The aftermath: Navigating a Taliban-led Afghanistan

In the coming weeks, governments and international organizations must work through an approach to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. It will not be simple.

Expert comment Published 20 August 2021 Updated 7 September 2021 3 minute READ

A failure to acknowledge that the legitimate, elected representatives of Afghanistan are no longer in control of territory or institutions, and to refuse to deal with those that are, will only make for further misery for a population which has already endured decades of violence and poverty.

But to recognize the Taliban risks condemning tens of thousands of Afghan women, children, and men to brutal repression and, for some, potential death, as well as mocking the human rights and rule of law which the US and its allies sought to promote in Afghanistan, and globally, as cornerstones of values-based foreign policies.

The dilemma western governments find themselves in is one they have studiously sought to avoid despite mounting evidence that, without a negotiated deal, a Taliban takeover was only a matter of time. As late as 6 August, the UN Security Council refused to countenance appeals by the UN mission and Afghan civil society activists to press the Taliban and the government to negotiate a ceasefire.

The US reiterated its refrain that it ‘will not accept a military takeover of Afghanistan’ and the UK stressed the Taliban’s only route to power was through meaningful engagement in a peace process. Meanwhile, not until 11 August did Germany and the Netherlands stop deporting Afghan migrants despite the pleas of Afghan authorities and refugee organizations that the country was on the brink of crisis.

Delaying the inevitable

Belief that a military takeover was still some months away may have led diplomats to view dealing with the Taliban as a distant task. The unilateral nature of the US deal with the Taliban and the resistance of the Ghani government to any suggestion of power-sharing arrangements compounded a lack of international coordination and planning on what the conditions for engagement might be.

Formal recognition of a Taliban-led government is simply not an option, even for those maintaining a diplomatic presence in Kabul such as China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia

It cannot be delayed further. The scale of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is daunting, with more than half a million displaced by fighting in 2021 alone, almost 17 million facing crisis levels of food insecurity, and nearly half of all children under five malnourished as a consequence of drought and the COVID-19 pandemic.

With one of the highest global refugee populations and an estimated up 20-30,000 Afghans fleeing the country weekly – even before the government collapsed – Afghanistan evokes still raw memories of the 2015 Syria migrant crisis for Europe. Pakistan and Turkey, home to some of the largest Afghan refugee communities, have already closed their borders to more.

The ongoing chaos at Kabul airport highlights the challenges ahead. But there is a small window – before the UN Security Council is scheduled to review the mandate of the UN mission in Afghanistan by 17 September – for the US and its allies to craft an approach to dealing with the Taliban.

Formal recognition of a Taliban-led government is simply not an option, even for those maintaining a diplomatic presence in Kabul such as China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia. Technically the Afghan republic has not yet dissolved with vice-president Amrullah Saleh, reportedly in hiding in the Panjshir valley, claiming he is the country’s ‘caretaker’ president.

Conditions for international acceptance

Afghanistan’s ‘enduring partners’ must now focus on building a consensus around five conditions for international acceptance of a Taliban-administered Afghanistan and prevent the Taliban again reaping the benefits of international divisions. The G7 began to articulate some of these conditions but they need to be set out and negotiated with Afghanistan’s neighbours before being formally articulated by the UN Security Council.

  1. Adherence to Afghanistan’s human rights obligations. This must specify the rights of women and girls to education and work, the protection of ethnic and religious minorities, and safe passage for all Afghans and internationals leaving the country.
  2. Amnesty for all individuals who worked for the Afghan government or international embassies, forces, or aid organizations since 2001.
  3. No harbouring of terrorist groups. This has been the central condition for the US deal with the Taliban, and the overriding concern for both China and Russia.
  4. Non-lethal public order. The provision of public order to enable supply routes to open, evacuations to continue, and aid to be delivered, is essential and one that Russia has made as a condition for its future relations.
  5. Negotiation of inclusive political arrangements with Afghanistan’s political and ethnic factions.

Belief that a military takeover was still some months away may have led diplomats to view dealing with the Taliban as a distant task

The UN mission in Afghanistan, including its human rights component, and the Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team should be mandated with reporting monthly on the progress toward these five conditions. Their assessments should form the basis for any reconsideration of the Taliban’s status as a terrorist organization. And a negotiated political settlement must be a precondition to the release of the government’s foreign reserves, estimated to be $9.5 billion.

Before this, the humanitarian and development aid on which Afghanistan is almost completely reliant must be recalibrated to flow through international agencies. Models such as Hamas-run Gaza, Assad’s Syria, or Aristide’s Haiti, show that while far from effective, it is possible to provide urgent assistance outside government channels.

This is one of the reasons why the Taliban has sought to retain a strong UN presence across Afghanistan and why the UN must be given a more significant political mandate and resources. The World Bank-administered Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund should remain the principal channel for international funds.

It is difficult in the short-term to see the US leading this collective effort, given its defensive and domestic-focused position. It could be a moment for the UK and EU to demonstrate their multilateral commitments and forge a coordinated conditions-based approach to a Taliban-administered Afghanistan at the UN.

Going beyond handwringing or gesture politics will be difficult and messy and, ultimately, Afghanistan’s future must be decided by Afghans. Until that day, however, this will save lives.