Recent Posts
Connect with:
Wednesday / November 30
HomeBlogAfghanistan and the Taliban’s Second Coming: The Need for a Concerted International Response

Afghanistan and the Taliban’s Second Coming: The Need for a Concerted International Response

Image credit: Callum Darragh

By Ahmad Farid Tookhy

This article is published as part of IPD’s project and policy paper series, Deconstructing the Changing Middle East Security Architecture.

Abstract

A year after the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the international community is still grappling with formulating a response to the situation in the country. A central issue is how to reconcile counter-terrorism with the urgency to support the people of Afghanistan. This dilemma will persist as long as the Taliban hold exclusive control over the Afghan state. Diplomacy with the Taliban by individual states is unlikely to make the group modify its positions in response to international demands. Only a formalized and unified approach to diplomacy with the group, preferably mediated by the United Nations, stands the chance of yielding political outcomes that are acceptable both to the people of Afghanistan and to major regional and global players.

Background

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 has resulted in a complex situation, leaving the world in a quandary about how to respond simultaneously to the terrorist threats emanating from the country and the humanitarian crisis afflicting its people. Two related dilemmas present themselves: the first is how to deal with the Taliban and the security threats originating from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan without harming the Afghan people; the second is how to support the people of Afghanistan without aiding or legitimizing the Taliban.

The Taliban’s assumption of power in Afghanistan has complicated the enforcement of preexisting international sanctions against the group, leading to much controversy about their knock-on effects. With sanctioned individuals and entities in charge of the institutions of the Afghan state, sanctions are effectively transferred to the already vulnerable population of Afghanistan. In particular, the provision of humanitarian aid has become problematic as no one can guarantee that such aid would not end up benefitting—directly or indirectly— the sanctioned individuals and entities.

Some ad-hoc measures have been taken to mitigate the humanitarian and economic crises in the country. For instance, through a pipeline established to transfer cash to Afghanistan, the UN has thus far imported over one billion dollars into Afghanistan to support humanitarian operations.[1] The United States has issued several general licenses to facilitate aid delivery.[2] In September, it also transferred half of the Afghan central bank’s frozen assets to a recently-established Swiss-based Afghan Fund.[3] But while these measures might somewhat facilitate the provision of aid in the short term, they cannot serve as long-term solutions to Afghanistan’s humanitarian and economic needs.

Policy Debate

The question of what kind of response might be needed to deal with the situation in Afghanistan has been the subject of much commentary over the past year.  The proffered policy recommendations converge under one of two broad analytical rubrics: opposing the Taliban, or engaging with the group.[4] The Taliban’s actions over the past year and their continued affiliation with international terrorist groups have led to calls for a more oppositional international stance toward the group.

Several factors, however, militate against a policy of outright opposition to the Taliban. The fact that the Taliban rules over a population of forty million, that Afghanistan is grappling with a deep economic and humanitarian crisis, and that a host of international terrorist groups operate in the country—all these cold hard facts suggest that opposing the Taliban would carry further humanitarian and security risks.

Moreover, there is no appetite or political will for a renewed round of military intervention in Afghanistan. Even if such political will existed, the two-decade-long US-led military campaign in the country demonstrates the disutility of a military response to the situation in Afghanistan. Undermining the Taliban risks plunging the country into yet another cycle of full-fledged civil war—a scenario that could end up boosting terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K) while aggravating Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis.

Surely, a policy of engagement with the Taliban has its own limitations and downsides. The group’s ideology, its violations of human rights,[5] as well as its social policies—especially restrictions on women and girls—mean that engagement with the group would entail domestic political costs for almost any government that chooses to do so. It is no surprise that more than a year after the Taliban’s return to power, not a single country has formally recognized their government.

