Want peace in Afghanistan? Recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government

War didn't work. Diplomacy is the only way forward

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Despite the US’ best efforts, the far-right, religious extremist Taliban now have full control over Afghanistan. It may seem counterintuitive, but the US immediately recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan will go a long way in terms of saving lives in both the short term and the long term.

It goes without saying that the Taliban taking over Afghanistan is a tremendous blow to women’s and LGBTQ rights, modernism, and science in the region. And given that they’ve since acquired virtually 100% of the billions of dollars in military equipment the US sent there for the failed war effort, the Taliban’s authority in Afghanistan will go unquestioned for many decades.

But if the US continues to treat the Taliban as the enemy and encourage an isolationist approach from the international community, it’s almost certain things will only worsen for Afghanistan’s 38 million residents. Sadly, the Biden administration so far appears to refuse to learn any lessons from the last 20 years of failed antagonistic foreign policy.

The Taliban’s rapid advance through Afghanistan has been happening for the past several years for anyone paying attention. Even though the Afghan army was, on paper, more than four times that of the size of Taliban forces, many of the soldiers in Afghanistan’s military were drastically underpaid and even underfed. The apparent lack of will to fight the Taliban is hardly surprising given how low morale was among the ranks of Afghanistan’s security forces.

Afghanistan’s US-backed government also lacked legitimacy throughout the occupation. Its 2014 election saw only seven million ballots cast, meaning roughly 80% of the population didn’t participate. Both the 2009 and 2014 elections were rife with allegations of vote tampering and fraud. The Afghanistan Papers — which consist of 2,000 pages of sensitive documents and interviews that the Washington Post obtained only after a three-year legal battle with the Pentagon — declared that the US-backed Afghan government had “self-organized itself into a kleptocracy.” Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai blamed the widespread corruption on hundreds of millions of dollars sent from the US with essentially no accountability.

And as CNN’s Fareed Zakaria recently stated, the government’s corrupt reputation disgusted the Afghan people, with support for US forces declining from 90% to just 55% between 2008 and 2018. And a relative lack of interest among American media outlets in covering US-backed forces losing ground over the last five years meant everyone was caught off guard by the Taliban’s swift conquest of Kabul and Afghanistan’s regional capitals.

The Taliban have retaken Afghanistan, defeating both the Afghan military and the world’s most well-funded military in the process. So what is their endgame at this point? Given their willingness to be interviewed by female reporters despite their rigid beliefs, their invitations to western media outlets to press conferences, and their repeated assurances to the world that they’ll be accommodating to women within the bounds of Sharia law, it appears the Taliban ultimately want legitimacy more than anything. Otherwise, why try to engage with the international community at all?

To be clear, legitimizing the Taliban wouldn’t mean endorsing their viewpoints or their treatment of women. It wouldn’t mean giving them more money or weapons. And it wouldn’t mean not criticizing their policy decisions that negatively impact the Afghan people. The US has legitimized some of the most oppressive governments in the world, like Saudi Arabia (the world’s fifth worst country for women), Egypt (run by a military junta since 2013), and North Korea.

Ultimately, recognition of the Taliban would mean Secretary of State Anthony Blinken could freely meet with Taliban leadership to broker deals that would allow for the peaceful exodus of refugees who wish to leave. Legitimizing the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan would also mean the UN could convene talks between Taliban leaders and the leaders of other central Asian countries to foster more dialogue and cooperation (like fighting ISIS, for example).

Legitimizing the Taliban could also prove to be a major turning point in the opioid crisis. In 2018, Afghanistan’s poppy fields produced 82% of the world’s opium supply, which eventually finds its way into prescription pills and syringes across the United States. If the Taliban had proper support from the international community, it could revamp its agricultural economy to transition from opium poppies to more value-creating crops. At the end of the day, Afghan farmers just want to be able to provide for their families. If they can do that growing food and hemp as opposed to poppies, they will.

(An Afghan shepherd tending to his flock. Photo: Pixabay)

Additionally, a move to immediately form diplomatic relations with the Taliban now could help build leverage in the future. Should the Taliban go back on their word and renege on their promises to allow women to work and attend school, threats from US and the international community to implement sanctions and halt trade could make the Taliban rethink implementing more draconian positions on human rights if they felt an immediate economic impact.

Recognizing the legitimacy of a fundamentalist group that chants “death to America” is certainly a bitter pill to swallow. But the past 20 years of aggression hasn’t worked. More hawkish foreign policy toward Afghanistan at this point would only hurt civilians. The Biden administration should demonstrate true international leadership and immediately recognize the Taliban’s legitimacy.