The Taliban's inability to change is its biggest obstacle

The biggest obstacle to Taliban's international legitimacy? The Taliban's inability to change
6 min read

Syed Fazl-e-Haider

09 February, 2022
The recent talks in Oslo have presented an opportunity to bring Afghanistan into the international mainstream by making promises of aid conditional on the Taliban's human rights record. But change likely will not happen, writes Syed Fazl-e-Haider.
A deputy prime minister of the interim Afghan government, Taliban (banned in Russia) official Abdul Salam Hanafi (C) attends the 3rd meeting of the Moscow Format on the Afghanistan peace settlement at President Hotel on 20 October, 2021. [Getty]

The western nations gathered in Oslo and discussed with the Taliban the deepening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. The cash-strapped Taliban government, which has not yet been recognised by any country, is seeking international aid to address humanitarian emergencies in the war-wrecked country, where 55 per cent of the population are hungry.

Can the Taliban convince the international community to secure help on humanitarian grounds despite their human rights abuses? And can the world community press the Taliban to respect human rights and stop violating women's rights?

While nearly 23 million Afghans face extreme levels of hunger, the nine million population is at risk of famine in the chilling cold days of winter, according to the United Nations. How can the Taliban manage the humanitarian crisis without honouring human rights? That is why, the representatives of the United States, the European Union, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Norway urged the group to respect human rights, linking humanitarian aid for Taliban-led Afghanistan to an improvement in human rights.

The western countries held three-day talks (January 23-25) with the Taliban outside Norway's capital Oslo in its first visit to Europe, and as the Taliban demanded the release of $US 10 billion of Afghanistan's assets frozen by the US, the day Kabul fell to Taliban. 

The honeymoon period of the Taliban's government is over. Now the group is in confrontation with a bitter reality — the international isolation and its devastating impact on Afghanistan's war-battered economy. Though the Norwegian Foreign Minister had already declared that talks were not a recognition of the Taliban, the Taliban sees the interaction with western diplomats in Oslo as a step towards recognition of its government.

There is no immediate solution to Afghanistan's perennial economic problems and the Taliban is absolutely not able to make an economic turnaround. Even the previous government before the Taliban was heavily dependent on international aid to run the country's affairs. The international aid to the country was cut off after the Taliban returned to power, ousting president Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul. 


How can a government that violates human rights qualify to address a humanitarian crisis? Practically, the Taliban's moderate 'narrative' merely proved the rhetoric. The Taliban's track record of keeping its promises has been poor when it comes to human rights, particularly women rights. 

Weeks after taking control of Kabul, the Taliban declared general amnesty across Afghanistan and invited the women to join the government. The group declared that it would honour women's rights within the norms of Islamic law and that women would be allowed to work and study.

Just a month after inviting women to join the government, the Taliban abolished the women ministry and disallowed women to work in government ministries. The women working in the women ministry were locked out of the ministry building where the Taliban set up a ministry for the propagation of "virtue and the prevention of vice". Under the previous Taliban administration in the 1990s, the girls and women were denied the right to education and they were barred from public life. 

There seems to be no difference between today's Taliban government and that of the one that ruled Afghanistan until 2001. Afghan citizens, particularly the women, from the very outset have been sceptical about the Taliban's new moderate face. 


For the people of the older generation of Afghans — especially those who experienced the Taliban's ultraconservative views and theocratic obscurantist approaches to the interpretation of Islam during their rule before the US invasion in 2001 — it has been harder to buy Taliban's moderate 'narrative'.

A key reason behind the Taliban's poor record of keeping promises is the internal divisions within the movement, wherein hardline factions have been pushing the top leadership towards a more radical and theocratic interpretation of Islam. The moderate and more pragmatic factions have been losing. The hardliners are the main barrier to any of the Taliban's efforts to improve its international image. Even Pakistan and other regional countries have been hesitant to recognise the Taliban regime because of these hardline factions radical and theocratic agenda.

Today, the Taliban is the de facto ruler of an Internationally isolated, sanctions-hit, war-torn and cash-starved Afghanistan. The group is in dire need of billions of dollars in Afghan central bank assets, which are frozen by the US. The imposition of sanctions by the US after the Taliban takeover last year has been a major reason behind drying up international aid to Afghanistan. 

Immediately after withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US actually opened up a war on the economic front against the Taliban after its failure to defeat the insurgents militarily.

Under the new anti-Taliban strategy led by the US,  plans are under consideration for the suspension of aid and imposition of even more crippling sanctions against the Taliban and anyone interested in making investments in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan or strengthening trade ties. Sanctions-hit Iran,  whose economy has been devastated by crippling US sanctions, is a glaring example of this tactic.

Last year, the US warned the Taliban that a government-imposed by force in the strife-torn country would not be acceptable to the world. With a structural trade deficit, equal to around 30 per cent of GDP, Afghanistan is heavily reliant on foreign aid and grants. The US, Afghanistan's biggest aid donor, spent $US 35.5 billion in 2020. 

US intelligence agencies also informed president Joe Biden's administration that the Taliban government could collapse as soon as six months after the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Their timeline may have been too optimistic. Six months have not passed, but already the Taliban's control is crumbling due to economic grounds. 

The Taliban's actions will speak louder than their words. This is the time for action on the part of the Taliban to save Afghanistan from a humanitarian disaster. The group needs to sort out the more militant, more radical and extremist elements within its ranks and form an inclusive government representing all ethnicities and women. 

Similarly, the world community needs to encourage moderate factions within the Taliban government and immediately release funds to Kabul to fight hunger, making the aid conditional to the Taliban's actions vis-a-vis human rights protection in Afghanistan. 

The Oslo talks open a window to bring Afghanistan into the international mainstream by pressing the Taliban on human rights. The international community should come forward to help Afghans purely on humanitarian grounds rather than abandoning them on political grounds.  

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a contributing analyst at the South Asia desk of Wikistrat. He is a freelance columnist and the author of several books including 'Economic Development of Balochistan'.

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