We must hold a firm line with the Taliban

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Jessica Ludwig
Director, Global Policy
George W. Bush Institute
Representatives of the Taliban leave Gardermoen Airport after attending meetings at the Soria Moria Hotel in Oslo, Norway, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (Javad Parsa/NTB via AP)

International consensus against recognizing the Taliban is fraying at a startling speed.  

Resolve to stand up to the Taliban will again be put to the test at the United Nations’ third Doha Meeting on Afghanistan on June 30 – July 1. At the time of writing, the Taliban accepted an invitation to attend the meeting to discuss the country’s future. Afghan women’s advocates and civil society representatives will be noticeably excluded from the in-person sessions. With a meeting agenda narrowly tailored to the Taliban’s preferences and limited to private sector development and counternarcotics, how will they be held accountable for their actions? Ongoing security concerns, the Taliban’s handling of humanitarian crises, and gross human rights violations – especially the systematic persecution of women – reflect a high level of instability in Afghanistan under the Taliban that hardly justifies normalizing their capture of the country. 

Against this backdrop, the United States and the international community must take a hard look at their roles in contributing to the Taliban’s pursuit of legitimacy.  

This should start with rejecting some exemptions to the travel ban and asset freezes sanctioned Taliban leaders have submitted to the U.N. Security Council. The United States has voted to approve every single travel ban exemption request, Thomas West, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, testified at a January 2024 congressional hearing.   

Instead of allowing Taliban members to travel, the United States and the international community should be ratcheting up pressure on the Taliban leadership by considering targeted sanctions, designations, and other measures to hold them responsible for human rights abuses, corruption, and ongoing links to terrorist groups. 

Taliban acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani and three other sanctioned senior Taliban leaders were in Saudi Arabia this month for the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, thanks to travel ban exemptions granted by the Security Council. But this was no ordinary religious act for Haqqani and his colleagues. It was a propaganda coup with implications for Haqqani’s internal status within the Taliban and the Taliban’s standing within the world.  

Haqqani leads the designated foreign terrorist organization the Haqqani network and is on the FBI’s most wanted list for terrorism, including for attacks on U.S. military personnel.  

His travel companions included Abdul Kabir Mohammad Jan, the Taliban’s Deputy Prime Minister for Political Affairs, understood to be a close Haqqani ally. Kabir has been implicated in terrorist attacks that killed Afghan government parliamentarians and schoolchildren. Taliban intelligence chief Abdul Haq Wasiq and Taliban Minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs Noor Mohammad Saqib also joined them.  

Social media accounts linked to Taliban supporters circulated video of Haqqani being personally greeted by apparently devoted followers in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj.  

Before arriving in Saudi Arabia, Haqqani and other sanctioned Taliban surprised the world by appearing in the United Arab Emirates, where they met with the country’s top leader, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Their travel to the UAE had not been exempted and defied the established U.N. travel ban protocols. 

The international community must rethink the impact of increasingly frequent invitations granted to other Taliban members to attend international convenings, which lend the extremist group a veneer of external legitimacy. 

Russia welcomed a Taliban delegation to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, the same week that two Russian ministries recommended the removal of the Taliban from Russia’s list of designated terrorist organizations. President Vladimir Putin commented publicly that “the Taliban are the ones governing the country; they have power in Afghanistan today. We must follow the realities and establish our relations accordingly.” 

Gambia permitted a Taliban delegation to attend the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Summit (OIC) in Banjul in May. This was just two weeks after the Taliban censored their own statement about a late-April meeting in Kabul to remove mention of a call to lift restrictions on women’s education and employment by the OIC’s special envoy to Afghanistan. 

The upcoming Doha meeting is a prime opportunity to press the Taliban on their abuses of power, and the United States should rally its allies and the global community to hold firm against normalizing relations. Too many international actors are taking advantage of Afghanistan’s instability to further their own strategic interests, as my colleagues and I wrote in a recent report for the George W. Bush Institute. 

The U.N. should condition Taliban participation at the Doha meeting on diverse and high-level representation from Afghan civil society, including women. The Security Council should also call for and publish a transparent review of member states that have failed to uphold travel bans and asset freezes on sanctioned Taliban members. It should also review and update the list of Taliban leaders who merit these designations. 

If the global community fails to act decisively, it will effectively legitimize the Taliban’s extremist, corrupt, and dehumanizing power grab. 

Jessica Ludwig is Director of Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute.