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US signals greater willingness to engage with the Taliban

‘We learned the hard way that isolation is ruinous. It's ruinous for the Afghan people. It's ruinous for the region.’

Photo showing Taliban soldiers front of the US embassy in Afghanistan. The wall of the embassy has been painted on with the flag of Flag of Islamic Emirate Afghanistan. Oriane Zerah/ABACAPRESS.COM
The Taliban celebrates outside the US embassy a year after taking back control of the capital, Kabul, following 20 years of Western-backed rule, on 15 August 2022.

The United States is prepared to move towards greater engagement with the Taliban as it seeks to tread a fine line between its human rights concerns and helping the Afghan people in the midst of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, interviews with top US officials and senior aid figures reveal.

Speaking to The New Humanitarian on the sidelines of a donor meeting in Istanbul last month, Karen Decker, chargé d'affaires of the US mission to Afghanistan, said Washington has “learned the hard way that isolation is ruinous. It's ruinous for the Afghan people. It's ruinous for the region”.

The United States has adopted a policy of “pragmatic engagement” with Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government, which Washington has yet to recognise as official more than two years after the former Western-backed leaders fled Kabul and the Taliban re-established its Islamic Emirate in the country.

After the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, the already struggling economy was dealt an even bigger blow as the US – which signed a peace deal with the group in 2020 – and other countries immediately cut back aid, placed several Taliban leaders under sanctions, and imposed restrictions on the nation’s banks. These cutbacks and constraints have deepened a “complex humanitarian emergency” that sees 23.7 million Afghans requiring international assistance this year.

“Engagement is necessary, but we have to find a way to balance engagement while not compromising on our principles.”

With the Taliban still refusing to allow girls and women to study beyond the sixth grade, reports of media worker detentions, and a declaration by its leader that he would subject women to death by stoning, Western capitals and international NGOs remain wary of being seen as getting too close to the Islamic Emirate.

Despite this, the UN, several international and local NGOs, and Washington have all signalled over the past year that avoiding the Taliban won’t solve Afghanistan’s economic and humanitarian issues.

In the most in-depth interview to date with a top US official on Taliban engagement, Decker told The New Humanitarian that Washington is now in a position where it must “very carefully navigate the non-recognition policy”, which requires a delicate balance of keeping in mind that the Taliban took power by force rather than a Democratic vote while still finding ways to reach the millions of Afghans who require emergency assistance.

In an acknowledgement of the fact that more than half the Afghan population still requires foreign aid, senior diplomatic, human rights, and NGO sources speaking in Istanbul and Kabul over the past several months underlined that solving Afghanistan’s problems will require talking more to the Islamic Emirate.

“Engagement is necessary, but we have to find a way to balance engagement while not compromising on our principles,” said one senior international NGO source, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the discussions.

Decker agreed, saying Washington would continue to engage with the Taliban on “pragmatic issues”, with humanitarian assistance and human rights being her primary areas of concern.

In order to achieve this, Decker and her team, which is based in Qatar, hold weekly meetings with Taliban representatives in Doha, conduct phone meetings, and make a point of seeing Islamic Emirate government officials when they travel in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Baby steps towards progress

Because its non-recognition policy precludes US officials from working in the country, Washington has partnered with local and international groups on the ground in order to deliver assistance directly to the Afghan people. But even with that cooperation, it’s not always so easy, as these groups must also tread carefully amid increasing Taliban restrictions and regulations.

They have to find ways to deliver as much aid as possible without raising the ire of the Islamic Emirate, which has tried to restrict women’s work in the aid sector, and which routinely expresses frustration at allegations of NGO waste and effectiveness that date back to 20 years of US-led occupation.

“It's complex, but it is what they have to do in order to deliver to the Afghan people,” one senior US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity about the careful calculus that even the most basic of aid efforts require under the Islamic Emirate.

Even though there is still a long way to go, particularly in terms of addressing US human rights concerns, Decker said she feels Washington’s efforts have led to some positive results.

“Eighteen months ago, we were worried about famine, and there is no famine in Afghanistan,” Decker said, crediting this largely to the work of local and international aid organisations. However, she pointed out that Afghans still need more food assistance than in the past: “So, in some respects, you trade one problem for another.”

Decker raised another issue that adds to the difficulty of engaging further: the Islamic Emirate’s unwillingness to acknowledge any problems in the country: “They like to present Afghanistan as a success story… [and] they don't want anyone thinking there's anything wrong.”

If the Islamic Emirate were more straightforward to deal with, then humanitarian actors would save a lot of time and money and be able to reach those in need more quickly, she said: “We use a lot of time and effort making it work, because of the Taliban. They are fundamentally the challenge to making this work. We are able to navigate [it], but it would be much more efficient if the Taliban were much more [open].”

Decker did, however, give the Taliban some credit, saying they had shown some flexibility, especially in emergency situations. She pointed to the Islamic Emirate’s responses to a series of earthquakes that rocked the western province of Herat, and the recent mass expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Afghans from neighbouring Pakistan, as examples of when the Taliban saw it necessary to amend or loosen some of their restrictions. “Women were suddenly allowed to work because they had to reach women beneficiaries,” she said.

