Between Isolation and Engagement: The Afghan Taliban’s Diplomatic Dilemma
Dr Angana Kotokey, Research Associate, VIF
Introduction

With the Afghan Taliban back as the new rulers of Kabul since August 2021, the regime has found itself caught in a diplomatic conundrum—maintaining isolationism on the one hand and engaging bilaterally with its regional neighbours and the international community on the other. The absence of the Taliban officials from the United Nations Security Council Meeting at Doha in February 2024 is one such event that reflects the regime’s quandary. This non-engagement and non-binding attitude of the Taliban regime towards international norms can cause severe political problems for the regime in the future. However, the Taliban administration this time has adopted a policy of ‘selective isolationism and engagement’ by choosing to increase bilateral cooperation with countries from the region and beyond, thereby allowing several developmental projects to begin in the country. The Taliban administration’s selective decision on participation is being greatly influenced by two important socio-political concerns—the issue of women's rights and the formation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan that determine the regime's dilemma between isolation and engagement. The following article, therefore, shall discuss these two primary key drivers in the Taliban’s ‘isolationist policy’.

Taliban Administration and its Strategy of Selective Isolationism

Since the Taliban takeover, the international community has been speculating on the new administration’s probable diplomatic behaviour, making comparisons with the last administration of the Taliban’s first Islamic Emirate (1996-2001). Despite showing flexibility in engaging with the neighbouring countries, the Taliban is seen as maintaining its traditional stance of isolationism in terms of agreeing to international norms/laws and participating in specific global platforms. The Taliban who has been expressing interest in seeking recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan from the international community is at the same time apprehensive about participating in discussions and meetings on the future of Afghanistan, issues relating to the question of establishing an inclusive government in the country, and several other socio-political concerns that are being faced by the regime in the present times. The Taliban administration has been highly critical of events and conferences like the Herat Security Dialogue [1] that discuss the current governance system and the democratic future of Afghanistan since the Taliban came back to power and refers to these discussions as personal opinions of selective people that do not lead to any consequences for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA). [2] Several officials from the previous government, political figures opposed to the current Taliban administration, analysts, and experts from various fields have been participating regularly in such events to address the situation in Afghanistan. [3] Taliban has repeatedly expressed its reservation concerning the presence of political leaders from the former Republican government along with several leaders belonging to different resistance groups in these meetings who are calling for a unified action plan to fight the Taliban. [4] Further, the Taliban administration in February 2024 refused to participate in a United Nations-led conference on Afghanistan in Doha citing their hesitancy on the inclusion of several Afghan civil society members (including Afghan women) as well as groups opposed to the Taliban. The conference was the second UN-led international dialogue on Afghanistan since the Taliban came back to power, intending to appoint a UN Special Envoy. [5]

Meanwhile, it can be observed that since the takeover the Taliban 2 participated in some of the important international platforms as well. In May 2023 Afghanistan joined China and Pakistan in the 5th China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers' Dialogue in Islamabad [6], where the nations discussed reviving Afghanistan’s economy and stressed extending cooperation in the field of security—in tackling activities of groups like—Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). [7] Similarly, in October 2023 the Taliban for the first time since 2021, participated in the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, where the group expressed its ambition to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, desired to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—a flagship programme of BRI. [8] Even at the regional level, the Taliban administration in the past two years has collaborated with countries from the region and beyond—significantly with the Central Asian Republics on the economic front.

Taliban’s reservations towards attending international meetings accompanied by selective participation in some of them only reflect the regime's desire to assert control over Afghanistan without any interference from external actors. However, this approach is rooted in their historical resistance to foreign influence and traditional stance of ‘selective isolationism.’ [9] Selective Isolationism as a phenomenon is not new and at its heart lies the principle of ‘prioritization’. [10] The approach entails a deliberate attempt by a country to strategically withdraw from certain global engagements while actively getting involved in other activities, all in pursuit of safeguarding its national interests. [11] This approach by nations signifies that not all interactions or alliances serve a nation’s interest. [12] However, in today's interconnected world, isolationism comes with its own set of challenges, including economic stagnation, humanitarian crises, and limited access to international aid and development assistance. [13] Therefore, in the case of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, it can be observed that the interim administration instead of completely isolating itself from global platforms, is carefully choosing when to engage and when to disconnect from the international community. This balancing act of the Taliban regime highlights that the administration recognizes the importance of engaging with the international community to address issues related to economic reconstruction, counterterrorism, and seek humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan’s stability. [14]

In the meantime, it is important to note that the selective isolationism approach of the Taliban is primarily a calculated move of the regime and is determined by significant key drivers in the current socio-political scenario in Afghanistan.

