US, UN and Europe weigh up if they can stomach Taliban government

Lacking leverage and stunned by the hardliners’ success, western powers and the UN navigate how to do business with the new Afghanistan

A woman with an Afghan flag is among demonstrators in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin on Tuesday. AFP
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As the Taliban were tightening their grip on Afghanistan on Tuesday, the UN, Europeans and US were coming to terms with the reality of dealing with the hardliners as a formal government — whether they liked it or not.

The Taliban’s lightning advance to the Afghan capital Kabul and the collapse of the western-backed government has prompted a flurry of diplomatic phone calls and press conferences as US and European leaders come to terms with the fast-changing realities in Afghanistan.

Emboldened by their rapid military gains and seeking international recognition for their newly-restored Islamic Emirate, the Taliban have made overtures to the West, promising an inclusive government that will let women play an “active” role in society.

Western powers and the UN appear to be weighing up whether they could stomach a Taliban that sticks to such pledges and eschews terrorists such as the Al Qaeda group, which co-ordinated the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan two decades ago.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell put it starkly in a press conference on Tuesday: “The Taliban have won the war, so we will have to talk with them.”

The US military and diplomats have spoken to the Taliban to ensure evacuations from Kabul but President Joe Biden's administration says it will track Taliban actions before deciding on any long-term relationship.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington can “work with” an Afghan government that “doesn't harbour terrorists” and protects the “basic fundamental rights of half of its population — its women and girls”.

And US National Security adviser Jake Sullivan dismissed Afghanistan's former president Ashraf Ghani as a has-been after he fled the country at the weekend.

“He’s no longer a factor in Afghanistan and I don’t think there’s much merit in me weighing in more deeply," Mr Sullivan said.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said London would typically eschew the rights-violating Taliban, which executed adulterers with rocks and shut classrooms for girls last time they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

“We want to test whether there is scope to moderate the kind of regime that we will now see in place," Mr Raab told Sky News.

Ireland’s UN ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason struck a cautious tone, describing “credible reports of abuses” against Afghan women and girls in recent days as soon as the Taliban gained control of key Afghan towns and cities.

“If what the Taliban are saying is followed through and there's an inclusive government, there's a full, equal and meaningful role for women, that girls can go to school … that will be good news,” Ms Byrne Nason told reporters on Tuesday.

“But in the past, what the Taliban says rhetorically isn’t delivered in reality.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Tuesday that his country “has no plans to recognise the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan."

Western powers have less leverage with the Taliban, now it controls government ministries, than they did when it was on the battlefield.

But the US still wields much influence with global lenders and can enforce tough sanctions, putting conditions on urgently needed cash and aid flows.

Russia, China and Turkey have already praised the militants' initial public statements — a sign that the fundamentalists will have smoother foreign relations than when they last held power and only secured recognition from three countries.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the world body was not evacuating any of its 3,000 national staff and some 300 international workers from Afghanistan, saying they would stay in place to manage a humanitarian crisis in the war-ravaged country.

The Taliban takeover is only 48 hours old, added Mr Dujarric. UN teams “deal with de facto authorities” on the ground in many global hotspots, even when they lack international legitimacy, as getting aid to the needy is the top priority.

“Our humanitarian colleagues call on the Taliban to demonstrate through their action, not just their words, that the fears and safety of so many people from so many different walks of life are being addressed,” Mr Dujarric told reporters.

In their first press conference since seizing power, the Taliban on Tuesday sought to allay international concerns over women’s rights and reprisals against Afghans who had co-operated with Western powers since the US-led invasion of 2001.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters the new government would be "positively different" from the group's 1996-2001 regime, infamous for deaths by stoning and barring women from working in contact with men.

“All those in the opposite side are pardoned,” he said. “We will not seek revenge.”

Mr Mujahid said a government would soon be formed but offered few details other than to say the Taliban would “connect with all sides”.

He also said they were “committed to letting women work in accordance with the principles of Islam”, without offering specifics.

The Taliban swept into Kabul on Sunday after the government collapsed and the embattled President Ghani fled the country in a dramatic conclusion to Washington’s ill-fated, two-decade, trillion-dollar effort to remake Afghanistan.

Updated: August 18, 2021, 9:49 AM