Since taking power in August, the Taliban have repeatedly expressed the expectation that the international community will recognize their authority as the new government of Afghanistan and have taken several procedural steps to pursue recognition. But the group has done very little to demonstrate a willingness to meet the conditions put forward by Western powers and some regional states. USIP’s Andrew Watkins, Richard Olson, Asfandyar Mir and Kate Bateman assess the latest Taliban efforts to win international recognition, the position of Pakistan and other key regional players and options for U.S. policy to shape Taliban behavior and the engagement decisions of other international partners.

Taliban officials arrive at a news conference to announce an acting cabinet for the new Taliban government in Kabul. September 7, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)
Taliban officials arrive at a news conference to announce an acting cabinet for the new Taliban government in Kabul. September 7, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

What steps has the new Taliban government in Kabul taken to secure international recognition? To what degree is achieving recognition a priority for the Taliban?

Watkins: Much of the Taliban’s overtures to seek or establish international recognition seem to be driven by the group’s pressing economic needs, their desire to see funds unfrozen and various forms of assistance delivered.

As part of their announcement of senior figures to formal government posts, the Taliban nominated Suhail Shaheen, a longtime member of and former spokesperson for the group’s political office in Qatar, to serve as ambassador to the United Nations. In press statements, they have repeatedly encouraged foreign embassies to return to Kabul, including the United States and European states. And the group has maintained a steady tempo of high-level diplomacy with neighboring and regional states, including Russia, China and even India.

However, the Taliban have repeatedly revealed a clear prioritization of maintaining their own internal cohesion and demonstrating their authority domestically. The current caretaker government is made up entirely of their own leadership, excluding women and other political stakeholders while including a number of internationally sanctioned figures. The group has renamed the Afghan government the Islamic Emirate, in spite of a joint diplomatic statement by the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan lobbying against a revival of the title. The group’s rank and file have suppressed demonstrations across the country; protestors and journalists are being detained and beaten. Taliban leadership have effectively banned girls’ education, discouraged women from returning to work in a number of sectors and disbanded the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (replacing it with its historically notorious Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice). At least some elements of the group have begun enforcing brutal law enforcement policies, including public execution.

How have Afghanistan’s regional neighbors approached engagement with the new Taliban government? What criteria are they likely to apply in considering whether or not to extend recognition?

Olson: Reminiscent of the 1990s, Pakistan has taken the lead on the question of international recognition for the Taliban regime. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmoud Qureshi has called for engagement with (and eschewed isolation of) the new government. On September 21, Prime Minister Imran Khan told the BBC that Pakistan would only recognize the new government in coordination with Afghanistan’s neighbors, referring to an agreement reached at the September 17 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Dushanbe in which Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan agreed on three criteria for recognition: 1) establishment of an inclusive government, 2) assurance of human rights and 3) adherence to the principle that Afghan territory not be used for terrorism against others.

On the first point, it seems that the region will be satisfied with some element of ethnic inclusion as the Taliban accomplished with their recent appointment of deputy ministers. Khan made clear the criterion does not encompass gender inclusivity, saying women’s rights could not be imposed from outside Afghanistan. On the second and third points, it is likely that hortatory commitments will be sufficient. If so, regional recognition could happen quickly. A big question is whether SCO heavyweights China and Russia will follow these guidelines. Both have publicly engaged with the Taliban since August 15, and have kept open their embassies in Kabul, but recently Moscow signaled that recognition is not on the international agenda immediately. 

How do concerns over counterterrorism threats from Afghanistan impact those calculations? What confidence do Afghanistan’s neighbors have in the Taliban’s pledges not to allow militant groups to carry out attacks from their territory?

Mir: Since the Taliban’s takeover, anti-Pakistan militants in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have continued their campaign of violence inside Pakistan, mostly against Pakistani state targets. The TTP is certainly emboldened by the Taliban’s return to power in its violence against Pakistan. It has also materially benefited from the Taliban gaining control through the release of TTP leaders and a large number of TTP fighters who had been imprisoned by the former Afghan government. The TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, who remains based in Afghanistan, has reiterated his group’s allegiance to the Afghan Taliban.

Yet the growing threat and violence has not altered Pakistan’s overall approach in support of the Afghan Taliban. While some countries — and this includes China — are conditioning further meaningful engagement on the Taliban making a clean break from terrorist groups, the Pakistani government is putting no such condition on the table. Instead, senior Pakistani leaders are hoping that the Afghan Taliban will help them restrain the TTP. For their part, the Afghan Taliban are providing generic guarantees of not letting Afghan territory be used as a base of terrorism against other countries, but on the question of the TTP they offer no clear response. There are no signs that they will crack down against the TTP leadership and cadres based in Afghanistan. Behind the scenes, it is plausible they are calling on Pakistan to negotiate with the TTP — and might even be assisting with that. Before the collapse of the former Afghan government, there were reports of some meetings between the Pakistani government and the TTP facilitated by the Afghan Taliban.

What implications will the recognition decisions of Afghanistan’s neighbors have on the United States’ own interactions with the Taliban government and the region, and how should the United States engage on this issue?

Bateman: International recognition is one of the few remaining levers by which the United States and other countries can exert pressure on the Taliban government. The more that countries remain united on how they employ that lever, the stronger it is. Recognition of the Taliban government by Afghanistan’s neighbors would confer a degree of legitimacy on the Taliban and provide them access to needed financial resources — and would significantly diminish U.S. leverage and ability to press the Taliban on the most immediate objectives of access for humanitarian aid and freedom of movement for Afghan refugees, not to mention the broader priorities of inclusive government, respect for human rights and counterterrorism assurances.

There is an emerging consensus — evident in the U.S. Treasury’s recent issuance of more licenses to allow greater aid flows and increased humanitarian aid from the European Union — that humanitarian assistance should not be conditioned on certain actions by the Taliban. Yet the dilemma is how to channel resources to the Afghan state to ameliorate the suffering of the population without legitimizing the Taliban government. In its regional engagement, the United States should urge the neighbors to remain united in nonrecognition and cooperate with donors on the delivery of humanitarian aid. If the neighbors do formally recognize the Taliban, this could damage efforts to hold the Taliban accountable on the critical governance, rights and terrorism fronts. But to the degree that the region has constructive engagement with the Taliban in a way that aligns with U.S. interests, this could serve as a testing ground for incentivizing the Taliban to change its behavior.

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