Women's Rights and the Formation of Inclusive government- the Key Drivers in Taliban’s Isolationist Policy

Between selectively isolating and increasing engagements with the outside world, the Taliban appears to be in a dilemma when it comes to participating in discussions concerning the rights of women in Afghanistan. The last UN-led conference on Afghanistan in Doha is a clear example that explains this dichotomy. Fawzia Koofi, a former member of the Afghan parliament, on X (formerly Twitter) stated that “The Taliban’s refusal to participate in the Doha Conference and engage in a meaningful dialogue with all sides, especially the brave women of Afghanistan, shows the group’s lack of interest in seeking a durable political settlement.” [15] Strategically, their non-participation in discussions related to Afghan women's rights in the country represents the regime’s minimal interest in complying with international human rights norms which is leading to immense gender-based discrimination in the country.

It is important to understand that the Taliban’s approach towards interpreting women's rights in Afghanistan is one of the primary reasons for the latter facing enormous restrictions in the country, thus depriving them of participation in public life. Their limited involvement explains the regime's conservative interpretation of Islamic Law because many of the anti-education edicts for women stand against the very foundation of Islam. [16] Moreover, the education of girls and women is universally accepted in more than 200 countries and territories, including nearly 50 Muslim-majority nations. [17] Therefore, the Taliban’s views towards their women can be understood as part of their own interpretation of the religious tenets. In addition to the religious angle, there is an ongoing effort made by the Taliban to re-position the power of the Emir—by promoting his religious interpretation within the Afghan society and the international community as well. [18] After Hibatullah Akhundzada endorsed the Taliban Chief Justice Abdul Hakim Haqqani's book The Islamic Emirate and Its System (which widely explains the political philosophy behind the Taliban’s policies) [19], it has become apparent that the Taliban regime wants to conveniently promote and impose a selective understanding of the religious text. [20] The Chief Justice’s book which can be considered as the Taliban’s manifesto has led to widespread criticism from across all sections of the society, including religious scholars from other Muslim nations. [21] Therefore, the Taliban’s selective non-participation in meetings that discuss the position of women in Afghanistan’s socio-political setting, can be understood from this perspective that the regime is reluctant to enter into debates and discussions with the world community including the Islamic community concerning the rights of girls and Afghan women.

Apart from the issue of women's representation, on the question of forming an inclusive government in Afghanistan; the Taliban has been firm in their belief that their government includes people belonging to different ethnic communities and is not dominated by Pashtuns alone as misinterpreted by many. Therefore, the Taliban at different multi-lateral forums is seen demanding that the international community recognize them as the sole governing entity in Afghanistan. Their reservation in attending events that discuss the political future of Afghanistan is partially because several officials from the previous republican regime are present in these gatherings, and demanding inclusivity in the Taliban administration. However, it is important to mention that in Afghanistan’s political history, the term inclusive government has been contested each time a new regime emerged to power. After the Taliban’s ouster from power in 2001 following the U.S.-led intervention, the efforts to establish an inclusive government at the Bonn Conference in Germany gave the exiled warlords of the country a clean slate and an opportunity to participate in the subsequent power-sharing arrangement. [22] While some of the Taliban who were ready to lay down their arms and enter into some negotiation were not invited to the Bonn Conference; which the critics view as one of the greatest mistakes made in the political history of Afghanistan that later prolonged the conflict in the country. [23] Moreover, from 2001-2021, the republican government in Afghanistan with the backing from the international community exercised a monopoly in choosing members for their government, which need not necessarily appear all-encompassing both ethnically as well as religiously. After 20 years and since August 2021, the Taliban who has established the interim administration are seen exercising the same authority in deciding whom to include and exclude from the current regime. However, with small numbers of Tajiks and Uzbeks serving in the current Taliban administration, the latter have repeatedly claimed that their government is all-inclusive with officials coming from different ethnicities.[24]

The only concern that lies in exercising monopoly in making decisions either regarding the rights of women or towards establishing an all-inclusive government structure is that the Taliban regime has completely kept the urban women population out of the public domain which will naturally escalate the resentment against the current government. In addition, the Taliban’s present cabinet gives evidence of the regime’s practice of sectarianism. Therefore, it has become important for the Taliban regime to understand that their continued practice of gender-based discrimination along with some form of ethnic hegemony is likely to pose a serious challenge to them in the future. (It is indeed true that rather than all the Pashtuns, the Taliban has accepted only those Pashtuns in their government who have supported or sympathized with their movement).

Re-evaluating the Consequence of the Taliban’s Selective Isolationism: If Any?

