|The situation in Afghanistan is bad, but it could be much worse|
One year has passed since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan . The number of people who lost their lives in the war had been reduced to a fraction. But the Taliban's dismantling of democracy, gross human rights abuses, the exclusion of women from education and working life and their role as hosts to Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups provide little reason for optimism. How should Norway and the rest of the world relate to the Taliban regime? Many hope that the 2021 version of the Taliban will pursue less repressive policies than they did when they last came to power in Afghanistan.
In February 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a military withdrawal agreement in exchange for guarantees to prevent international terrorist attacks from Afghan soil. That was followed by the Afghanistan negotiations. Taliban negotiators, based in Qatar, promised that under a negotiated settlement, girls would be allowed to go to school and women would be able to work and travel freely, and those who surrendered would be safe. In addition, they must advocate for a representative government.
There's a bit of this. When President Ashraf Ghani left the country on August 15 last year, the negotiated solution failed. The entry of the Taliban into Kabul is a victory for military strategy, at the expense of dialogue and diplomacy. The transition from war to political power has given rise to divisions within the Taliban. For management, the most important thing is to keep the movement itself together. The promises made during the previous negotiations are dead. The Taliban have resisted external interference. For Western countries, the desired dialogue, among others, can help the Afghan civilian population, monitor the human rights situation and limit international terrorist networks.
Nevertheless, one is drawn towards isolation. The Taliban want international recognition, but appear unfazed by outside threats or promises. From the west side, they give sanctions. The US has frozen the reserves of the National Bank of Afghanistan, and Western countries have cut off all development cooperation with the Taliban government.
This has contributed to further worsening the economic situation. This has created what the United Nations describes as the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in recent history. In the summer of 2022, the United Nations reported that 24.4 million Afghans, more than half the population, depend on humanitarian support for survival.
More than 95 percent are below the poverty line. Crops failed again, and many took loans to survive. The fear is that more people will need emergency assistance over the next winter. There is no prospect of the Taliban moving towards democracy, full respect for human rights and a focus on the well-being of the population. A recent US drone strike revealed to the whole world that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is being housed by the Taliban. For Western countries, the scope for action is limited. On the one hand, the repressive policies of the Taliban government must be separated.
Women's equality, economic development and democracy are the main justifications for major international projects over the past 20 years. But the project stands on clay feet, the government is vulnerable. Without a large outside military force, it collapsed overnight.
An important part of the responsibility for the collapse of the state must be attributed to the international community. Should one then go into maximum isolation, strengthen sanctions, cut off emergency aid and hope that it will force the Taliban to change policies, divide them politically or create a popular uprising? Or even more drastically, providing political and military support to the Afghan opposition that could challenge the Taliban militarily? Or should one continue the dialogue, contribute with emergency and limited aid through channels not controlled by the Taliban, and hope that over time the more moderate forces within the Taliban will gain more influence? A number of countries have taken a different path than the Western one. The US, Norway and others withdrew their diplomats last August. But countries such as China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan maintain their embassies in Kabul.
These countries place little importance on human rights and democracy. Their focus is on their own regional security and trade. Everyone agrees that emergency aid does not solve the fundamental challenges facing Afghanistan.
The government that has been built over the last 20 years is gradually decaying. There is a need for new momentum in the economy, but things have stalled. A prolonged crisis can trigger new migration to neighboring countries and Europe. Afghanistan has been at war for nearly 44 years. The resumption of military conflict is undesirable. That means new civilian casualties and possibly greater coverage for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS). Alternatives to a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan are few, and not necessarily much better in terms of democratic participation, human rights or corruption.
Norway has so far chosen to continue critical dialogue, including by facilitating talks between the Taliban, Afghan civil society and Western countries in Oslo in January 2022. Taliban representatives there pledged to reopen schools for girls from grades 7 to 12, but this was stopped by top manager Haibatullah Akhundzada. The Oslo meeting appears to have been a mistake. Like other Western countries, Norway has joined US and UN sanctions and continues to provide significant support outside of the Taliban. On the Security Council, Norway serves as a pen holder for Afghanistan, and has succeeded in securing a continued UN presence and an expanded mandate, including monitoring of human rights.
By many exiled Afghans as well as human rights organizations, this is branded as naivety. They see it as an implicit acceptance, if not a confession, of the Taliban.
In a recent report from the influential American think tank Rand, a group of top former diplomats advocated a more active dialogue with the Taliban. They admit that it requires political courage given the current policies and practices of the Taliban. The strategy must be strong, dialogue must be carried out through multiple channels and across levels within the Taliban government.
Interaction with the Afghan diaspora is important, just as it is important not to strangle the vulnerable engagements that are starting to form in Afghanistan, despite the Taliban's strict rules. There is no reason to believe in a dramatic change in Taliban policy in the short term. Nevertheless, Norway and other Western countries must continue the dialogue. The situation in Afghanistan is bad, but it could be much worse. And those most disadvantaged from the Western isolation line are the 40 million Afghans.