In statements, interviews, and press conferences given since they dramatically swept into power in Kabul this week, high-ranking Taliban officials, not previously known for moderation or pragmatism, have struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone on issues of minority and women’s rights. Taliban officials have posted pictures of themselves visiting religious minorities, including Sikh and Shia Muslim communities, and issued statements claiming that Afghan women will be welcome in both the workforce and higher education under their rule. As part of a broader media blitz, a Taliban spokesman even gave an interview to an Israeli news outlet in which he gave assurances about the safety of the last Afghan Jew in Kabul, though the spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, later indicated that he had been unaware of which news outlet he had been speaking with.
These reassuring statements, born of the Taliban’s desire for international recognition, have been little comfort to those who remember the history of their last emirate. During their previous time in power in Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban became international pariahs due to their brutal treatment of women and minorities, destruction of historical landmarks, and harboring of international terrorist groups. Despite recent suggestions that they have changed character, the Taliban’s insistence that they will govern according to their interpretation of Islamic law has renewed fears about what type of social order they plan to impose on the country and how women and minorities will fare under their rule.
But foreign interlocutors who have spoken with Taliban leaders say that there is an opportunity to use the group’s sincere desire for international legitimacy, as well as their need for economic support, as a means to continue to exert influence on Afghanistan’s future.
“There is a contradiction between the Taliban’s goal, a very serious goal of being recognized and accepted in international community, and their goal of implementing their idea of Islam,” an analyst who has been in contact with Taliban leadership and requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation told The Intercept. “They cannot do both of these things, and they know that they cannot govern Afghanistan without the support of the international community.”
“They know that they cannot govern Afghanistan without the support of the international community.”
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos this week, President Joe Biden indicated that the U.S. might extend its presence in Afghanistan beyond a scheduled August 31 withdrawal. Biden also said he believed that the Taliban had not changed their ideological character, despite their claims to the contrary, but suggested that the group might be willing to bend to international opinion out of necessity.
“I think they’re going through sort of an existential crisis about do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government. I’m not sure they do,” Biden said. “But they also care about whether they have food to eat, whether they have an income [that] they can make any money and run an economy. They care about whether or not they can hold together the society that they in fact say they care so much about.”
Still, some sectors of the U.S. establishment, enraged by the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the damning message it sends about the past two decades of nation-building, appear to be in no mood for taking a nuanced approach now. So far this week, the U.S. government has moved to freeze billions of dollars held by the Afghan government in foreign accounts, while the United Kingdom has indicated that economic sanctions against Afghanistan are on the table. During the tenure of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled to the United Arab Emirates this week, the U.S. sent weekly dispatches of hard currency to Afghanistan to keep the wheels of government turning. Last week, due to instability, that shipment did not arrive.
It’s unclear whether American officials have an appetite to continue these payments now that the Taliban are in charge. In a recent discussion on Afghanistan’s financial future, Brookings Institute scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown warned that “if that money is not delivered, if it stops coming, one of the quite rapid economic effects will be that poor people will find it hard to buy food, even just basic survival on a day-to-day basis.”
Ordinary Afghans once again seem to be at dire risk of being sacrificed to foreign political priorities. But experts on the country who have dealt with the Taliban say that an approach that consists of simply cutting ties or using coercion will only generate more chaos.
“If you want to use aid conditionality as leverage over the Taliban you need a clear diplomatic strategy — threatening to cut aid before they’ve even formed a government is not how to do it. Promises of aid and recognition should be used get more concessions regarding how they govern,” said Ashley Jackson, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute and the author of “Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan.” “We are hearing a lot of rhetoric now about ‘holding on to gains’ regarding development in Afghanistan, but the reality is that no one will hold on to any gains if aid is cut off. They will disappear, and it won’t have been the Taliban that took them away.”
Afghanistan today is economically dependent on the international community in very basic ways. A 2019 study by the World Health Organization determined that a staggering 80 percent of the country’s health care system was funded by foreign donors, with a comparable portion of the national budget as a whole also coming from abroad. Former Afghan government officials who spoke with The Intercept confirmed the extent to which the Taliban would need foreign help to continue providing basic services now that they are in power.
“If the Taliban wants to continue with the current government civil staff structure and existing services such as health, education, and other basics, let alone expand and deliver more services, they will need international aid. The government budget at the start of this year was approximately 6 billion U.S. dollars, and that was still not sufficient to generate economic growth and development,” said a former official, who served as an economist in the Afghan Ministry of Finance until last year. “The Taliban will not only need money to cover deficits but also the technical expertise of international organizations and individuals to run the government and manage economic development. In the absence of both, the population will be worse off, and their strategy to win hearts and minds of the people will fail.”
While noting that over 10 million Afghans are food insecure and several million more are internally displaced, the former Ministry of Finance official still recommends a strategy of threatening aid withdrawals and sanctions on Afghanistan as a means of pressuring the Taliban government to modify its behavior on human rights, even if it results in a worsening of conditions in the country.
“Seizing aid will hurt common Afghans and breaks my heart. It is evil, but a necessary one,” they said. “We must secure fundamental women’s rights and human rights before giving to the Taliban.”