Engagement has become even more difficult and limited by the sanctions regime in place and the Taliban’s continued close affinity with other terrorist groups. The United Nations Security Council has imposed sanctions on 135 senior members of the Taliban.[6] The United States has placed the Taliban and the Haqqani Network on its list of specially designated terrorist groups while designating the latter as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) as well.[7] Canada has designated the Taliban as a terrorist group.[8]

These designations, however, do not seem to have swayed the Taliban’s decision-making calculus. In May, the UN reported[9] that the Taliban had appointed forty-one of the individuals on the Security Council’s sanctions list to the cabinet and other top positions in the government. They included the prime minister, his three deputies, and fourteen ministers. Members of the influential Haqqani Network were also appointed to key positions within security institutions.

Policy Recommendations

Despite the foregoing risks and limitations, engagement with the Taliban remains the only practical way forward for dealing with the worsening crisis in Afghanistan. Deputy UN Special Representative in Afghanistan, Markus Potzel, began his recent briefing to the UN Security Council by stating that “patience is running out by many in the international community regarding a strategy of engagement with Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities.” He ended his briefing, however, by noting that “continued qualified engagement” stood the most realistic chance of promoting a governing arrangement in Afghanistan that would benefit the country’s people while respecting international norms.[10]

The crucial point is the character of engagement with the Taliban and its overall objective. Engagement with the Taliban must be done through a UN-mediated formal mechanism aimed at the formation of an inclusive governing arrangement in Afghanistan. Diplomacy with the Taliban by individual states is unlikely to make the group modify its positions in response to international demands. Through such one-to-one diplomacy with the Taliban, individual states seek to secure their short-term interests in Afghanistan. This pattern of one-on-one engagement with the Taliban will likely lead to intensified geopolitical competition in Afghanistan. It will also allow the Taliban to withstand international pressures by entering into distinct quid-pro-quo arrangements with individual countries.  

Only a formalized and unified approach to diplomacy with the Taliban stands the chance of yielding political outcomes that are acceptable both to the people of Afghanistan and to major regional and global players. The United Nations should adopt a more proactive approach to the situation in Afghanistan. In this regard, one option is the revival of the old 6+2 forum, involving Afghanistan’s neighbors plus the US and Russia. Other interested and influential states from the region and beyond may be invited to this forum as well.

The guiding principle of this formalized, concerted engagement should be the formation of a more moderate, inclusive government in Afghanistan. The establishment of such a government can help realize the twin goals of countering terrorism and mitigating the humanitarian disaster. An inclusive government is also the most effective means of protecting the basic rights of the Afghan people. It can set the stage for the gradual normalization of relations with the Afghan government, which can in turn help reduce the severity of the country’s humanitarian and economic crises.

None of these goals are achievable as long as the Taliban hold a monopoly over the Afghan state. The Taliban’s ideology, history, links with international terrorist groups, and resistance to softening their positions in the face of domestic and international pressures— all these factors mean that as long as the group holds exclusive control over the Afghan state, the country will remain mired in the current deadlock.

Conclusion

Obviously, there is no silver bullet that can resolve the multiple crises facing Afghanistan at the moment. Almost any course of action, including diplomacy with the Taliban, will carry certain costs and risks. The fact that a host of regional and global powers, with competing interests, can and do influence the course of events in Afghanistan further complicates the search for a viable solution. But, in part for this reason, concerted international action is required to address the current precarious situation in the country effectively.

For decades, Afghanistan has been a site of contestation among external powers. Geopolitical competitions, both regional and global, have played a major role in destroying the country and uprooting its people. But just as international conflicts have wrecked the country, international cooperation is needed to restore some measure of normalcy to Afghanistan. Such cooperation is certainly not assured, as the history of the past few decades shows. Yet, any serious attempt at responding to the current situation requires close international cooperation and coordination.

Dr. A. Farid Tookhy (@FTookhy) is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy and a lecturer at the University of Ottawa.  Dr. Tookhy has extensive professional experience in the fields of governance, election administration and conflict management. He served with the United Nations in Afghanistan, Sudan, and South Sudan, working on a wide range of issues including election administration, conflict management, and post-conflict state-building. Recently, he has conducted research on Afghanistan’s legislative elections and on Iran’s policy toward Afghanistan, both for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).


