Can western diplomats deter Taliban from bad policies?

There are concerns that reopening Western embassies in Kabul would convey a sense of legitimacy to the Taliban regime.
Taliban security personnel stand guard at a checkpoint along a street in Kabul on Jan. 10, 2023. (AFP)

Taliban security personnel stand guard at a checkpoint along a street in Kabul on Jan. 10, 2023. (AFP)

International aid agencies, frustrated with the failure of more than a year of international isolation to budge the Taliban from their hard-line and misogynistic policies, are saying it is time for Western nations to send their diplomats back to the Afghan capital, Kabul.

All countries have refused to recognize the Taliban administration that seized power in Kabul in August 2022, demanding that the de facto leaders first form an inclusive government, respect the rights of women and ensure their territory does not become a base for terrorists.

But 16 months later, the Taliban have become even more committed to their hard-line policies, progressively imposing ever harsher restrictions on women’s right to travel and gain an education and refusing to open their administration to the nation’s minorities.

For the aid groups, seeking desperately to address the hunger and poverty that have accompanied the cutoff of international aid, the last straw came with an order last month forbidding Afghan female staff from working for national and international NGOs.

“We need the West to send their diplomats back to Afghanistan to engage with the country’s new rulers,” Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), tweeted Sunday after meeting Taliban officials in Kabul.

“We are too alone here in an increasingly dire situation,” added Egeland, who warned earlier this week that the ban on female aid workers could push 6 million people into famine and leave 600,000 children without education.

Adam Combs, Asia & Europe director at the NRC, reinforced the point in an interview with VOA, saying, “We feel very strongly that isolating the Taliban’s de facto authorities is not the answer.”

“By having diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, it will help to improve and help to facilitate the humanitarian response.”

There are concerns that reopening Western embassies in Kabul would convey a sense of legitimacy to the Taliban regime.

“The Taliban would almost certainly see the return of U.S. diplomats as a signal that the U.S. was moving toward recognition. Other countries would also be encouraged to send back their diplomats,” Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told VOA.

Unlike the United States and most of its Western allies, China, Iran, Russia and some other countries have kept their embassies open in Kabul without officially recognizing their Taliban hosts, even while Beijing, Tehran, Moscow, Islamabad and Pakistan have accepted Taliban representatives.

Last week, Wang Yu, the Chinese ambassador to Kabul, attended the signing ceremony of a major oil extraction contract between the Taliban government and a Chinese company.

Inaccessible leader

U.S. and European officials accuse Taliban leaders of reneging on their previous commitments to women’s education and work rights.

There are also reports of internal disagreements among the Taliban regarding some of the controversial edicts of their supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada.

Akhundzada runs everything in the Taliban’s so-called Islamic Emirate from Kandahar province, about 500 kilometers away from the capital city. He is inaccessible to the public and foreign diplomats, and recently refused to meet a delegation from the International Union of Muslim Scholars.

Even if Western diplomats return to Kabul, experts say, the reclusive leader will be an unlikely interlocutor hear their concerns and calls for greater rights for women.

“I do not believe that returning foreign diplomats to Kabul will have any important results with regards to the disagreements with the Taliban over the issues of women, inclusive government or counterterrorism,” Neumann said.

However, he acknowledged that reopening the U.S. embassy would have some benefits, saying, “The U.S. could do a much better job of processing visas for asylum, and diplomats could look out for other consular interests.”

Isolated and pressed by international sanctions, the Taliban harbored al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. There are growing concerns that the Taliban are now unable or unwilling to fulfill their counterterrorism commitments made in a 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement that paved the way for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces in 2021.

A spokesperson at the U.S. Department of State told VOA there are no plans to reopen the U.S. embassy in Kabul “at this time.”

Asked why U.S. diplomats were not traveling to Afghanistan to directly engage Taliban officials, the spokesperson said, “We have nothing further to add.” (SJ/VOA)

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