America Can’t Isolate the Taliban

At a ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in late January, Chinese President Xi Jinping accepted the credentials of the Taliban’s newly appointed Afghan ambassador to China. Although the step did not amount to formal recognition of the Taliban, Xi’s upgrade of relations marks the most significant challenge to a United States-led consensus against normalization with the Afghan regime. “China believes that Afghanistan should not be excluded from the international community,” a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said at a press briefing after the event.

In fact, it was only the latest example of the challenges the United States now faces in its handling of the Taliban. Since the conservative Islamist movement’s return to power in August 2021, the world has struggled to deal with a repressive regime that rules over 40 million Afghans in a strategically vital part of Eurasia. The approach that the United States and its allies and partners ultimately converged on was a commitment to continue engaging with the Afghan people—for example by providing substantial humanitarian aid—while at the same time withholding diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime and the benefits that usually come with normal diplomatic relations.

Over the past two years, the United States has sought to build on this approach—not only by withholding its own recognition of the Taliban but also by sustaining an international consensus on nonrecognition. In part, this position is punitive in nature, intended to signal rejection of the Taliban’s legitimacy. But the approach is also rooted in the logic that, by maintaining a united front, international and regional powers could shame and pressure the Taliban into changing their ways. The Biden administration has made clear that it aims to use the threat of diplomatic isolation to induce the Taliban to improve their behavior in three core areas: respecting human rights, especially women’s rights; cracking down on terrorist activity on Afghan soil; and embracing a more inclusive governance structure that reflects the country’s diverse ethnic, religious, and tribal communities.

Two and a half years into Taliban rule, however, the United States has little to show for this approach. For one thing, the Taliban appear to be unmoved by global shaming, in particular when it comes to what they deem domestic affairs, such as the question of girls’ access to higher education and women’s right to work. Instead, Taliban leaders have portrayed international pressure as a violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty, framing calls by Western leaders to uphold international norms as the latest episode in a long history of interference and intervention. As the Taliban have become more established in power, moreover, they have doubled down on a posture of resistance. As a result, rather than moderate their policies, they have pressed forward with further restrictions on women and social norms.

The U.S. approach is also struggling because a growing number of governments, like China’s, are not treating the Taliban as a pariah regime. The Taliban have mounted vigorous diplomatic efforts to court neighboring states, and in spite of serious tensions with Pakistan for supporting anti-Pakistan insurgents, several powers in the region have been willing to accommodate. These states are among foreign governments that have embassies in Kabul and that host Afghan embassies overseas. In January, several of these powers, including China, Iran, and Russia, even took part in a multilateral conference of their own hosted by the Taliban. While Xi’s January ceremony for the Taliban ambassador broke new ground, it also corresponded with moves by Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and even India toward greater normalization with Kabul.

The erosion of the consensus on diplomatic isolation of the Taliban raises important questions for Washington and its partners. Nonrecognition is no longer a credible coercive tool, and if the United States seeks to influence Taliban behavior, it must find other ways to achieve its desired aims. Moreover, the Afghan case echoes similar situations Washington has faced with other difficult regimes, including its failure to prevent Arab countries from normalizing ties with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, despite crimes committed during the Syrian civil war, or to enforce a global consensus on the isolation of Russian President Vladimir Putin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Today, attempts by the United States to impose pariah status on regimes it doesn’t like are running up against serious limits.

COLD-SHOULDER CONSENSUS

During the Taliban’s final military campaign to retake Kabul in the summer of 2021, the United States repeatedly warned the group that any return to power by force would result in “global pariah” status for the Taliban. This policy went into force by default the moment the Taliban entered the Afghan capital. Foreign aid to Afghanistan was immediately suspended, most Western embassies in Kabul evacuated staff, and the United States froze $7 billion in Afghan central bank assets that were held in U.S. banks. There was also a direct precedent for withholding recognition: only three countries recognized the first Taliban regime in the 1990s, and the United Nations never admitted Taliban representatives to the General Assembly. The group, and many of its individual members, have remained under UN and U.S. sanctions ever since.

Once the international evacuation from Kabul was completed, the multiple channels of communication that had sprung up between Washington and the Taliban in the years before the U.S. withdrawal evaporated. The primary diplomatic channel, in which U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad was soon succeeded by Tom West, remained open, but only to meet with Taliban representatives in Doha, where the U.S. State Department established a U.S. embassy-in-exile. The day after the Taliban takeover, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out the Biden administration’s view on the requirements for diplomatic recognition: “A future Afghan government that upholds the basic rights of its people and that doesn’t harbor terrorists is a government we can work with and recognize,” he said.

