The Taliban have returned to power in Afghanistan after two decades. Over the next few weeks and months, a host of foreign nations with a stake in the country’s future will have to make a very tough choice: grant legitimacy to a regime that has committed atrocities against its own people, or risk the potential fallout of turning Afghanistan into the isolated, drug-running state sponsor of terror it was prior to US occupation. For some, the decision will depend on how the Taliban behave, while others seem to have already made up their mind.
Here are a few arguments on both sides of the international recognition debate.
A fundamentalist, violent regime that writes off women and girls is unacceptable to those who value human rights. For democratic governments, doing business with the Taliban is an absolute non-starter because they know that whatever they say now, they’ll keep women and girls at home, take them out of school, and beat them if necessary to preserve their ultra-conservative brand of political Islam. Afghan women already fear the worst is yet to come once the foreigners leave.
The Taliban hosted the terrorists who planned 9/11, and will do it again given the chance. Al-Qaeda may not be as militarily strong as it was in 2001, but its leaders and fighters are still being protected by the Taliban. After all, the whole point of the US staying in Afghanistan so long precisely to prevent the Taliban from allowing terrorists to use Afghan territory as a base from which to attack America and other Western countries.
They can’t be trusted. The Taliban repeatedly violated the terms of the 2020 peace agreement brokered by the Trump administration by attacking US troops. Who’ll believe them now when the Taliban insist they’ll respect women’s rights — albeit under their own interpretation of sharia law — and renounce all support for terrorism?
Can the Taliban even run Afghanistan without US cash? Actually governing an entire country is way more complicated and expensive than holding territory at gunpoint, which is all the group has achieved so far. If America delays recognition and keeps US-held Afghan government assets frozen, the Taliban will struggle to just keep the lights on. With the value of local currency in freefall and the head of the central bank gone, it’s hard to imagine how the Taliban will stay in power for long if they can’t pay the bills.
Mutual self-interest. For some outside players, there is much more to gain than to lose from Taliban recognition: pragmatist China seeks to make money building infrastructure and extracting minerals, while Pakistan is happy to have the US out, despite some big domestic risks. In exchange, the Taliban would ensure access and security for Chinese projects, and keep tabs on the resurgent Pakistani Taliban on their porous border.
If you don’t antagonize them, the Taliban can stop terrorists from attacking you. Former enemy Russia is already engaging the Taliban to ensure they don’t give save haven to militants targeting Russia and the Muslim-majority former Soviet republics in Central Asia. China too is worried about instability on its own borders, and about Uighur separatists who used to be friendly with the Taliban.
No one wants a refugee crisis. Among neighboring countries, Iran for instance may offer recognition if the Sunni Taliban agree to not go after Shia ethnic minorities the Iranians can’t take in. If you’re the EU, doing everything in your power to stabilize Afghanistan might lessen — however slightly — the odds that countless Afghans will want to seek asylum in Europe, where they’re also not wanted.
On the other hand, starving the Taliban could make them (even) more dangerous. For 20 years, the group funded its insurgency against the Afghan government mainly through the lucrative drug trade and illegal mining. The flip side of putting economic pressure on the Taliban is that if state coffers run dry, Afghanistan could become a narco-state run from the very top that already corners the global market for heroin.
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