THE close-door conference in Doha on how to deal with the Taliban, the UN’s call “de facto authorities” had nothing to report back, other than that more such meetings will happen in the future. The meeting was about developing a common international approach and not about recognition of the de facto Taliban authorities said António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, at a press conference on 2nd May 2023. Taliban were not invited to the two-day conference, Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US envoy to Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera that the UN chief decided not to invite the Taliban “because of opposition from Western countries”.
The meeting ground between the Taliban and the rest seems to be missing, Taliban are looking for recognition and financial easing. The issue of women and girls rights so critical to the international community is seen by the Taliban as an internal issue, they do not want to budge on it. Even when they vaguely commit to improving the situation, internal rifts do not allow progress. On the other hand, the international community wants to work out a strategy to engage with the Taliban on women’s and girls’ rights, inclusive government, countering terrorism and drug trafficking, where women’s and girls’ rights are projected as a priority.
The conference was attended by representatives from some 25 countries, envoys from the US, China and Russia, including major European aid donors and regional countries. State Minister for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar represented Pakistan in the meeting of special envoys on Afghanistan. Despite the impressive list of attendees many saw it as an exercise in futility that would not deliver, most were of the opinion that an outside effort to set priorities for Afghanistan will backfire. It has not worked in the past and it will not work now.
However, the significance of the conference is pivoted on the fact that the UN is expected to review its critical relief operation in Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban treatment of Afghan women. They continue to face gross human rights violations under the Taliban with strict restrictions on education, employment and even mobility. The review is to be completed by 12th May 2023.
The real reason behind a return of focus on Afghanistan whether it’s the Doha conference or the Samarkand huddle in early April 2023 hosted by Uzbekistan and attended by regional countries including Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan is to counter terrorism brewing on Afghan land. The concern for Afghanistan, both for regional countries and the global community goes beyond the issues ranging from humanitarian crisis to a collapsed economy, inclusive government and women rights. The terrorism-related security situation on the ground is the real trigger.
Mistakes of the past cannot be repeated, an abandoned Afghanistan is a dangerous Afghanistan. All peripheral countries of Afghanistan are convinced that their respective security problems emanate from there. There are several regional transnational militant groups that have presence in Afghanistan and pose a serious threat to regional and global security. The Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, Turkistan party, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have footholds. In addition to these, Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan and Baloch Liberation Army also function from Afghanistan unabatedly. If anything, as per the latest reports their nefarious activities from Afghanistan into Pakistan have only upped in the last one year. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been the main theatre of vulnerability. The year 2022 witnessed 27 percent more terrorist acts as compared to 2021. January 2023 was recorded as one of the bloodiest months for Pakistan, with 134 people killed and 254 injured in 44 terrorist incidents across the country.
The Taliban Administration has termed the UN-organized conference on Afghanistan in Doha as “ineffective” due to their absence. Abdul Qahar Balkhi, Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, “Any meeting about Afghanistan without the participation of the Afghan government is ineffective and counterproductive”.
Taliban may not have been a part of the Doha dialogue but were fully represented in the Samarkand huddle of April 2023. Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqihad insisted that since returning to power nearly 20 months ago, they have established peace and a “powerful central government” in Afghanistan and banned narcotics cultivation and trade, setting the stage for a “meaningful” and “mutually beneficial” cooperation with the region. He reiterated that the Taliban are committed to not allowing any group or individual to use Afghan soil against any regional state or beyond.
However, the reality on the ground is different from what is being portrayed by the Taliban Administration. Taliban’s style of government is unacceptable to most, the news stories coming out of Afghanistan are not pretty. The biggest challenge for the Taliban today is the ‘Lack of Trust’; there is widespread suspicion about them amongst the international community and for good reason. Taliban must walk their talk, however abandoning them and more importantly the people of Afghanistan is not an option.
International recognition for the Taliban depends on whether they stick to their promises, including allowing access for aid deliveries, ensuring women and human rights, forming an inclusive government incorporating the ethno-religious landscape and most importantly coming down hard upon terrorist operatives functioning from Afghan land. Some progress is there, for example, in April 2023 Taliban killed the ISIS-K leader who was behind the horrific attack at Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate that killed 13 American service members and 170 Afghans.
The current situation is like the Taliban on one side and the West on the other but the compulsion to engage seems to be quite compelling, the existing policy of shaming and shunning them is not paying dividends. Taliban-led Afghanistan continues to pose insurmountable challenges to the world. The existing strategy of coercion and exclusion has failed. The world can neither bomb them nor wish them away, all said and done, engagement remains the only option. Just an interesting footnote, Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi attended the Fourth Meeting of Foreign Ministers of Afghanistan’s Neighbouring States unlike the UN-sponsored conference in Doha, however, was notably absent from the official group. —The writer is Rector, Millennium Institute of Technology & Entrepreneurship.