For several months after the takeover, U.S. officials refrained from making definitive statements on the question of recognition, maintaining that consideration of the issue would be based “solely on [the Taliban’s] actions.” But soon, U.S. policy took a more coercive turn. In various international forums, the United States urged a unified tough diplomatic approach toward the Taliban, seeking more than mere punitive action: top officials voiced expectations of behavioral change. In September 2021 at the United Nations, Blinken asserted that the world “must stay united in holding the Taliban to their commitments in key areas.” In late 2021, before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration attempted to build consensus even among U.S. adversaries on a way forward with the Taliban, sending U.S. officials to meet with their Russian and Chinese counterparts in Pakistan.

March 2022 proved to be a turning point for the U.S. approach. For months, the Taliban leadership in Kabul had assured the world that Afghan secondary schools for girls—which the Taliban had shuttered throughout much of the country—would be reopened. On the day of the planned reopening, however, Taliban emir Haibatullah Akhundzada overruled officials in Kabul and extended the ban indefinitely. Additional waves of restrictions on women and girls followed. As a result, by mid-2022, U.S. officials began to make the normalization of relations with Afghanistan explicitly conditional on Kabul improving its record on human rights and women’s rights. In August 2023, Blinken emphasized that the United States would “block” any normal relationship between the Taliban and other countries unless and until respect for the rights of women and girls, among other criteria, were met.

By early 2023, this approach appeared to be gaining broader international support. Western allies with similar domestic politics shared or surpassed the United States’ human rights concerns from the start. But other countries, including China, Iran, and even Russia, were supporting nonrecognition of the Taliban and the coercive logic implicit in it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared in April 2023 that Moscow would not recognize the Taliban regime unless it fulfilled international obligations; Russia emphasized “inclusivity of [Afghanistan’s] governing bodies.” At a May 2023 conference for special envoys on Afghanistan, UN Secretary-General António Guterres affirmed that the entire world was seeking to continue engaging with Afghanistan and addressing its many challenges but also agreed that the Taliban should not be granted formal diplomatic recognition.

KABUL RECONSIDERED

In the early weeks of 2024, the Biden administration sought to sustain the international consensus for its approach to the Taliban. Guterres convened a second meeting of special envoys in February to deliberate on a coordinated, collective approach to international engagement with Afghanistan. But just weeks prior to the UN gathering, Xi’s decision to formally greet the Taliban’s ambassador in Beijing complicated that effort, significantly chipping away at global opposition to normalization with Kabul. Although Chinese officials denied that the ceremony constituted diplomatic recognition, it was hard to miss the symbolism of the move—which came after months of warming relations between Beijing and Kabul. Already in September 2023, China also appointed an ambassador to lead its mission in Kabul.

Receiving this treatment from China is the Taliban’s biggest foreign policy achievement to date—and a capstone of the regime’s efforts to engage more intensively with neighboring powers. Along with the regional diplomatic conference it staged in January], the Taliban-led government in Kabul now hosts 18 foreign embassies, and the regime has almost as many Afghan embassies abroad. Taliban leaders have also steadily expanded economic ties with various countries in the greater region, including far neighbors such as Azerbaijan. Even India, the regional power that has been most wary of the Taliban takeover, reopened its embassy in Kabul in 2022 and in 2023 allowed the Taliban to take control of the Afghan embassy in New Delhi. India is also reviving development projects in Afghanistan, such as a planned $265 million dam, in coordination with the Taliban.

As of early 2024, nearly every country in the region has normalized relations with the Taliban, in spite of common concerns about the stability of Afghanistan and the potential for spillover effects into their borders. U.S. adversaries like China, Iran, and Russia may also be motivated by strategic rivalry with the United States—even if U.S. officials insist that Washington does not regard Afghanistan as a major focus of geopolitical competition. These states appear concerned and even alarmed about reports of U.S. intelligence activity in Afghanistan. Though top Russian officials frequently point to Afghanistan under the Taliban as a growing node of terrorism, Moscow may be even more worried about the hypothetical military and intelligence foothold that stronger U.S.-Taliban ties might lead to. China may be monitoring the discussion of Afghanistan in U.S. domestic debate—taking note, for example, of former President Donald Trump’s November 2023 comment that the United States should enter a deal with the Taliban to regain control of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as a way to keep an eye on western China.

Nonrecognition is no longer a credible coercive tool.

