including the Taliban, on issues of stability and human rights. However, with the Taliban-led government having turned down their invitation, these talks are unlikely to make a substantial impact.

This week’s session follows on from a previous conference held last May, when UN special envoys and other key stakeholders convened in Doha to attend closed-door talks called by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Analysing Afghanistan’s dire humanitarian situation and international isolation, the 2023 conference agreed on three main points: no support for armed resistance in the country, the need for engagement with its de facto authorities, and the conditions not being in place for international recognition of these authorities as the legitimate government.

No Afghans were invited then. The meeting last Sunday struck a different chord, with an invitation extended to the Taliban and limited Afghan civil society representatives present.

The Taliban insisted on two conditions for attending the conference: direct talks with Mr Guterres and the exclusion of other representatives, enabling the group to be recognised as the “responsible party of Afghanistan” – a step in the direction of international legitimacy that the UN was not willing to take.

The Taliban have not been recognised as the successor government by any country during their past two-and-a-half years in power. But in order to advance an agenda prioritising stability and human rights, the international community needs to consider a more dire political reality: the Taliban have won the war.

There are now only two possibilities going forward: either the Taliban are again removed from power by military force, or their authority gets diplomatic recognition. With the group having shown themselves to be immovable, we appear to be left with only the latter option. If even a semblance of international human rights is to be upheld, the Taliban have to be in the room and politics must trump pride.

Recognising their political legitimacy would be particularly difficult for the US and UK, whose interventions proved futile with two decades of progress in Afghanistan largely undone following the group’s resurgence. However, the current hands-off approach leaves the international community blind to the deteriorating human rights situation and does little to stabilise the country or support its people.

The Taliban have not been recognised as the successor government by any country during their past two-and-a-half years in power

Afghanistan is a signatory to a number of international treaties that guarantee rights for women and girls, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

With no enforced obligation or motivation to uphold international human rights, the Taliban have systemically eroded 20 years of progress for women and girls. Over the course of two years, more than 50 edicts, orders and restrictions have been placed on them, from travel restrictions and dress codes to the banning of secondary education, NGO work and beauty salons. Afghanistan is ranked last on the Women, Peace and Security Index, with its women as well as UN officials having referred to the situation as “gender apartheid”.

The international response can, at best, be described as tepid. Beyond tokenistic statements, what progress has been made towards halting the erosion of rights? References to the suffering of women and girls were limited in statements emerging from the conference.

US national security spokesperson John Kirby said last week that there will be no normalisation with, or recognition of, the Taliban government until it upholds its various commitments, including those related to gender equality, counterterrorism and the formation of an inclusive government.

Given that the US and its partners removed the group from power in 2001 – subsequently retaining a military presence in Afghanistan for two decades – it should be of little surprise that the latter would opt not to comply. America’s own set of conditions, set forward with the co-operation of the wider international community, coincide with the introduction of significant sanctions against Taliban leaders. It’s an approach that not only isn’t working but is contributing to the deteriorating humanitarian crisis.

The Taliban takeover in 2021 led to the collapse of the Afghan economy, taking with it hundreds of thousands of jobs. Today 15.3 million people are experiencing acute food insecurity, and more than 29 million Afghans remain in need of humanitarian aid – at least half of whom are children. Millions of citizens are incapable of accessing safe water, health care and education.

Reporting on the outcomes of the recent Doha conference, Mr Guterres said that an agreement had been reached on key issues, including proposals presented in the “Independent Afghanistan Assessment” regarding counterterrorism, forming an inclusive government and respecting human rights. He added that consultations pertaining to the appointment of a special representative would begin immediately. This representative would be responsible for co-ordinating global community interaction, including with the Taliban.

UN Security Council Resolution 2721, adopted last December, paved the way for meaningful engagement with all sides in Afghanistan, and it called for the appointment of a special envoy. But the Taliban have so far opposed the idea of an envoy, in which case what “carrot” could make them reconsider their position? Could a gradual release of Afghanistan’s frozen assets – estimated to be $7 billion – draw them to the table? Could an agreed reversal of sanctions show a willingness to co-operate? The freezing of these assets has not motivated the Taliban, but rather exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.

Last September, China became the first country to formally name a new ambassador to Afghanistan since the takeover. While Beijing does not accept this move to mean its recognition of the government, the decision is a significant diplomatic step forward and creates a pathway to renewed relations. The Taliban have indicated a desire for international recognition and foreign relations but remain sceptical of western motivations, and unmoved to consider the needs and rights of the wider population.

Mr Guterres has stated that co-operation with the Taliban is needed, and diplomats could explore an agreement wherein ties are developed through the recognition of ambassadors in return for the advancement of gender equality and human rights.

Accepting the ironclad hold that the Taliban have over Afghanistan presents the international community with a moral quandary: protecting international human rights, but only through negotiation and co-operation with an organisation that has a poor human rights record. Finding a diplomatic solution will require finesse, and whatever the outcome, it has to be centred on improving the lives of all Afghans, particularly its women.

For every moral betrayal that the West may feel in accepting this new political disposition, imagine the betrayal that many ordinary Afghans must feel having been so swiftly abandoned. Leaders and diplomats have to change their approach, as Afghanistan’s people cannot continue to wait. Now is not a time for pride, but for compromise.

Published: February 22, 2024, 2:00 PM