AFGHANISTAN: World leaders choose closer Taliban ties, betray Afghan women

The world had a chance in Doha to stand up to the Taliban, but its failure to do so left Afghanistan’s rulers stronger than ever

By Chris Fitzgerald

SCMP (04.07.2024)  – The world descended on Doha last weekend for a two-day meeting to decide the future of Afghanistan and the Taliban’s role in this future. Delegates from 25 countries attended the United Nations-led summit.

The Taliban arrived in Doha confident the international community is starting to take it seriously after retaking power almost three years ago. Leaving Doha, there is now a view in Kabul that official recognition is only a matter of time.

The Taliban has good reason to be emboldened. In a significant win for the group, the UN decided to exclude women and civil society groups from the summit, a key demand for Taliban delegates to attend. This gave the Taliban a seat at the table after it was excluded from the first meeting in May 2023. The group also refused to take part in the second in February after a demand to uninvite women and civil society groups was denied.

The move has been slammed by human rights groups and even UN representatives. UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan Richard Bennett condemned the decision to appease the Taliban at the expense of women’s rights.

Bennett has a point. While the UN has long demanded the Taliban respect women’s rights, the group continues to severely repress the rights of women in Afghanistan, including the denial of education, employment and freedom of movement.

The decision has enabled the Taliban to control the discussion in Doha. The group does not want to talk about women, labelling it an internal matter and urging delegates to look past its restrictive policies. Instead, it wants to focus on ending sanctions, increasing trade relationships and most importantly being recognised by the international community.

The Taliban used Doha to present the world with a binary choice between women’s rights and closer ties to the group. This is a choice some states have been happy to make. Saudi Arabia used the summit to announce it would reopen its embassy at the earliest opportunity. China’s special envoy for Afghanistan Yue Xiaoyong said Beijing now realises the international community should engage with the Taliban to ensure “sustainable peace and reconstruction”.

This comes after Russia announced in May plans to remove the Taliban from its list of terrorist groups and said it would consider recognising the regime. In February, China officially recognised the Taliban’s envoy in Beijing – the first country to do so – after it sent its own ambassador to Kabul last year.

While no country is yet willing to officially recognise the Taliban, these moves signal to Kabul that the ground is shifting. This was confirmed by the Taliban’s chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who at the Doha summit spoke about the group’s relationships with regional countries and its commitment and capacity to establish and maintain relations.

For the Taliban, the timing could not be better. The group has come under recent pressure over its failure to rein in terrorist groups which operate from Afghanistan and have carried out attacks in neighbouring Pakistan. Islamabad responded with air strikes on terror camps in Afghanistan and the eviction of undocumented Afghans from Pakistan.

This attack on Afghanistan’s sovereignty undermined the Taliban at home. It also comes as resistance to the Taliban grows within Afghanistan, with the UN reporting a surge in attacks last month by anti-Taliban armed groups.

These issues made the Taliban look weak and seemed to confirm the group was either not interested or unable to successfully govern Afghanistan. But last week’s summit saw the Taliban leave Doha stronger, not weaker.

While the Taliban enjoy new-found strength and popularity, Afghan women are left to their own fate. Whether the world admits it or not, greater engagement with the Taliban is a betrayal which legitimises the group’s interpretation of Islam and its cruelty towards women.

Engaging with Taliban might seem like an easy solution to Afghanistan’s complex problems, but it sets a dangerous precedent by rewarding a bad regime that tested the world’s patience and won.

It also will not solve the country’s problems. The Taliban’s cruelty towards women and its support for terrorist groups will continue to hurt the region and negate any potential economic or political benefits countries such as China seek in Afghanistan.

As delegates leave Doha, the world will come to regret offering so much to a regime so desperate for international recognition. It was the perfect opportunity to stand up to the Taliban and stand firm on issues such as terrorism and women’s rights. Instead, the world blinked. The Taliban is now stronger than ever.

Photo: Wikimedia