The Taliban can also draw funds from Afghanistan’s informal economy, the size of which is not known with confidence but which some experts say could provide billions of dollars in annual revenue. Nonetheless, international organizations have warned that an abrupt cessation of foreign aid, let alone imposing international sanctions, would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, potentially breeding more radicalism and a massive refugee exodus. Organizations like UNICEF that have had a long-standing presence in Afghanistan have indicated their desire to continue programs in the country, including girls’ education, while welcoming statements from Taliban officials indicating that their operations would not be disrupted.
“When it comes to things like health care, if that is lost, Afghan women will be the ones hurt most.”
“The question of humanitarian assistance is a very important one since there are huge problems with health care access and malnutrition in Afghanistan at the moment and the Afghan people are dependent on foreign assistance. We’re currently advising donors not to cut off aid, especially since more than 75 percent of the previous government’s budget was funded by aid money,” said Heather Barr, interim co-director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “If you cut off that aid, the people you punish most are not the Taliban. When it comes to things like health care, if that is lost, Afghan women will be the ones hurt most.”
Throughout its 20-year long occupation of Afghanistan, the U.S. has cited promoting women’s rights as a major justification for its presence in the country — and the issue is already emerging as a political flashpoint as the U.S. withdraws. Though the status of women in most of Afghanistan did not improve much as a result of the U.S. presence, in parts of some cities Afghan women did make significant gains that allowed them to take part in civic life. The return of the Taliban marks a potentially dire turning point for educated urban women. In an attempt to repair their reputation for misogyny, Taliban leaders today are trying to project an image of reform to both Afghans and the international community. In addition to statements that women’s rights would be respected, Taliban officials have released images of themselves meeting with female government employees and asking them to remain in their posts. In a first, a Taliban official this week even gave an on-air interview to a female Afghan television presenter.
There is reason to be skeptical about how durable these assurances will be in the long run. But given their need for international support, a trust-but-verify approach could be used to work with the Taliban in a manner that preserves the limited but important gains of the past two decades.
“The jury is out on what these statements from the Taliban that are intended to reassure everyone are supposed to mean. If what they are saying is true and they’re taking a moderate approach to things, that’s good news. But their past behavior gives reason not to be trusted,” said Barr. “The best way to figure out how sincere they are is for them to provide access that allows human rights organizations and the United Nations to monitor what is going on in the country.”
Added Barr, “It’s important for donors to think about ways they can deliver aid ethically with a Taliban government in place while avoiding funding programs that are abusive or discriminatory. It’s difficult, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Prior to 2001, lots of [nongovernmental organizations] operating in Afghanistan found ways to do it, working with local Taliban leaders and convincing them that the work they were doing was not political and was simply aimed at meeting people’s basic needs.”
The abruptness of the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan this week was shocking not just to the international community and U.S. intelligence officials but also, according to analysts who have been in touch with the group, to the Taliban themselves. The Taliban now find themselves suddenly thrust into a position of grave responsibility, left with the serious question of how to manage the affairs of an impoverished, war-stricken country, as well as their own poor relations with the outside world. Scenes of desperate Afghans attempting to flee the country on U.S. military aircraft underline how deep the challenges go. Avoiding global isolation, repairing their abysmal reputation, and stemming brain drain from the country — a concern that Taliban spokesmen have already raised in public interviews with the press — is no easy task.
A timely paper published this March by the United States Institute of Peace laid out options for dealing with a future Taliban government, leveraging precisely the group’s desire for outside legitimacy as a means of maintaining stability and basic human rights standards in the country.
“The Taliban’s quest for recognition and eventual eligibility for aid provides some of the most important leverage that other actors have over them. They reject being labeled as terrorists and seek to be recognized as a legitimate movement and, ultimately, a government or part thereof,” wrote the paper’s author, former State Department official and Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin. “Entering a genuine political settlement would enable the Taliban to realize their goal of being internationally accepted as partners in ruling Afghanistan, but to do so they would have to make difficult decisions that they have thus far avoided.”
Among those tough decisions will be how to ensure that their vision of governing Afghanistan can be undertaken without infuriating the rest of the world, ensuring satisfactory power-sharing with other sectors of Afghan society and preventing the country from once again being used as a base for international terrorist groups.
“The major question is how to best help, or at least do the least harm, to these people that we have abandoned.”
Jackson, of the Center for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute, argues that Western powers should adopt a policy of measured engagement with the new government, noting that before the Taliban took power this week, foreign powers had already been willing to pragmatically deal with the group on the ground. Above all, a policy of using incentives instead of pure coercion might lead to a situation that mitigates harm to Afghans while giving the Taliban enough of a stake in the international system to prevent them from once again becoming a destabilizing force.
“I’m not saying this approach is ideal, but everything has to be guided by what’s the least bad for Afghans at the moment. The major question is how to best help, or at least do the least harm, to these people that we have abandoned,” said Jackson. “If you want to grandstand instead, that’s great. But it’s only going to harm Afghans and lead to a replay of what we saw during the 1990s.”