The Upside of Taliban Recognition

As the Taliban have managed to control Afghanistan’s territory effectively, the recognition of the group may prove to be the most viable option for the U.S. and allies to control the group’s behavior, secure their regional interest, and contain any intervention by foreign intelligence agencies.

Humanitarian crises in Afghanistan have been worsened by the COVID-19 outbreak and its fragile health system. Afghans are currently facing, apart from the COVID-19, acute watery diarrhoea; measles; dengue fever; and malaria. As of January 2022, 7,377 COVID-19-related deaths have been reported out of 158,677 cases. Out of its 40 million population, only 4,910,204 have been fully vaccinated (which is 13% of vaccination rate). International state actors and non-governmental organizations who are dispatching their humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan are being faced with the worsening political instability, in particular since the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops and the complete takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. Taliban’s takeover of the country by force has brought about far-reaching political, governance, and institutional uncertainties in the international arena. First, states and international organizations, one of which is the United Nations, are facing a fragile bargaining power since the former president Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Second, there is no other party claiming to power since the first vice president Amrullah Shaleh also fled to Tajikistan, ever since the Taliban have been in effective control of the country. And last but not least, there remains a heated debate about whether to recognize the Taliban as the de jure government of Afghanistan. This institutional vacuum presents states three choices; whether not to recognize Taliban as the de jure government of Afghanistan, to recognize them by/without entering into diplomatic and other bilateral and multilateral relations; or to make de jure recognition conditional upon a set of criteria, each of which carries its own considerable consequences for both the recognizing states and Afghanistan.

International practice among states espouses that the recognition of a new government of a state depends upon its effective control of the State’s territory. The legitimacy of a government, however, depends neither on its constitutionality nor its being democratic or authoritarian. The issue of recognition or lack thereof is therefore a matter of political interest of the recognizing or de-recognizing states, rather than that of a legal matter. Nevertheless, the decision of whether to recognize or not to recognize a state carries with it considerable consequences to all parties concerned. Under international law, if states were to not recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, the current government of the group, which they declared as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, shall not be entitled to their currently frozen assets abroad, Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), and other state rights and privileges solely enjoyed within the remit of recognition of other states. As an unrecognized entity, however, the Taliban is still subject to international humanitarian law, as a non-state armed group, hence subject to international obligation and punishment for their preceding human rights violations.

If states were to recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, the group will be entitled to the currently frozen assets and ARTF and other state rights and privileges, which can serve as both political and institutional resources for the Taliban in their nation-building efforts. The Taliban will also represent Afghanistan in the United Nations, shall be eligible to enter into diplomatic relations, negotiations, and enter into multilateral treaties and conventions, and shall be treated under international law accordingly with respect to state duties and obligations. By using political-legal approach from the perspective of state practices in international arena with regard to recognition of a new government of a state and lack thereof, the recognition of the Taliban as government of Afghanistan by other states shall serve as both the most viable means and diplomatic tool so as to hold the Taliban accountable for their human rights violations and to control their behavior. While recognition based on constitutionality and democracy is not possible, the recognition — but not necessarily diplomatic relations — is inevitable if states are to keep track of international stability, considering that the Taliban has been in effective control and there is no other entity claiming to hold the power.

Another favorable aspect of Taliban recognition — provided that U.S. and allies reopen their embassies in Afghanistan — is an advantageous tool for an up-close monitoring of the group’s governance and its human rights record to the group’s rank and file’s behavior on the ground and other interventions by foreign intelligence agencies. U.S. and allies must realize that the aggregate risks of their absence in Afghanistan outweighs the supposed likelihood of the changing behavior of the Taliban in consequence of the U.S. and allies’ concerted commitments to only recognize the group, conditional upon a set of criteria. History proves that the absence of U.S. and allies’ engagement in Afghanistan during the group’s rise to power in the late 1990s precipitated competitive advantages for Pakistani intelligence and Benazir Bhutto’s government in covertly supplying the Taliban billions of dollars and military equipment to support the training camps, in the aftermath of which the jihad volunteers would be dispatched to Kashmir region, and to support Bhutto’s government in securing trade routes in Central Asian countries in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Taking history into account, U.S. and allies’ engagement in Afghanistan shall serve as the most doable option to contain Pakistani regional power. It is also widely known that China, Iran, and Russia have expressed their willingness to engage with the Taliban to secure regional stability, the three states that the group most likely hold dear the most due to their non-interference policy. While the international state practice regarding the recognition of a new government of a state has evolved to include respect for human rights and compliance with international law as requisites for recognition in addition to effective control, the U.S. and allies must not lose track of what is equally important: their formal engagement with the Taliban, by establishing diplomatic relations, shall serve more of their interests; influence the group through soft power diplomacy and maintain their behavior while securing their national interest and managing any possibility of direct or indirect interventions by foreign intelligence agencies.

In the end, states and other international actors must realize the utter importance of stable policies, governance, and institutions of Afghanistan. Having been in effective control over the country, states and international organizations must ensure that they engage with the Taliban through discussion and negotiation with regard to their regional behavior vis-a-vis key competitors in the region. If turning Afghanistan into a new Cold War arena, so be it. What will prove to make a big difference — in the next two decades — is whether the U.S. and allies now decide to engage or turn their eyes blind to the threats posed by the current political landscape in Afghanistan.

Aulia Shifa Hamida is a former research intern at the Afghanistan Security Institute. She is a freelance journalist and interested in Central Asian and Middle Eastern politics.

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