As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan this summer, the capital cities of the provinces fell like a house of cards. Kunduz fell by August 8. Herat, Lashkar Gah, and Helmand followed within a few days. As the news of the collapse of the frenzied Afghan troops in Mazar flashed in the news, I recalled a day in Mazar ten years ago in a park where stands the famous Blue Mosque, a symbol of beauty and peace, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, canopied by a deep blue sky with hundreds of white doves swooping overhead.
As I walked through the park, a small group of young women, who were picnicking, invited me to join them for a snack. I ended up spending the afternoon with a dozen teenagers enjoying a sunny Friday afternoon in the park. The girls explained that having been locked at homes with no schooling allowed under the Taliban rule, they were overjoyed to be free to attend classes with children half their age. They spoke of their simple pleasure of sitting under the open sky, fearlessly talking to tourists.
Did the day Mazar fall to the Taliban, with almost no resistance, wipe out forever the simple joys and pleasures of freedom such as those the young women shared with me in a sunny afternoon a decade ago? Can Afghanistan and its people, women, men, and children, have a range of rights secured at any time in the future? Yes, that is possible with the international community talking to the Taliban, urging them to practice progressive governance.
Why is talking with the Taliban essential?
Many global powers faced with the hard decision of whether or not to deal with the Taliban have expressed the need for talks. Why this urge to speak to the Taliban? The answer is: to promote immediate access of the people to humanitarian assistance, satisfying the basic human needs for food, water, clothing, and shelter for the population and preventing the abuse of their human rights.
Western powers gave up an opportunity to talk to the Taliban at the Bonn Conference of 2002 when reconciliation with a defeated, broken, and weak group would have helped mitigate future insurgencies, violence, and conflict prospects. Shut out from Bonn in 2002 Taliban used the following 19 years to strengthen its movement and regain territorial control over Afghanistan.
Not grabbing the opportunity to talk to the Taliban now will isolate the regime and the innocent Afghans along with it. The isolated Taliban could quickly return to the reign of terror of the mid-1990s. So instead, the western powers should engage in diplomatic talks with the Taliban, with diplomatic leverages at the base of the negotiations.
Talking to the Taliban does not imply immediate recognition or legitimization of the new Afghan government. Instead, the talks should be understood as consultations with the current Taliban leadership to discuss conditions for potential future recognition of the government down the line. Taliban demonstrated that international recognition is an important goal for itself through its efforts to achieve representation at the UN General Assembly meeting last month. Thus, this quest for legitimacy may also serve as an opportunity to pressuring the Taliban to introduce longer-term governance reforms and take actions to address the immediate humanitarian crisis. The expected priority reforms and measures must include:
- provision of safe passage to the evacuees out of Afghanistan;
- humanitarian organizations’ vital access to IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) and people in need of life-saving services addressing the basic human needs;
- recognition of women’s rights as human rights and not reverting to the Taliban regime of the 90s;
- aid flow for the benefit of the civilians who most need it- women, children, and marginalized rural people.
The western powers believe that they can pressure the Taliban into delivering on its leaders’ recent promises of good governance if the available levers are carefully applied. Without leverage, it will not be easy to get the Taliban to deliver on its commitments.
What leverage does the west have over the Taliban?
Afghanistan’s dependence on foreign exchange resources is a lever. The country relies on food, fuel, equipment, and machinery imports, and the Taliban cannot pay for the essential imports without dollars. International sanctions severely restrict Taliban access to foreign exchange. United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on the Taliban. The US has blocked the Taliban’s access to the multibillion-dollar reserves in gold and foreign currency of the government-owned Da Afghanistan Bank held in the US. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have suspended Afghanistan’s access to resources. These sanctions prompt other western financial institutions to avoid doing business with the Taliban. These sanctions ban Taliban access to dollar transactions and, thus, to essential imports. The western powers could condition dollar unfreezing on delivery of moderate policies and actions by the Taliban.
With slow growth, deteriorating security, severe drought conditions affecting food production, record-high Covid infection, and low vaccination rates, Afghanistan’s crises are mounting. The UN has warned that by mid-2022, ninety-seven percent of the Afghan population will be below the poverty line, an indicator that the country is moving towards universal poverty. The sharp decline in international aid hinders essential service delivery to citizens whose livelihoods are severely damaged. Under such circumstances, the Taliban’s quest for eligibility for foreign assistance, the primary source of financing development, is critical leverage that the international community can use to save lives while exacting improvements on human rights. The donors can condition resumption of development aid based on the Taliban’s cooperation with the donors’ call for reforms.
The last twenty years bear testimony of the international community’s failed military efforts to keep the Taliban out of power. So, shouldn’t negotiation with the Taliban while using methods of leverage available to the international community be the obvious and preferred option?