The Taliban regime in Afghanistan is taking shape. The United States, Norway and many other countries have engaged in prolonged dialogue with the Taliban. Today, Western countries are closing their embassies and their dialogue with the Taliban is suspended. Does dialogue fail when it is most needed?
An absolutely essential reason for the Taliban’s victory is the agreement dating from February 2020, in which the United States pledged to withdraw all international forces in return for a guarantee from the Taliban that the country would not become a base for further terrorist attacks. This agreement, and the diplomatic process that led to it, gave the Taliban a whole new legitimacy, both in Afghanistan and internationally.
The Taliban’s victory also surprised the organization’s leaders. The Taliban have not specified how they will govern the country or what kinds of policies they will follow. These issues are currently being resolved through internal negotiations and external dialogue. The Taliban begged the embassies to stay, but Western countries nonetheless decided to evacuate. The closure of these embassies restricts the influence that Western countries have over what is going on right now, and it sends a clear message that their future presence cannot be taken for granted. Other countries, with different interests and values, do not evacuate their embassies.
There is no reason to be naive about the kind of Afghanistan we will have under the Taliban. The new government structure will be subordinate to religious authority. The implementation of Islamic law and order will be the central concern. The last time the Taliban took control, they showed limited interest in providing social services such as health care and education. The situation of women, minorities, the media and civil society will become much more limited.
At the same time, the Taliban have surprised us since the capture of Kabul. They went to great lengths to prevent attacks against the civilian population. They called on the media to continue reporting. They cooperated with foreign forces so that the evacuation of foreigners and Afghans from Kabul airport could go smoothly. And they said women and minorities will be involved in running the country.
Many people make comparisons to 1996, when the Taliban also made bold statements in the same way, but over time evolved into an extremely oppressive regime. At that time, as today, there was little visible diplomatic engagement. But then, unlike the current situation, there was no international interest in Afghanistan. The Taliban were unsure of their safety, as they had initially planned to act as a transitional solution to end the all-out civil war in the country and cede power to others. And they inherited a state structure that was in ruins. Today, they take over a reasonably competent government bureaucracy.
The Taliban have made it clear that they want Western financial support. Afghanistan is a poor country, and without international assistance, its government bureaucracy will quickly collapse. The consequences for most Afghans will be severe. But the government bureaucracy is also under-resourced. Wages were not paid and corruption escalated as the government approached the precipice. As a result, the system will quickly collapse. The Taliban know this, and it’s one of the main reasons they want international aid to continue.
The Taliban are also concerned about international recognition. The last time they held power, from 1996 to 2001, they were shunned by the international community. Only three states – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have recognized them as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Now they want all the sanctions lifted. And not least, they want international recognition of Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
With the United States and its allies withdrawing their forces, the Taliban’s interest in continued aid and international recognition is what remains. But their interest in these issues also provides a platform to talk about other things, including what other countries expect from a Taliban regime in the future. This dialogue is important and it will be difficult.
Ideologically, the Taliban are miles from liberal democracy. The dialogue must be strong enough to allow clear demands to be made without causing the process to collapse. This requires an understanding of the ideological and religious landscape from which the Taliban come, their values, their references and their language. Of course, this does not mean acceptance of the Taliban worldview. On the contrary, such an agreement is a precondition for a disagreement to be possible.
Norway has a long dialogue with the Taliban. The Norwegian government-mandated Commission for Afghanistan (of which the author was a member) documented that the dialogue dates back to 2007. In the summer of 2019, peace talks between the Taliban and the United States were to be held in Oslo, but plans were bypassed when President Donald Trump sought to entice the parties to meet face to face at Camp David. Norway has acquired knowledge about the Taliban and maintains relations with them. This gives Norway a good basis to play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s current critical transitional phase.
When the Taliban held power in the 1990s, they isolated themselves. Their policies in many areas were too extreme, but the isolation did nothing to make them more moderate. The progressively closer relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the second half of the 1990s must also be understood in light of this isolation.
And after more than 40 years of war, there is good reason to question whether new rounds of armed struggle are what Afghanistan needs.
The Taliban have seized power over the past two months with surprising ease. This was especially true for the final stage, in which most of the cities were taken as a result of negotiations. This made it possible to avoid prolonged fighting, which would have had enormous consequences for the civilian population. Over the past three years, Afghanistan has been the scene of the world’s deadliest conflict. A large part of the population lives below the poverty line. The Covid-19 epidemic has only made the situation worse.
At the same time, we see those who want to continue fighting against the Taliban. In the Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, some elements of the historic anti-Taliban Northern Alliance have gathered. They promise to continue the fight against the Taliban and ask for international support. Vice President Amrullah Saleh appointed himself president, citing the Afghan constitution. One should always be careful when making predictions about the future of Afghanistan, but at the moment this resistance seems rather unrealistic. And after more than 40 years of war, there is good reason to question whether new rounds of armed struggle are what Afghanistan needs.
Right now, the Taliban are forming their new government. The account they present is well polished and leaves little doubt that the organization has learned a great deal about international diplomacy. The important questions concern the types of government structures they will establish and the types of policies they will pursue in practice. The Taliban want diplomatic engagement. A window of opportunity is open now, but it can close quickly. Our experiences in the 90s are terrifying. Hopefully Norway and other countries have learned the lesson.
- This text was originally published in Vårt Land in Norwegian under the title “Diplomati som svikter når det trengs som mest”. You can read it by clicking here.
- Translation: Fidotext