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BLOG POST | 11 Aug 2022

One year after the fall of Kabul: Why the West should talk with the Taliban

Afghan families protesting at UNHCR in New Delhi to be given refugee status in India. Women in Afghanistan suffer the most. But only through dialogue can we hope to improve their plight. Photo © / PradeepGaurs

In his op-ed for German magazine "Der Spiegel", our Executive Director argues for constructive dialogue in Afghanistan.

By Andrew Gilmour


Nearly one year after the fall of Kabul, there is a tendency among some Western capitals to “wish away” the problem of Afghanistan. This is perhaps understandable. After all, the Trump administration’s “deal” with the Taliban, carried out by its successor, was arguably the most ill-judged, unforced rout in recent history. And while European governments opposed the US decision and some even criticised it, they shared in its shame and humiliation. Few will forget those desperate scenes at Kabul airport, as civilians fought to be allowed onto the evacuation planes.

The second reason for ignoring Afghanistan is that attention has naturally turned to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its enormous global consequences. Despite all this, it would be a major mistake in terms of both morality and realpolitik not to engage properly in Afghanistan, one that could be comparable in scale to the errors of last August.

image missing ALT text Photo © Berghof Foundation / Matthias Völzke

Andrew Gilmour is the Executive Director of the Berghof Foundation.

Prior to that, he was UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and he has worked in Afghanistan for several years.

His op-ed was originally published on "Der Spiegel" (11 August 2022, in German).

The country is in a pitiful state. UNDP estimates that an incredible 97% of the population will live in poverty this year. Over a million children are at risk of hunger in the coming months, while five million Afghans have already left their country. A devastating earthquake in June increased the suffering still further. Last January, the UN launched the biggest humanitarian appeal in its history, amounting to $4.4 billion. Germany and other countries have responded generously, but the appeal is significantly underfunded.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is faced with widescale economic and state collapse, a likelihood increased by the sanctions that Western governments have imposed. These include a complete cut-off of the funding that was being provided to the Kabul government until last August; the exclusion from the banking system that prevents companies from importing and exporting goods and families from receiving remittances; and even what was in effect the seizure last February by the richest country in the world (the US) of the central bank assets of the poorest country in the world.

The Taliban see these measures as the West refusing to accept that they won the war after decades of sacrifices. But the motivation of Western governments in fact derives from human rights and the impact this has on their electorates. The Taliban’s record last time they were in power 20 years ago was disastrous – especially towards women, girls and other vulnerable groups. And despite positive assurances to the contrary, some Taliban hardliners recently succeeded in getting their harsh strictures against girls’ education renewed.

Engagement with people whose values you disagree with does not mean “appeasement”. It can lead to the strengthening of relatively progressive elements at the expense of hardliners.

In light of this, one can see why Western governments feel queasy about taking actions that could be seen, back home, to be recognising or strengthening Taliban rule. Equally, it hardly helps Afghan women if famine becomes even more widespread, yet more fighting erupts, and more parents are forced to sell their children or their organs.

To break out of this deadlock, it is essential to enlarge the very limited dialogue that Western governments currently hold with the Taliban. The mere fact of engagement with people whose values you disagree with does not mean “appeasement”. On the contrary, it can lead to a more shared understanding, greater flexibility, and the strengthening of relatively progressive elements at the expense of hardliners. Dialogue also leads to the other side understanding points of leverage, which are highly significant given Afghanistan’s weak situation. Not exerting or even exploring such leverage in order to secure improved access for women and girls, and other human rights issues is a tragic waste of that potential asset.

Forcing the extremely precarious Afghan economy off the cliff edge – either deliberately or through miscalculation – would have catastrophic consequences, starting with the Afghan people who have already suffered beyond imagination, but undeniably also affecting Europe through mass migration and violent extremism.

Some representatives of Western governments, rightly embarrassed to wave goodbye to their terrified Afghan colleagues last August, promised they would not abandon Afghanistan or its people. But it is hard to reconcile those promises with the extreme reluctance subsequently exhibited to have sustained dialogue with tangible outcomes with the people who now run the country.

If we really want to help Afghan women and girls, and if we want to prevent the complete collapse of the country there is simply no alternative to engaging properly with the Taliban.

It may be tempting for some to believe that further adding to the miseries of Afghan civilians could lead to the destabilisation of Taliban rule. But such an approach would be as brutal as it is cynical – and also very unlikely to work.

There is no question that human rights under the Taliban should be vastly improved. But to assume that this will somehow magically happen without a dramatic expansion of dialogue and engagement, and the judicious use of leverage (as opposed to issuing fog-horn threats), would be a complete misreading of how the Taliban operate. If we really want to help Afghan women and girls, and if we want to prevent the complete collapse of the country and the mass migration that will inevitably follow, there is simply no alternative to engaging properly with the Taliban.

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