The world must shun the Taliban but help the suffering Afghan people
The US has imposed a set of new sanctions on the de facto Taliban regime in Afghanistan in response to its persistent refusal to grant Afghan women and girls their fundamental rights to employment, education and freedom of movement in public.
The sanctions, announced this week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “restrict the issuance of visas for current or former Taliban members, members of non-state security groups, and other individuals believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the repression of women and girls in Afghanistan through restrictive policies and violence.”
While Taliban rulers rightfully deserve these punitive measures for their breach of faith on gender rights, a key challenge facing the international community is to ensure that further sanctions do not disrupt the provision of urgent humanitarian support for the Afghan people ahead of another harsh winter.
The Taliban’s return to power last year is an unfortunate reality that the world cannot ignore and must recognize. In one form or another, the international community has to deal with the regime as a stakeholder for Afghan political settlement.
The US sanctions policy seems to make a clear distinction between engaging with the Taliban leaders and legitimizing their regime. After all, the latest travel ban was imposed after US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West and CIA Deputy Director David Cohen met their Afghan counterparts in Doha last week.
But there is a fine line to be drawn between engaging in talks with Taliban leaders and legitimizing their de facto rule. The minimum terms of engagement with them should include the implementation of a democratic political system specific to the conditions in Afghanistan, the protection of fundamental human rights, and the cessation of repression against ethnic and sectarian minorities.
There are no signs that the Taliban are willing to accept even the bare minimum of such conditions. Afghan women and girls enjoyed relative freedom under US-sponsored Afghan governments for two decades, until their country returned to repressive Taliban rule last year.
As part of the 2020 Doha Agreement, which paved the way for the current Taliban rule, Afghan women and girls were guaranteed the right to continue to enjoy these same freedoms. The Taliban’s leaders also publicly pledged not only to allow girls to go to school and women to work and move freely in public, but also to include representatives of minority groups in their government.
None of these commitments have been honored. In fact, the human rights situation has worsened over time, leading to mass protests by female activists in Kabul and growing instances of terrorism against minorities, particularly the Hazara community.
In March, the Taliban reneged on its pledge to reopen secondary schools for girls. In July, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported serious allegations of human rights violations under the Taliban’s 10-month rule, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, torture and a clampdown on free speech, peaceful protest, and the ability of women and girls to access education, employment and move freely.
Last month, Richard Bennett, who in April was appointed the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, reiterated these findings in his first report on the state of human rights abuses under Taliban rule and their devastating effects on the Afghan people.
Clearly, the Taliban regime has lost the trust of the international community as it shelters members of major terrorist organizations and their leaders, and violates the fundamental rights of women, girls and minorities.
Even Afghan men are not immune from Taliban repression. Just last week, all male teachers and high-school students in Kandahar were ordered to sign a written pledge that they would adhere to Taliban’s interpretation of Shariah, including a strict dress code and the compulsory growing of beards.
The Taliban regime is in breach of another crucial clause of the Doha accord, namely the pledge by its leaders they they would not allow Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for international terrorist groups.
It is clear from the killing in July of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a US precision-strike attack in downtown Kabul that the Taliban regime did not sever its links with the terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda has had the deadliest terrorist profile for almost three decades, which could resurface at any time in another wave of global terrorism.
The UN estimates that more than 10,000 terrorists are currently in Afghanistan. The regrouping of terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement remains a continual source of concern for Central Asian republics and China, respectively. There has already been a resurgence of Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan in tribal border areas and the Swat valley, where there were mass protests after a school van was attacked last week.
The Islamic State-Khorasan Province currently is the most active terrorist organization in Afghanistan, with the potential to carry out international terrorism, just like Al-Qaeda. It appears to seek to fight the Taliban but its actual target is the minority Hazara population, which has been subjected to scores of attacks in seminaries and hospitals, including a devastating suicide bombing last week that killed 25 people, mostly young women, at an education center in Kabul.
Clearly, the Taliban regime has lost the trust of the international community as it shelters members of major terrorist organizations and their leaders, and violates the fundamental rights of women, girls and minorities. It must be shunned and ways found to help the Afghan people.
Fortunately, there is a significant overlap in the interests of great powers and regional states in human rights and counterterrorism issues in Afghanistan. Therefore, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, Russia, France, the US and the UK) must unite to reprimand the Taliban regime. Their strongest leverage is diplomatic recognition, which must be denied as long as Taliban leaders do not mend their ways.
Another source of leverage in the hands of the international community is frozen Afghan bank accounts. Last month, the US government set up a $3.5 billion “Afghan Fund” to promote economic stability in Afghanistan. This money can be released to the UN agencies involved in efforts to improve the near-famine conditions in the country, which is a moral responsibility for the international community.
- Ishtiaq Ahmad is a member of the Planning Commission of Pakistan. A former journalist, he previously served as the vice chancellor at Sargodha University, Pakistan, and the Jinnah Chair at Oxford University in the UK