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Can a deadly quake inspire change for Afghanistan?

Can a deadly quake inspire change for Afghanistan?

Afghan men sell Taliban flags outside the former US embassy in Kabul.


Struggling with a drought, economic collapse, famine, and an enemy more extreme than themselves, the Taliban now face Afghanistan’s worst natural calamity in years.

More than a thousand people were killed in last week’s earthquake, and while humanitarian organizations are eager to help, there is a gap in the international relief effort. Questions about recognizing the Taliban during this time of crisis, or working with the Islamists for the long-term development of the country, come sharply into focus.

“The world is punishing the suffering people of Afghanistan by not engaging with the current government,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told GZERO from Qatar. Indeed, some aid groups recently asked to end the Taliban’s isolation. They say humanitarian support won’t be enough to get Afghanistan out of this and other crises, as the Islamists appealed to unlock Afghan funds frozen since the US pullout last summer.

So, can global players use this moment to convince the Taliban to make their government more inclusive and tolerant? Is the Taliban willing to budge? Can cooperation in the humanitarian effort lead to functional relationships with Kabul?

There aren’t many buyers for recognizing the Taliban. Nor is there any consensus about how to engage them.

Relations with traditional ally Pakistan have soured, as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (aka the Pakistani Taliban) operate, mobilize, and recruit freely from Afghan territory, attacking Pakistan without any restraint from their cousins in Kabul.

Meanwhile, Iran has always been uneasy about the Taliban’s Sunni tilt but gets even more nervous when faced with the alternative, the ultra-Sunni ISIS-K. Tehran has tried but failed to engage the Taliban and elements of the Afghan resistance.

In the Central Asian ‘Stans, Tajik nationalists in Dushanbe are worried about the Pashtun Taliban’s inability to guard the border with Tajikistan, which has seen attacks by ISIS-K. Uzbekistan, which is as land-locked as Afghanistan, wants more regional trade but needs stability in its southern neighbor. The US notably supplies Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to improve border security while courting them for intelligence gathering, but American ambitions are limited by Russia’s influence in the former Soviet republics.

Middle Eastern powers are only nominally involved. Before the quake, the Saudis had been developing a pipeline of humanitarian funding. The Emiratis are rebuilding Afghan airports as reconstruction aid. The Qataris still play the role of the Taliban’s diplomatic front office, encouraging international contact to ease the country’s isolation. And the Turks are leading the international rescue effort after the earthquake, which is helpful but not very broad.

Major powers, meanwhile, remain on the fence. Russia has hinted it will recognize a more inclusive Taliban, but on its own terms. China, holding back on major investments, is watchful about security. US diplomats and generals are making the rounds in regional capitals and have engaged with the Taliban at various levels.

But there’s less focus on recognizing the Islamists or improving their organizational prowess to keep Afghanistan from failing. Washington is keener on regaining its lost visibility in the region, given clear counter-terrorism concerns about al-Qaida and the rise of ISIS-K.

“Major powers remain in a wait-and-watch mode on the Taliban,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. They are “offering ideas on potential paths forward for the Taliban’s rehabilitation but not on more given concerns, ranging from Taliban governance to lack of inclusion to terrorism.”

For now, this seems unlikely to change. “They are only offering ideas, not offering real roadmaps,” Mir added.

Interestingly, the only real diplomatic breakthrough has come from one of the Taliban’s most bitter rivals: India. It has reopened its embassy in Kabul and seems keen to restart development projects and boost economic assistance.

India has engaged in high-level meetings with Taliban leadership about what it insists are humanitarian concerns, but the Indians have two major reasons to court the Taliban: their strategic rival, China, and their old foe, Pakistan. Either of those countries moving in first would be a clear disadvantage to New Delhi. The Taliban have reciprocated India’s overtures, and surprisingly offered up their “troops” to be trained in India.

It’s an unusual and important opening, but New Delhi has not officially recognized the Taliban (no country has). Also, the return to proxy rivalries is reminiscent of the pre-Taliban Afghanistan, when Pakistan bet on the Islamists, and the Indians bet on those who fought them, with hundreds of thousands dying in the process.

The Taliban say they’re ready. Just prior to the earthquake, Kabul’s chief spokesperson said the regime had fulfilled “all the requirements” for international recognition. But when asked about the rollback of women’s rights — from education to freedom of movement – Zabiullah Mujahid clarified that all Afghans were obliged to follow Shariah law.

So, the Taliban fall short of international demands for protecting women’s rights and inclusivity, which makes them a politically toxic liability for would-be friends.

“Nobody wants to have a Taliban ambassador driving around with a flag of the Taliban in their own capital,” explained Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan finance ministry official now based in Geneva. “Recognizing the Taliban will not bring anything additional for anyone, but it will bring you reputational harm.”

So, with recognition off the table, what about aid? Afghanistan watcher Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, thinks the US should offer humanitarian assistance, “even at the risk of aid ending up in Taliban hands.” In response to the quake, the White House says it’s seeking ways to offer a helping hand without engaging the Taliban, including by going through international partners.

The intentions are good, but in disaster-prone Afghanistan, a natural calamity is always just around the corner. Besides the 1,000 lives lost and the 2,000 homes destroyed, only 2% of Afghanistan’s 38 million people have enough food, according to the UN. The country is actually starving while faced with a collapsing health system, migration crisis, and a rising terror threat.

Just a year short of victory, the Taliban are sinking, not saving Afghanistan. Everyone agrees things are bad, but progress will only be determined by which side — the Taliban or the international community — blinks first.


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