The Debate

Don’t Normalize the Taliban’s Despotic Regime

Recent Features

The Debate | Opinion | South Asia

Don’t Normalize the Taliban’s Despotic Regime

It’s unconscionable to take the side of a brutal dictatorship.

Don’t Normalize the Taliban’s Despotic Regime

An Afghan woman weaves a carpet at a traditional carpet factory in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, March 6, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

As former senior diplomats – from the United States and Afghanistan – we understand the power of recognition and legitimacy. As women, we see with great concern a dangerous trend of international normalizing of the Taliban’s despotic regime. International policymakers must firmly reject Taliban recognition and try harder to safeguard human rights, or else millions of Afghan women will continue to face desperate circumstances while terrorist groups populate Afghanistan.

Al Jazeera recently published a plea from the Taliban’s “foreign minister” for diplomatic recognition and direct cooperation, and relief from terrorism-related sanctions, mainly on the grounds that the regime had ended violence. That’s news to the Afghan women for whom violence and terror have simply moved into their homes; the U.N. reports newly rampant levels of abuse against women, forced and child marriage, and violence against women who dare to protest.

The Taliban is ruling Afghanistan more and more despotically since it took over the country in 2021. And yet, every day, the international community’s resolve to curb the regime’s growing brutality seems to be waning, headed toward a trajectory of normalizing that rule, with some countries accepting Taliban diplomats.

Indeed, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen’s late 2022 meeting with his opposite number in the Taliban suggests the U.S. contemplates a security relationship with the Taliban. Tom West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, has floated this idea while referring to the Islamic State as our “common enemy.” That’s an alarming miscalculation.

There should be no illusions that the Taliban, as prescribed in the discredited Doha agreement signed three years ago, is doing anything to weed out the presence of terrorist groups on Afghan soil, which is why they are under U.N. sanction. Beyond the presence of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul last July, there is growing evidence that the problem has metastasized with multiple terrorist groups setting up shop. A February 13 report to the U.N. Security Council by the U.N. committee monitoring the implementation of sanctions against al-Qaida and the Islamic State offered a thorough indictment:  “Afghanistan remains the primary source of terrorist threat for Central and South Asia… These [terrorist] groups enjoy greater freedom of movement in Afghanistan owing to the absence of an effective Taliban security strategy.”

For the sake of maintaining a stable and secure region, and our moral obligation to protect other human beings in our midst, we can’t allow that to happen.

The United States Trafficking Victims Prevention Act of 2000 is explicit that enslavement of women and children constitutes trafficking even when it does not cross a border. This was an endemic problem in Afghanistan – but now private reports are surfacing that Taliban fighters are taking girls for forced marriage and threatening their families, who now have no legal means of redress.  In this hellscape, and particularly as the economy craters, more child marriages will be forced. Maternal mortality rates that had vastly improved since 2001 will surge without adequate prenatal care and hospital access. Adolescent girls presented with no prospect of education are facing “death in slow motion” and increasingly considering suicide. We make this all worse by normalizing relations with the Taliban.

Creeping normalization of relations may stem from disinterest or compassion fatigue, but most alarmingly it may also reflect a continued inability to see Afghanistan’s complexity. For example, some argue, perhaps the Taliban brings stability to a country that can’t seem to stop itself from fighting. Or maybe all this is “cultural” and we shouldn’t have tried to introduce “outsider” concepts, such as education for all.

No. The Taliban’s welcoming environment for a dizzying range of terrorist groups should be a cause for alarm, not accommodation. Political, social, and economic subjugation of women isn’t routine in even a conservative country, and Afghan culture isn’t homogenous or static. When girls were allowed to go to secondary school and universities safely, their families sent them in the millions.

Afghans who oppose the Taliban have a terribly long and painful road ahead. All parties need to hammer out a path to a just and inclusive society. Principled Afghans have little chance of rolling back Taliban control unless the world has condemned the group’s brutality and starved it of legitimacy. In view of the recent summit of democracies, it’s unconscionable to take the side of a brutal dictatorship.

The international community, with its outsized responsibility for all that has happened, cannot normalize relations with the Taliban. It is our one way to keep faith with Afghans whose futures have been hijacked.