The Hill

Incentives Will Not Change the Taliban

Senior Fellow and Director for South and Central Asia
Taliban pose for media on Wazir Hill on September 19, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Taliban pose for media on Wazir Hill on September 19, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

The Taliban’s return to power has created a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan that is worsening by the day. Instead of acknowledging that the crisis has been created by its power grab, the Taliban is trying to use it to secure international recognition and legitimacy. There is also clamor for ending terrorism-related sanctions to save Afghan civilians from their effects.

The United States and other democracies should not fall for the Taliban’s ruses. The Taliban’s conduct as Afghanistan’s rulers so far has not earned it the right to international legitimacy or recognition. Unfreezing Afghanistan’s assets or routing aid through the Taliban will only end up funding a rogue regime and its terrorist allies.

Members of the Haqqani Network, with close links to al Qaeda, hold powerful positions in the Taliban government. The latest report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the United Nations Security Council suggests that Afghanistan is, once again, becoming a haven for international terrorism.

According to the U.N. report, released last Thursday, “There are no recent signs that the Taliban has taken steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country. On the contrary, terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there than at any time in recent history.”

In addition to the possibility of a resurgent al Qaeda, the Taliban’s decision to release thousands of prisoners has put 3,000 to 4,000 Islamic State (ISIS) fighters back on the battlefield.

The Taliban has imposed a brutal Islamist dictatorship on Afghanistan’s 39 million people, denying them the most basic human rights. Thousands of Taliban opponents have been murdered or are missing. Women can neither work nor move freely. Female students are being denied access to education, except at a limited level and on the Taliban’s conditions.

Western advocates of engagement with the Taliban claim that “there is no alternative to talking” to it. The notion that a few more concessions to the Taliban is all that is needed to save Afghanistan from catastrophe is simply wrong.

Many concessions were made to the Taliban during the Doha talks on the assumption that the result would be Afghan national reconciliation and changes in the Taliban’s behavior. Instead, America’s softening its stance only led to the Taliban hardening its position.

The Trump and Biden administrations inadvertently caused the collapse of the Afghan republic that Americans had helped build, assuming that Afghanistan was no longer strategically significant, and that U.S. military withdrawal was the key to internal peace there.

The result of that haphazard withdrawal has only been to produce the specter of a failed state, the fear of famine and the likelihood of deaths and suffering on a large scale.

In their hurry to withdraw American troops, two successive U.S. presidents failed even to insist on the release of American hostage Mark Frerichs, believed to be held by the Haqqani Network, as a precondition for talks with the Taliban.

President Biden tried to mitigate that mistake when he stated recently that the release of Frerichs was one of the conditions for considering the Taliban’s aspirations for legitimacy. But the Taliban knows it is dealing with an America whose leaders no longer refuse to negotiate with terrorists or hostage takers.

Although so far Western governments have said humanitarian aid to Afghanistan will be conditional to an improvement in human rights, it is not unusual to hear the argument that failure to recognize the Taliban would only exacerbate Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis.

That the Taliban currently controls Afghanistan is not in doubt, but it is unlikely to maintain that control if it cannot create a functioning economy. Until the collapse of the U.S.-backed Kabul government last August, 80 percent of Afghanistan’s budget was provided by international donors.

Having fought to expel foreigners, the Taliban should have no realistic expectation of continued international assistance. It is only hoping to play on western guilt about an impending humanitarian disaster to tap donor funding. It is likely to use this money to pay their troops, build an effective machinery of repression and possibly support international terrorists currently converging in its country.

Given the Taliban’s links to international terrorism, granting it formal recognition and legitimacy due to concerns about its failure to feed and protect the people it governs does not make much sense.

The Taliban has also voiced disregard for the suffering of the Afghan people. Its prime minister, Mullah Hasan Akhund, declared in a speech that “the Taliban are not here to provide food for the people, but instead God will do that.”

Akhund said that the Taliban had only three major objectives — “exit of the US and its allies from Afghanistan, provision of security, and paving the way for a real Islamic system in the country.” Building a functioning economy and attending to it people’s needs is not even a priority.

Given that ideological predisposition, it is unlikely that unfreezing Afghanistan’s assets or turning on the spigot of aid would have a moderating influence on the Taliban’s behavior, towards its own people or in relation to international concerns about terrorism or drug-trafficking.

The focus of the international community in Afghanistan, for now, should be to ensure that there are no dire food, fuel or medicine shortages for the people. The U.S. Treasury’s recent clarification on sanctions applicable to Afghanistan paves the way for transfers of funds by non-governmental organizations to Afghanistan.

U.N. and other multilateral agencies, such as the World Food Program, World Health Organization and UNICEF, can also continue to send humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people. But ending sanctions and offering recognition as an incentive will do little to end the suffering of Afghans or to change the Taliban.

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