Analysts disagree on why Russia and China have not taken the final step of recognizing the Taliban regime. One possibility is that both powers still seek more assurances from Kabul, especially concerning potential terrorist threats from Islamic State Khorasan and a number of other groups. And as long as the United States actively promotes a nonrecognition strategy, Moscow and Beijing can reap many of the benefits of recognizing the Taliban without having to formally buck the international consensus. Thus, they can reassure the Taliban they are on their side (for example by backing them in last December’s UN Security Council proceedings, defending Taliban positions on the recommendations of a recent UN assessment) while also withholding full recognition.

But this hedge by China and Russa should not obscure the significance of their recent overtures to Kabul. The timing of the Chinese ceremony in January, for example, sends a powerful message: it came at the same moment that Pakistan was attempting to pressure the Taliban to deny a haven to the anti-Pakistan insurgent group Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan. By embracing the Taliban more closely now, China is hanging Pakistan, its closest regional ally, out to dry. A friendly relationship with Kabul appears more valuable to Beijing than a coercive one, even when the latter advances the interests of an important ally.

Overall, the effect of these moves is unmistakable: despite U.S. threats in 2021 and concerted U.S. efforts to maintain an international consensus on nonrecognition, the Taliban are not being treated as a pariah regime. On the contrary, the region, led by China, is gradually normalizing with Kabul—and intends to continue doing so. The Taliban, for their part, are being validated by this expanding engagement. Their sense of confidence and a loss of patience with conditions-based, Western-backed engagement was evident in their refusal to attend the UN meeting of Afghan envoys in February. The Taliban were not invited to last year’s summit, and so they rejected the new meeting as “ineffective and counterproductive.” Likely emboldened by Beijing treating them as a normal regime, the Taliban responded to the UN’s invitation by insisting they be treated as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, naming conditions that Guterres deemed “unacceptable.”

THE LIMITS OF PARIAH PRESSURE

For over two years, the U.S. approach to Afghanistan has been tethered to the notion that withholding recognition of the Taliban is the strongest form of leverage that Washington possesses. But the regional drift away from nonrecognition and toward de facto normalization with the Taliban has actively eroded that assumption. With new sources of support, the Taliban have less reason to submit to Western demands on human rights or inclusiveness in their government. Observing that they can gain clout with major powers like China, Taliban leaders have become impatient with conditional engagement. Thus, last year’s multilateral attempts to marshal a more effective international engagement strategy toward Afghanistan has instead raised the Taliban’s ire. According to Taliban insiders, a Western-backed process that requires them to make significant concessions is a step backward from the warming relations they are enjoying elsewhere.

Ironically, there is no evidence that withholding recognition has induced the Taliban to meet even the expectations of some regional governments. Kabul’s continued support of the terrorist group Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, in defiance of Pakistan, is the most glaring example of this problem. Although the United States and other countries have suggested that the Taliban has made some progress in combating Islamic State Khorasan, such efforts appear to be motivated by the Taliban’s own interests. But even if there was potential at an earlier stage for nonrecognition to compel the Taliban toward internationally acceptable norms—a hypothesis for which there is little hard evidence—the de facto normalization that has taken place with China, India, Russia, and other powers has now made that impossible.

Beyond its immediate implications for Afghanistan, the failure of Washington’s existing Taliban approach highlights the growing challenges to U.S. diplomatic power around the world. Amid two major wars and intensifying strategic competition with China, the United States faces new difficulties in forging a collective international response to pressing global crises. Meanwhile, China and regional actors are charting their own diplomatic paths, and regimes that the United States seeks to pressure can often find enough friends to defy Washington and maneuver for diplomatic gain. The Arab League’s readmission of Assad last year and the economic relations that many countries, including India, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, have maintained with Russia since the war in Ukraine began show the limits of U.S.-led ostracism.

If U.S. policymakers want to withhold recognition of a regime simply because that regime is violating international norms, and not in an effort to gain leverage, there are strong grounds for doing that. Indeed, the principle of not engaging with a regime that engages in gender apartheid or that continues to be friendly with various terrorist groups is compelling. If nothing else, U.S. domestic politics are likely to drive a policy of nonrecognition. But if policymakers are seeking to use nonrecognition to compel a regime to reconsider its policies, they are likely to meet failure. Thus, a coercive approach that only involves the United States and likeminded allies, without the full support of China and other regional powers, is unlikely to prove effective. And in the case of Afghanistan, it is a leaky ship that the Taliban may ultimately manage to sink.

Loading…

You may also like...