Afghanistan: Two years on, the world’s moral compass still in a spin

Afghanistan: Two years on, the world’s moral compass still in a spin

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Two years since taking power, the Taliban have firmly entrenched their hold in Afghanistan. However, no state has recognized the Taliban regime on account of human rights violations, particularly the ban on girls’ education and women’s access to work. Likewise, the $9 billion Afghan reserves remain frozen in the US. The international community considers concessions on human rights issues as the necessary pre-condition for recognition, while the Taliban view it as an excuse to keep Afghanistan a pariah state.  The resulting impasse has made common Afghans’ lives difficult amid visible donor fatigue and fleeting priorities.

Largely, the Taliban have held together while navigating the critical transition from an insurgency to a political movement, notwithstanding some differences with Supreme Leader Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada. In two years, the Taliban have reduced the poppy production in Afghanistan by a whopping 80 percent as compared to 2022. Corruption has also come down in different government departments. Similarly, the security situation in Afghanistan has improved considerably, and civilian casualties have declined in large part because the Taliban who accounted for most of these fatalities are now in power. At any rate, as many as 1,095 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since August 2021 and most of them, 700, died in improvised explosive devices. Moreover, the Taliban face no armed opposition in Afghanistan capable of physically challenging their monopoly over power. They have significantly weakened the National Resistance Front and Daesh-Khorasan, intermittent attacks and clashes notwithstanding.

Despite international sanctions, brain drain and aid cuts, the Taliban have kept the struggling Afghan economy afloat. According to the World Bank, the country’s revenue collection has remained healthy in the last two years and the afhani’s value has improved against major currencies. Yet, the lives of common Afghans have become more difficult. According to the United Nations (UN), around 84% of Afghan households are borrowing money to buy food. For the third consecutive year, a drought like situation has persisted in Afghanistan.

The West is looking towards Muslim countries to take a lead in calling out the Taliban’s violation of human rights, while the latter is anxiously looking at the former for any hints concerning recognition.

Abdul Basit Khan

On the human rights front, the Taliban have issued several rulings restricting Afghan women’s lives and liberties. For instance, they have banned girls’ right to education above sixth grade and barred women from public life, like gyms, parks, historical sites and beauty salons, as well as work, including for the non-governmental organizations and the UN. The Taliban’s hardened attitude towards girls and women’s rights have strengthened the Western perception of a “gender apartheid” in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban view the West’s stance on these issues as the continuation of a “cultural war” against Afghanistan. For their part, Afghan women feel their rights have become a bargaining chip in US-Taliban political battles.

Against this backdrop, the international community is in a moral fix weighing the pros and cons of engaging the Taliban without recognizing their regime, while the UN has indefinitely postponed the Taliban’s recognition. The West is looking towards Muslim countries to take a lead in calling out the Taliban’s violation of human rights, while the latter is anxiously looking at the former for any hints concerning engagement or recognition. The West sees recognition as a concession which will be given after the Taliban grant girls and women their right to education and work. On the contrary, the Taliban view recognition as their inalienable right after retaking power from the US.

Some regional states like Pakistan, Qatar, China and Russia argue that engagement, no matter how slow, on non-controversial issues, like counter narcotics, refugees, counterterrorism, and climate change, will help build the trust which could pave the way for softening the Taliban’s rigid stance on human rights. These states have also advocated for unfreezing Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. Furthermore, they believe, that to exercise some influence over the Taliban, Western countries should at least be in Kabul. Further isolation, as witnessed in the first two years, will empower the hardliners in the Taliban movement, while sidelining reformist minds. Hence, some form of engagement is necessary to incentivize cooperation from the Taliban.

On the contrary, Western states perceive that any outreach to the Taliban regime will amount to de-factor recognition and legitimization of their harsh rule. It will normalize engagement under the pretext of cooperation on issues of common concerns. After that, it will be hard to stop non-Western states from recognizing the Taliban regime. More importantly, it will further stiffen the Taliban’s attitudes on human rights, viewing the international community’s pragmatism as their victory.

Though the Taliban have reined in Daesh-K and prevented the use of Afghanistan’s soil for terrorism against other countries, Pakistan has suffered from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s attacks, whose leaders benefit from the Taliban’s shelter and patronage. The Taliban deny TTP’s presence in Afghanistan. However, since August 2021, terrorism has surged in Pakistan by a staggering 72%. TTP feels rejuvenated by the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, providing the group a victory narrative to try the same in Pakistan. Afghanistan-Pakistan tensions have steadily mounted over the TTP’s cross-border attacks and sanctuaries.

Two years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan is a cautionary tale both for regional and global stakeholders. It has tested the international community’s moral compass: does it prioritize interests over values and engage? Or does it further isolate them and make common Afghans’ lives more difficult? Damned if you and damned if you don’t. Meanwhile, for regional stakeholders like Pakistan, the myopic policy of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan has crashed on its head as the chickens have come home roost. 

- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter: @basitresearcher

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