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Who will blink first? Recognising the Taliban in Afghanistan

Who will blink first? Recognising the Taliban in Afghanistan

Sophie Ibbotson is the Chairman of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs and a consultant on economic development and water conflict in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

My prediction for 2024 is that the Taliban will soon be given diplomatic recognition as the official government of Afghanistan. Embassies and consulates will start to reopen, sanctions will be lifted, trade deals will be struck, and many international organisations will return. The message we heard so consistently from the international community in 2021, that recognition would only be granted in exchange for an inclusive government and a commitment to human rights, will be quietly put aside. The collective rhetoric, even if well meant at the time, has not resulted in the desired leverage on the Taliban, and key international players have an unfortunate tendency to allow short term economic and political self interest to trump ideology and ethics.

I want to make it clear up front that I am not advocating recognising the Taliban. Rather, I think the process is already underway, and the purpose of writing this blog is to draw attention to the indicators and explain them. When the Afghan Government collapsed and the Taliban took control in summer 2021, too many otherwise well-informed people were shocked. The diplomatic recognition of the Taliban need not come as such a surprise.

As of January 2024, more than 20 countries already have de facto diplomatic ties with the Taliban, albeit at varying levels. We can, perhaps, discount the actions of countries like Belarus and Venezuela as performative allyship, but there are also some critical – and, in some cases, unexpected — regional players on the list. In countries neighbouring Afghanistan, Taliban diplomats have thus far been accredited and are working at embassies and consulates in Iran, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has accredited the Taliban’s charge d’affaires in Moscow; and in December 2023, China formally accepted the Taliban’s ambassador to Beijing, becoming the first country to do so. Though India has closed the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi, it acknowledges that the Afghan consulates in Hyderabad and Mumbai have relations with the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry. India reopened its own embassy in Kabul in 2022, joining China, Japan, Qatar, Russia, and a dozen other states.

Elsewhere, multilateral organisations have begun removing some of the legal hurdles which would make future recognition of the Taliban difficult. The United Nations Security Council no longer designates the Taliban as a terrorist organisation and has removed it from the Consolidated United Nations Security Council Sanctions List. (Organisations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State remain on the list, as do some individually-named Taliban officials with terrorism links). Countries including Australia and Kazakhstan have taken this as their cue to remove the Taliban from their own lists of proscribed organisations. Interestingly, Russia has not followed suit, in spite of the above-mentioned diplomatic ties, and still designates the Taliban as a terrorist group. Nikola Mikovic, writing in the Diplomatic Courier, suggests that amending this could be used as a bargaining chip, a “goodwill gesture” offered in exchange for the Taliban’s recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and other Ukrainian territories.

In the press and in policy discourse, the call for diplomatic recognition of the Taliban is growing. Foreign Policy and The New York Times have both published impassioned opinion pieces in its favour, making a variety of arguments. The voices lobbying for recognition have diverse agendas, some of which put the needs of Afghans first, and others which are driven by self interest.

According to the World Bank, in 2023, 40% of Afghans were still experiencing crisis levels of acute food insecurity, and the real sector of the economy had contracted for the past two years. Unless sanctions are lifted and international banks become less reluctant to process financial transactions, the prospects for economic recovery are poor. In The New York Times’ article referenced above, Kathy Gannon suggests that the absence of an international presence in Kabul has enabled Taliban hardliners to tighten their grip; but in theory, a diplomatic return could help empower those who advocate international engagement and have a (albeit relatively) more liberal world view. 

It would be naive to say that the dominant push-factor for recognising the Taliban is the wellbeing of Afghans, however. In a best case scenario, it would be a positive side effect. Writing in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Veena Ramachandran and Amit Kumar lay out clearly China’s priorities: neutralising perceived threats from Uighur militants; exploiting Afghanistan’s unexplored mineral wealth; and growing the market for Chinese goods. The Central Asian republics and Azerbaijan, too, have a vested interest in normalising diplomatic relations to facilitate regional trade and execute joint projects such the construction of the TAPI pipeline and the Trans-Afghan Railway. It would also make it easier to reach trans-boundary water sharing agreements, reducing the threat posed by projects such as the Qosh Tepa Canal

If I had to make an informed guess which major player would give the Taliban full diplomatic recognition first, it would be China. That act would lay down a gauntlet to the US, challenging them to do likewise. The US is already represented in Kabul through its proxy, Qatar, but that arrangement offers far less influence than a fully fledged diplomatic relationship. The US won’t want Afghanistan entirely within China’s orbit, especially when mining rights and infrastructure contracts are on the table; and for US banks and businesses to be anything more than frustrated bystanders, there needs to be diplomatic predictability and a removal of sanctions and the corresponding financial, legal, and reputational risks. I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me exactly when the US will be forced to take this step, but what I am confident about is that it will trigger a chain reaction of other countries following Washington’s lead.

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA

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