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Putting some context around negotiating with the Taliban

Putting some context around negotiating with the Taliban

Pictured– Mohammad Hassan Akhund, the Taliban’s new Prime Minister


In early September, the Taliban began to fill cabinet positions for the new, “provisional government” that will attempt to stabilize Afghanistan following America’s military occupation and disorderly withdrawal from the nation. While it is true that the makeup of this cabinet is expected to evolve over time, the initial round of appointments includes some very unsavory individuals. 

The government will be led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was a prominent political official while the Taliban governed Afghanistan from 1996-2001- given his close ties to the prior Taliban government, he is viewed as a sign of continuity with the pre-2001 Taliban by many in the international community. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the new acting interior minister, is the head of a militant group associated with the Taliban known as the Haqqani and is considered a wanted terrorist by the FBI.

These are not the early returns that most of us were hoping for, and the results fall well short of international expectations. Both the American State Department and the European Union have expressed dissatisfaction with the absence of women and non-Taliban members from governing positions, and the lack of ethnic diversity of a government that will oversee a very diverse nation. Afghan women have taken to the street to protest their lack of representation in government, and were allegedly beaten as a result.

These sorts of actions will not bring the Taliban closer to earning recognition from the United States or its global partners, nor will it ingratiate the Taliban with other global powers like China and Russia. The American State Department has said that the United States is in “no rush” to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and it seems that the international community generally holds to that line.

At this time it is important to step back, and ask ourselves the following question- as the Taliban is not, at this moment, working to earn legitimacy from the international community, then strategically, what is the Taliban hoping to achieve during its first few days in power?

From my perspective, there are two possible scenarios. 

First, there is the possibility that the Taliban is truly irredeemable, and that this new era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan will be just as brutal as the first. This perspective allows for an easy explanation of events so far – the Taliban has not disavowed its violent associations or appointed women to governing positions “yet” because it never had the intention of doing so. From this point of view, America was foolish to negotiate with the Taliban at all, and if the Taliban cannot be trusted under any condition, a military withdrawal from Afghanistan might prove to be a mistake. 

The second possibility is that the Taliban is delaying pursuing legitimacy with the international community in favor of shoring up its domestic flank. From this perspective, the Taliban is caught fighting to earn legitimacy on two opposite fronts: first at home, and second in the international community. Taking this perspective forces a somewhat more nuanced explanation of the Taliban’s early antagonism – the Taliban cannot offer the United States an ideal cabinet, nor can they appear to have their ideology tainted by their newfound relationship with the United States because doing so would leave them vulnerable to militants and terrorist groups that are even more extreme than the Taliban. Terrorist groups and militant organizations often compete with each other in order to earn legitimacy and support from individual fighters, which explains the turbulence that we have been seeing over the last few days. From this point of view, the Taliban’s initial signaling is not a threat to American interests, but an inevitable part of the process through which the Taliban can address its most pressing security needs before (potentially) working to compromise with the international community. Like it or not, a stable, internally secure Afghanistan will, likely, only come about if the Taliban is able to earn legitimacy both domestically and internationally. Without that stability, the prospects for sustained protection of human rights in Afghanistan are fleeting.

Now, here comes the tricky part. Rand conducted a study reviewing how terrorist conflicts end, and unless the United States is willing to return to war in Afghanistan, history suggests that the most likely path forward for the Taliban is political integration. In fact, the most common way that terrorist groups have been dissolved since 1968 is through integration with the political process. With any luck, the Taliban will drop its military ambitions and adopt a fully political approach – albeit one that would not mirror those that exist in the United States and Europe. More likely than not, full political integration of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then of Afghanistan in the international community, entails the United States and its partners around the world gradually working toward recognizing the legitimacy of the Taliban government. 

Of course, this is not to say that the United States should be in a rush to legitimize the Taliban, but diplomatic recognition should be dangled as a carrot for (relatively) good behavior. Consequently, there is a UN resolution pressing the Taliban to allow for free movement of people out of Afghanistan, and the State Department’s desire to see women serving in Afghanistan’s government is echoed by other members of the international community. These sorts of measures are effective only to the extent that the United States is willing to use its diplomatic tools. Not only is maintaining cordial relations important to the long term prospect of peace, but productive interactions with the Taliban are important in order for the United States to continue to extract the Americans and friendly Afghans who remain in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, a full scale refusal to recognize the Taliban government over the long term equates to trying to walk through a porcelain shop with narrow shelves with one hand tied behind your back. Should the Taliban compromise on the issues most important the the United States and the international community (namely- the proper treatment of women and girls, the free movement of people into and out of Afghanistan, and the humane treatment of foreign aid workers), we would be foolish to turn away the Taliban’s attempt at compromise. Allowing for the best, while preparing for the worst, means that formal diplomatic recognition needs to be put on the table as a bargaining chip that the Taliban can earn through good behavior.

Sometimes there are no easy answers to complicated problems – an outright refusal to recognize the Taliban under any circumstances puts an unnecessary chill on relations and paves the way back to a military conflict in Afghanistan. 


Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association