December 3, 2021

IntelBrief: Diplomats Return to Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan

AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

Bottom Line up Front

  • Several countries are returning, or planning to return, their diplomats to Afghanistan, signaling growing engagement with the Taliban leadership.
  • The issue of whether the Taliban is formally recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan is of declining practical significance. 
  • Engagement with the Taliban will further facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid to the Afghan people, despite operational challenges posed by sanctions.    
  • Increased international engagement provides the Taliban an incentive to moderate its governing practices and cooperate on counter-terrorism issues. 

As of the end of November, the new Taliban de facto authorities in Afghanistan appeared to be gaining momentum in their efforts to engage the international community. The trend began with the November 12 announcement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken that: "Qatar will establish a U.S. intersection within its embassy in Afghanistan to provide certain consular services and monitor the condition and security of U.S. diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan." That announcement represented a further evolution of Qatar’s intercession with the Taliban, including hosting a Taliban representational office in Doha, helping broker the 2020 U.S.-Taliban peace agreement, and multifaceted participation in the U.S. mission to evacuate U.S. citizens, Afghans, and third country nationals in August. 

Possibly in part to prevent rival Gulf state, Qatar, from emerging as the sole U.S diplomatic channel to Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reopened its embassy in Kabul on November 21. Perceiving that it might be subject to Taliban retribution for participating in the post-2001 U.S.-led stabilization mission in Afghanistan, the UAE evacuated its diplomats and closed its embassy after the Taliban seized Kabul in August. With no remaining presence in Afghanistan, UAE officials played only a minor role in the evacuation, including taking in some U.S, Afghan, and third-country evacuees, as well as pilots of the collapsed Afghan Air Force who had fled to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as the Taliban advanced on Kabul. 

Major countries and blocs outside the region also have begun formal engagement with the Taliban. In late October, European Union (EU) officials told journalists that the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic and security arm, plans to reopen a representative office in Kabul that would house its officials and could be used by diplomats from member states, pending a final resolution to security concerns. In late November, Japan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, who relocated to Doha after the Taliban takeover, visited Kabul for talks with Taliban leaders. Japanese officials did not commit to reopening the embassy in Kabul but indicated an intent to do so if and when their concerns about the security of the embassy and personnel posted there could be satisfied. 

Although the Taliban say they deserve to be recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, a trend of broadening diplomatic ties, if continued, would render formal recognition of limited practical significance. The Taliban wants formal recognition as a symbolic success for its years of insurgent struggle, but it is economic and humanitarian aid that will have direct benefit for the Afghan people. Afghans are suffering from the virtual collapse of the economy after major investment projects and contracts ended suddenly as the former government fell in August. Afghan banks have little cash available to pay depositors. The World Health Organization (WHO) warned in November that 3.2 million Afghan children face acute malnutrition by the end of 2021. Gulf state engagement with the Taliban will likely result in an infusion of desperately needed cash into the Afghan economy. The EU and Japan sponsor significant humanitarian aid programs for the Afghan people, and reopening their embassies in Afghanistan would signal that they, as well as other donors, are committed to long term aid programs in the country. In October, after the Taliban takeover, the EU announced an additional $1.15 billion in aid to Afghanistan and neighboring countries. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said in a statement, “We must do all we can to avert a major humanitarian and socioeconomic collapse in Afghanistan. We need to do it fast… The Afghan people should not pay the price of the Taliban’s actions.” Despite their willingness to engage directly in Afghanistan, neither the EU, Japan, regional states, or other countries has as of yet formally recognized the Taliban government. 

Countries engaging the Taliban leadership also see diplomatic discussions and aid pledges as providing incentives for the Taliban to try to inch closer to meeting international standards of human rights practices and increasingly uphold its pledges to prevent global Islamist extremist groups from operating in Afghanistan. There is good reason to remain skeptical. Aid and engagement are benefits that the international community can quickly withdraw, should the Taliban replicate the policies they pursued during their first period of rule between 1996-2001. The Taliban’s transition from insurgent movement to governing authority is fraught with potential hazards. Hardliners within the Taliban regime claim that the movement, broadly, is moving away from its founding ideology that insists on strict adherence to Islamic law. Some of these hardliners, such as those of the Haqqani Network, have had ties to al-Qaeda. Should hardliners become dominant in determining and implementing government policy, it is likely that those governments that have decided to engage the Taliban will come under significant domestic and international pressure to exit Afghanistan and join efforts to isolate the Taliban anew.