Endnotes

[1] “The Situation in Afghanistan and Its Implications for International Peace and Security,” Quarterly Report (The United Nations, September 14, 2022), https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/220914_sg_report_on_afghanistan_s.2022.485.pdf.

[2] “Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan and Support for the Afghan People” (U.S. Department of the Treasury, April 13, 2022), https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/126/afg_factsheet_20220413.pdf.

[3] “Joint Statement by U.S. Treasury and State Department: The United States and Partners Announce Establishment of Fund for the People of Afghanistan,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, accessed September 26, 2022, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0947.

[4] James Dobbins, Andrew Radin, and Laurel E. Miller, “Engage, Isolate, or Oppose: American Policy Toward the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” (RAND Corporation, May 26, 2022), See, for example, https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PEA1540-1.html.

[5] “Human Rights in Afghanistan: 15 August 2021 to 15 June 2022” (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, July 2022), https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unama_human_rights_in_afghanistan_report_-_june_2022_english.pdf.

[6] “Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999) 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals, Groups, Undertakings and Entities,” n.d., https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1267.

[7] “Afghanistan-Related Sanctions,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, February 25, 2022, https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financial-sanctions/faqs/951.

[8] Global Affairs Canada, “Canadian Sanctions Related to Terrorist Entities, Including Al-Qaida and the Taliban,” GAC, October 19, 2015, https://www.international.gc.ca/world-monde/international_relations-relations_internationales/sanctions/terrorists-terroristes.aspx?lang=eng.

[9] “Thirteenth Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team Submitted Pursuant to Resolution 2611 (2021) Concerning the Taliban and Other Associated Individuals and Entities Constituting a Threat to the Peace Stability and Security of Afghanistan” (United Nations Security Council, May 26, 2022), https://www.ecoi.net/en/file/local/2073803/N2233377.pdf.

[10] “Briefing by Deputy Special Representative Markus Potzel to the Security Council,” UNAMA, September 27, 2022, https://unama.unmissions.org/briefing-deputy-special-representative-markus-potzel-security-council-0.


Works Cited

Afghanistan-Related Sanctions,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, February 25, 2022, https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financial-sanctions/faqs/951.

Briefing by Deputy Special Representative Markus Potzel to the Security Council,” UNAMA, September 27, 2022, https://unama.unmissions.org/briefing-deputy-special-representative-markus-potzel-security-council-0.

Fact Sheet: Provision of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan and Support for the Afghan People” (U.S. Department of the Treasury, April 13, 2022), https://home.treasury.gov/system/files/126/afg_factsheet_20220413.pdf.

Global Affairs Canada, “Canadian Sanctions Related to Terrorist Entities, Including Al-Qaida and the Taliban,” GAC, October 19, 2015, https://www.international.gc.ca/world-monde/international_relations-relations_internationales/sanctions/terrorists-terroristes.aspx?lang=eng.

Human Rights in Afghanistan: 15 August 2021 to 15 June 2022” (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, July 2022), https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unama_human_rights_in_afghanistan_report_-_june_2022_english.pdf.

James Dobbins, Andrew Radin, and Laurel E. Miller, “Engage, Isolate, or Oppose: American Policy Toward the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” (RAND Corporation, May 26, 2022), See, for example, https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PEA1540-1.html.

Joint Statement by U.S. Treasury and State Department: The United States and Partners Announce Establishment of Fund for the People of Afghanistan,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, accessed September 26, 2022, https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy0947.

Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999) 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals, Groups, Undertakings and Entities,” n.d., https://www.un.org/securitycouncil/sanctions/1267.

The Situation in Afghanistan and Its Implications for International Peace and Security,” Quarterly Report (The United Nations, September 14, 2022), https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/220914_sg_report_on_afghanistan_s.2022.485.pdf.

Thirteenth Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team Submitted Pursuant to Resolution 2611 (2021) Concerning the Taliban and Other Associated Individuals and Entities Constituting a Threat to the Peace Stability and Security of Afghanistan” (United Nations Security Council, May 26, 2022), https://www.ecoi.net/en/file/local/2073803/N2233377.pdf.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor