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A new foreign policy for the Taliban?A Timid Thaw in Afghanistan’s Great Cold

More than a year after Kabul fell to the Taliban, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) remains a diplomatically isolated political entity. While the Taliban has greatly consolidated its grip on power, the regime’s legitimacy both domestically and on the international stage remains woefully inadequate.

The Taliban are largely considered pariahs by the international community. No country has formally recognized the Islamic Emirate as the legitimate Afghan government or normalized diplomatic relations with it. As the Taliban seeks solutions to its serious credibility problems, the group has largely lost touch with the basic needs of Afghans. Major problems remain in the country: half the population is on the brink of famine, and terrorist attacks against religious and ethnic minorities are frequent.

balance past and present

Since occupying Kabul, the Taliban have tried to gain some credibility on the international stage by presenting themselves as the only force capable of stabilizing and uniting Afghanistan after two decades of civil war. This is the old narrative promoted by the militant group when it first came to power in 1996.

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However, since simply dusting off old scripts is unlikely to work in the current circumstances, the Taliban have expressed interest in doing things differently this time around. Its foreign policy prospects appear to be somewhere between conforming to old habits and shaping new ones.

The Taliban still cling to the idea of ​​isolating Afghanistan globally. The leadership sees the country’s secession as a viable tool for regime stability and longevity.

In their previous ruling experience, the Taliban had a limited and basic understanding of international politics, and had little interest in establishing basic diplomatic relations with external forces. Their victories over regular Afghan forces and their parity with the United States in the Doha talks further emboldened the Afghan regime.

However, while the Taliban aimed to continue their isolationism, the trauma of the regime’s fall in 2001 and two years of foreign occupation since then prompted them to evaluate alternative strategies for their agenda.

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The Taliban has sought a comeback for more than two decades, and now that the Islamic emirate is in place again, the militant group is determined to prevent a second overthrow. Recent events point to a more mature, pragmatic foreign policy with greater use of diplomacy.

back to the drawing board

Since taking over in Kabul, the Islamic emirate has sought friendly diplomatic relations with several states and non-state actors. High-ranking figures in the Taliban hierarchy — acting foreign minister Maulvi Amir Khan Mutaqi and acting deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai — are a few examples.

In addition to meeting foreign officials, the Taliban have held talks with prominent humanitarian agencies. Recently, the Taliban held talks with the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Roza Otunbayeva, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, and the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Eloy Fillian, ICRC’s representative in Afghanistan.

These contacts have two goals: to cleanse the Taliban of its tarnished image while building diplomatic credibility.

First, the militant group sought to distance itself from the prevailing perception of the Taliban, a movement driven by an uncompromising, strict Islamic morale. Second, the Taliban aims to gain diplomatic capital and gain political legitimacy on the global stage.

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The Taliban aims to reshape its previous image as a violent and extremist regime. By publicly demonstrating their willingness to play by the rules, the Taliban have sought to project themselves as a trusted partner in the eyes of the international community.

While it remains to be seen whether these efforts are motivated by a genuine spirit of cooperation or pragmatic considerations, there is no denying that the Taliban’s diplomacy has enhanced their international stature. Pricing benefits. Gaining control of Afghan assets frozen overseas and securing full travel mobility for senior Taliban figures are among the most sought-after rewards.

Until September 2022, most of the Central Bank of Afghanistan’s reserves — $7 billion — are withheld by U.S. financial institutions.Washington then transferred half of the frozen Afghan assets to the Swiss-Afghan Joint Trust, known as the Afghan Fund

The fund, intended to support Afghanistan’s central bank, is not accessible to the Taliban. However, the chances of funneling money to Afghanistan while evading Taliban oversight look slim. As Graeme Smith, a senior adviser at the International Crisis Group, wrote, “The Taliban have demonstrated they will thwart efforts to bypass their government, and aid experts warn that parallel structures cannot replace Afghan state institutions.”

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A funding freeze, an arms embargo and a United Nations travel ban on dozens of Taliban officials are the longest-running measures to contain the group.Travel waivers are occasionally granted to allow high-profile Taliban representatives to attend third-country forums

The ban was suspended due to a lack of consensus on the terms to extend the travel ban exemptions for 13 Taliban officials. Whether the U.N. will use the travel waiver to induce meaningful concessions from the regime remains an open question. While the Taliban have shown great resilience under pressure to compromise, their ambition to continue their diplomatic machine may be the reason for the change.

pivotal moment on the horizon

Despite some impressive Taliban achievements, the political landscape in Afghanistan is still in flux. The Taliban neither exercise capillary control over all rural areas nor have a monopoly of power over various non-Pashtun ethnic groups.

Small resistance groups scattered across the country continue to oppose Taliban rule. Local leaders who followed the Taliban during its rise to power have been deported with increasing frequency. The result is that militant groups have gradually weakened their influence and their ranks. But despite some internal cracks, they’re still the strongest actors on the ground.

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Countries around the world remain skeptical of the Taliban, but the pragmatic need to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for international terrorism again, limit the drug trade, and deliver humanitarian aid to the Afghan people has turned the tide. The Taliban has become a near-indispensable player. The activist group is pinning its hopes on the fact that regional and global powers will continue to seek their cooperation to address these pressing security concerns, regardless of their status in the international community.

However, two major problems remain. First, the Taliban have done little to address the country’s serious security problems. Its verbal assurances still ring hollow, and the same pathologies that stained its past rule — such as the targeted killing of Tajiks and Hazaras, enforced disappearances, and extortion — still seem to exist today. As the United Nations recently highlighted, the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan looks dire and the Taliban are struggling to meet basic international human rights standards and respect for minorities.

Second, the Taliban endgame is rather elusive. While it has attempted to legitimize its leadership by employing state-like rhetoric and posturing, the regime’s long-term ambitions and foreign policy trajectory remain unpredictable.

While it is debatable whether the latest developments reflect real change, the Taliban are determined to stop their new regime from failing again at all costs. The old playbook, based on a neutral and balanced stance, remains the cornerstone of the Taliban’s foreign policy compass, especially when it comes to fending off external pressure.

Yet acknowledging the high cost of diplomatic isolationism has prompted the activist group to take a different approach this time and seek minimal approval from foreign observers. While it is too early to tell whether the Taliban’s recalibration will help improve the regime’s credibility, it is clear that it has the ability to adjust its foreign policy outlook to better serve its evolving strategic interests.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.

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