The international community quite similar to the Taliban regime appears to be in quandary when it comes to engaging with the new administration in Afghanistan. Countries in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood, and those from beyond the region, are stuck between fulfilling their strategic concerns vis-à-vis Afghanistan on the one hand and deciding on ethics and adhering to human rights responsibilities on the other. Since the Taliban takeover, countries have found themselves in the dilemma of wanting to condemn and hold accountable the Taliban regime for persecuting women and girls and denying them their basic rights, harbouring terrorists, and failing to govern inclusively, but also wanting Afghanistan to avoid famine, civil war and achieve some form of economic and political stability.[25] It appears that the current geopolitical and strategic conditions have been determining countries’ expanding cooperation and engagement with the Taliban regime despite them being conscious of the latter’s harsh principles towards Afghan women and their systematic exclusion from various public spaces. As a result, nations have adopted different approaches towards the Taliban 2, which was recently observed after reports surfaced of Russia considering removing the Afghan Taliban from its list of terrorist organizations. [26] Meanwhile, China on the other hand in its diplomatic outreach with the Taliban in January 2024 recognized a Taliban representative, Bilal Karimi, as an official envoy to Beijing. [27] Although China has not officially recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government in Afghanistan, it has been regularly engaging with them on bilateral and through several multilateral platforms. Moreover, in December 2023, addressing members of the U.N. Security Council, Roza Otunbayeva, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, also said engagement does not mean legitimizing the Taliban rule.[28] She pleaded for increasing engagement with the Taliban after requesting the latter to change their discriminatory policies and adhere to the international treaties and conventions that Afghanistan has signed previously. [29]

Overall, it appears that the international community has not been successful in compelling the Taliban to reconsider its gendered-based discriminatory policies after countries extensively engaged with the Taliban for strategic and economic concerns. The Taliban on the other hand have been firm in their demands related to being recognized as the only governing entity in Afghanistan. The need of the hour is to convince the Taliban regime that economic cooperation with countries is possible only if they agree to decrease restrictions imposed on the women folk of the country. Extending engagement with the Taliban without any pre-conditions can only lead to further chaos in the country with spill-over effects on the region. Therefore, the current administration in Afghanistan should embrace pragmatism and compromise to secure international recognition and support. Finally, it is only through sustained dialogue, cooperation, and goodwill that Afghanistan under the Taliban can hope to overcome challenges and build a more stable, prosperous, and inclusive future for all its citizens.

References

[1] The Herat Security Dialogue (HSD) is an annual international conference, held by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS). It is attended by government officials, international organization delegates, legislators, academic experts, distinguished journalists, business delegates, media and civil society representatives from Afghanistan, the region, and wider international community. The 11th Herat Security Conference on the theme "Reimagining Afghanistan: Ways Forward" took place on November 27 and 28, 2023, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (https://www.aissonline.org/en/initiative/details/old/herat-security-dialogue-ix
[2] https://ecrats.org/en/security_situation/situation/7554/
[3] https://www.aissonline.org/en/initiative/details/herat-security-dialogue-xi
[4] https://thediplomat.com/2023/12/tajikistan-and-the-taliban-a-lone-voice-in-central-asia/
[5] https://www.voanews.com/a/taliban-refuse-to-attend-un-conference-on-afghanistan/7491900.html
[6] https://www.mfa.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202305/t20230509_11073522.html
[7] http://mk.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/zgyw/202305/t20230509_11073522.htm
[8] https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/china-pakistan-include-taliban-ruled-afghanistan-in-belt-and-road-initiative20230510165437/
[9] https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-17387
[10] Eric A Nordlinger, Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy for a New Century, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1995
[11] https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9780203425916-8/triumph-isolationism-thomas-guinsburg
[12] https://www.jstor.org/stable/42896732?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
[13] Ibid
[14] https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/337-talibans-neighbourhood-regional-diplomacy-afghanistan
[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/19/world/asia/taliban-boycott-united-nations-conference-afghanistan.html
[16] https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2024/4/1/taliban-ban-on-girls-education-defies-both-worldly-and-religious-logic
[17] https://www.rferl.org/a/taliban-girls-education-islam-takeover-anniversary/32546094.html
[18] Ibid
[19] https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2023/09/chief-justice-book-review-FINAL-.pdf
[20] https://aissonline.org/Uploads/PublicationEnglishFiles/an-inquiry-into-taliban-theology-english-7368.pdf
[21] https://zantimes.com/2023/09/20/a-critical-reading-of-the-talibans-misogynistic-manifesto-the-islamic-emirate-and-its-system/
[22] https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2024/2/17/the-inclusive-afghan-government-afghans-do-not-want
[23] https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2011/12/5/bonn-talks-on-afghanistan-doomed-to-fail
[24] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/whos-who-in-taliban-interim-government/2360424
[25] https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/10/shift-toward-more-engagement-taliban
[26] https://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/papers/responding-to-the-talibans-diplomacy-for-international-recognition/
[27] Ruchi Kumar, “Why has China recognised Taliban’s envoy to Beijing?”, Aljazeera, 14 February 2024, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/2/14/is-chinas-recognition-of-afghanistan-envoy-a-diplomatic-win-for-taliban.
[28] https://www.voanews.com/a/un-calls-for-more-direct-engagement-with-taliban/7406055.html
[29] https://www.voanews.com/a/un-calls-for-more-direct-engagement-with-taliban/7406055.html

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