Finding a balance that satisfies critics

These engagement efforts haven’t been without their critics. Many in the Afghan diaspora, including former government officials, decry any efforts to work with – or even speak to – the Taliban. 

“Warming up to the Taliban is not the right move. On the contrary, it sends a dangerous message that their behaviour is working and grants them the respect of engagement, which they have not earned,” read a statement earlier this year from the Canadian Women for Afghan Women group.

There are also US President Joe Biden’s Republican opponents in Washington who have weaponised the ongoing human rights concerns as a criticism of the Biden administration during an election year.

Simply ignoring the group will do nothing to improve the lives of the millions of Afghans who remain in need.

“Obviously, by failing to treat the Taliban as the threat they are, this administration has not [discouraged] their malign activity. Instead, they’ve emboldened them,” Michael McCaul, the chairman of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee, told a January hearing.

However, all the sources The New Humanitarian spoke to said they saw little benefit in pretending the Taliban do not exist. With an “overwhelming need in the country”, simply ignoring the group will do nothing to improve the lives of the millions of Afghans who remain in need, said Decker.

“It's not in anyone's interest for us to isolate the country,” she added. “And I say this over and over: I feel strongly that if the United States does not advocate for the Afghan people, nobody will. So, I don't need any more motivation than that.”

The senior international NGO official agreed, saying: “We understand the very real human rights concerns that many people have, but we have to balance that with the humanitarian need as well, and addressing that need requires dialogue and engagement.”

Aid versus development

Still, Washington insists it has clear red lines. 

In recent public addresses and meetings with NGO officials, the Islamic Emirate has asked for increased development assistance, not least as a way to address the more than 700,000 jobs that have been lost since the summer of 2021.

“They keep asking us how to move away from the same old programmes – mobile phone repair for men and sewing projects for women – and towards more long-term projects with lasting, tangible results,” said the NGO official.

However, Decker and the senior US government official insisted that until the Islamic Emirate makes the changes necessary to be considered an official government, the United States simply cannot fund development projects in the country.

“It's hard to build roads or factories or big infrastructure projects without working with the government ministries,” said Decker, who still uses the term “so-called” when referring to Islamic Emirate ministers.

The Taliban, however, insists that a continued focus on emergency or humanitarian aid will have little impact on the lives of the people. They would rather international aid go towards longer-term projects.

One such example lies in the Spin Boldak district of the southern province of Kandahar, where recent deadly floods destroyed hundreds of acres of agricultural lands.

Mohammad Abdul Shakoor, a local elder and farmer in Spin Boldak, said he had personally appealed to provincial officials to build a 400-metre dam that would provide year-round water and prevent flooding for upwards of 200,000 homes.

“They told us they understand, but there isn’t money in the budget for such a project,” Shakoor told The New Humanitarian during a visit to flood-affected areas.

The NGO official said Shakoor’s request is exactly the kind of project they want donors, including Washington, to move towards funding. “It’s tricky though, trying to convince them to take on such things” when they’re still so averse to anything that looks like they are working directly with the Islamic Emirate, they added.

Beyond the issue of recognition, the NGO official said the refusal of certain governments, particularly, Washington and Berlin, to directly fund development projects also comes down to optics.

“The last thing an American or German official would want is a photo op of a new road or a bridge with Taliban officials posing in front of Islamic Emirate and German or US flags,” they said.

However, other donors have been more amenable. Both the NGO official and a former Afghan diplomat who travels to Kabul frequently said the UN, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the governments of the EU, the UK, and Japan, have all started funding development projects.

A hard narrative to change

The former diplomat, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the topic, said the Islamic Emirate has been trying to change the conversation around engagement in the hope of highlighting points of opportunity rather than focusing on areas of disagreement.

“Right now, the IEA wants to reframe the narrative. They want it to be about interests as opposed to values,” said the former diplomat. “They have made it very clear they won’t budge on values, but they want the outside world to see that there are interests in Afghanistan for them and for the Afghans.”

But it’s difficult to change the narrative when there is such a disconnect around the rights of women and girls in the country. Although Afghans will say the overall situation for women and girls is better now than during the 1996-2001 period of Taliban rule, Washington insists it’s not nearly enough.

The US government official said American diplomats “always raise the inability of girls to continue their education and work in certain sectors” in every meeting with the Taliban, but they are always met with the same response: “This is an internal matter.”

Speaking to local media, Hamdullah Fitrat, deputy spokesman for the Taliban-run government, recently said the West “desires the implementation of Western-equivalent rights and essentially strives to impose Western culture” on the Afghan people.

“Right now, the IEA wants to reframe the narrative. They want it to be about interests as opposed to values.”

The New Humanitarian reached out to the Islamic Emirate’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment on several matters related to the issue of engagement, but it failed to respond.

Decker and other sources did express some hope based on private meetings and the public statements of several high-ranking Islamic Emirate officials, who have acknowledged that all girls and women should be allowed to return to school and that the government must expand beyond just the Taliban.

“We know that there [are] senior Taliban leaders who have their daughters in school outside of the country, and some of them have even been open in their own statements about the importance of education,” said Decker.

However, for progress to be made towards US recognition, she said the Taliban must officially change some of its policies, pointing to increased work opportunities for women and real inclusion of non-Taliban members in the government as concrete examples of possible game-changers.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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