The May 2023 Doha meeting: How should the outside world deal with the Taleban?

Kate Clark

Afghanistan Analysts Network

The Doha meeting will be held behind closed doors, with Secretary-General Guterres hosting Special Envoys for Afghanistan. The list of participants has not been released, but is expected to include countries from the region and the major donors, with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan and her deputy for political affairs coming from Kabul. Finally, after much speculation in the media about whether the Taleban would take part, the Secretary-General’s spokesperson confirmed that, unlike the last such gathering, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in July 2022 (media reporting here), “The Secretary-General has not extended an invitation to the de facto authorities.” (See transcript of the 28 April press briefing here.)

The meeting is an opportunity for international actors, both interested nations and the UN, to discuss how to deal with the Taleban.

This report first lays out why dealings between the Islamic Emirate and the rest of the world has been so difficult and perplexing, both for the Taleban and other countries. It looks at how relations deteriorated after the takeover and at the strange and uneasy modus vivendi that has developed, involving sanctions, aid, non-recognition and minimal engagement, and at how that has been thrown into confusion by the Taleban’s decision to ban Afghan women from working, first with NGOs (on 24 December 2022) and then the UN (on 4 April).

The report then looks at how the UN responded to the extension of the ban on Afghan women working, which had been widely anticipated, but which it had apparently not prepared for. It looks at how the extension has complicated the agenda for the already-planned Doha meeting. It also details recent remarks made by various senior UN personalities in the light of the ban and ahead of the Doha gathering, which have stirred up controversy, including comments by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed which appeared to suggest that recognition of the Emirate might be on the table – something which has been denied, but which sparked a media and social media storm.

The report explores, a little, the reasoning of those advocating greater or less engagement with the Taleban, before concluding with the little that is known about the agenda at the Doha meeting and what can be expected from it.

Why are relations between the Emirate and the rest of the world so difficult?

Relations between the Taleban and many of Afghanistan’s Republic-era allies have deteriorated since the Taleban took power in August 2021. In the early months after the fall of the Republic, even though the Taleban had taken power by military force and after – as many international actors saw it – they broke a promise to negotiate with other Afghans, there was still some appetite to deal with Taleban rule as a fait accompli. Discussions with the Taleban in Doha in 2020 and 2021 before the takeover had engendered some hope that, this time, the Taleban might behave differently, respect the rights and freedoms of the Afghan people – women and girls, the media and protestors, that a Taleban government would be a pluralistic one, not made up exclusively from its own ranks, and that an official amnesty given to former officials and military would be respected. Re-opening embassies, beginning ‘constructive dialogue’ and resuming development aid were all on the table at this time.

None of that happened. No country has recognised the Emirate as Afghanistan’s government, although a handful of embassies [1] are now in the hands of Taleban appointees, and some countries have opened missions in Kabul. [2] Afghanistan’s reserves, held in the United States and Europe, have remained frozen since the takeover. US and UN sanctions, which applied to the Taleban or individual members before the takeover, now apply to the country they govern. Those sanctions have been subject to multiple waivers that should enable most trade, remittance flows and aid, but they still have a chilling effect on business and other financial interactions because foreign correspondent banks, which act as intermediaries between domestic and international banks, are reluctant to deal with Afghan banks. Meanwhile, the money which had poured into Afghanistan as aid and military support (estimated by USIP economist William Byrd to have been about eight billion dollars a year) and the plentiful spending of foreign armies was cut off overnight in August 2021. It has been replaced by a much smaller, but still significant amount of humanitarian aid – Byrd calculates about three billion dollars a year, or a fifth of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), itself far smaller since the takeover and the economic collapse it precipitated.

From a Western point of view, any improvement in relations has been successively set back by Emirate policy decisions that Western governments found untenable: the appointment of an administration made up exclusively of Taleban, with few non-Pashtuns and no women in September 2021 (AAN reporting here); the decision to re-close secondary schools for girls just after Nawruz 2022, 72 hours ahead of a major international conference on aid to Afghanistan (AAN reporting here); the discovery that the leader of al-Qaeda was living in Kabul (Ayman al-Zawahri was killed by a United States drone on 31 July 2022, see this AAN report) which, reportedly scuppered discussions on how to reactivate the Central Bank as an independent entity (which could have eased the liquidity and banking crisis); and finally, in December the banning of girls from university and Afghan women working for NGOs. The Taleban decided to extend that ban to the UN, despite the UN having announced its operations were on a “trial period” while it monitored the ban’s impact on women working for NGOs.

For the Taleban, who believe they are the rightful rulers of Afghanistan through God’s grace and the defeat of foreign armies and their Afghan ‘puppets’, this refusal to recognise their regime and to stymie economic activity through sanctions, is perplexing and enraging. How they deal with Afghan women and whom the Supreme Leader chooses to appoint are all internal, domestic issues and no one else’s business. As to Zawahri, they condemned his killing, saying it was “a clear violation of international principles and the Doha Agreement” and would harm “mutual interests” (for more detail, see this AAN report). They also believe that as the government of Afghanistan, they are best placed to deliver aid to their people.

The result of all this has been a strange modus vivendi. Western donors provide huge amounts of off-budget aid to Afghanistan, but it is overwhelmingly humanitarian, which is ‘apolitical’ and, therefore, more palatable domestically, but neither cost-effective nor aid effective. The aid is channelled not through the Taleban government, but largely through an unwieldy and expensive mechanism which sees UN agencies devolving funding to NGOs (with the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund or ARTF adding another layer of bureaucracy to some of it). Since August 2021, that support has saved millions of Afghans from even worse hardship and helped the economy limp along. The dollars needed to pay for humanitarian efforts (flown in by the UN, but the effect would be the same if they arrived by bank transfer) also help keep the economy afloat, supporting the domestic currency, the afghani, keeping inflation down and boosting many national and personal incomes.

Humanitarian aid, by its very nature, is short-term assistance to help the most vulnerable members of a society facing an acute humanitarian crisis – to save lives, relieve suffering, and protect human dignity until the government or other actors can step in with long-term sustainable plans. It is not intended to act as a long-term solution to address, let alone resolve, a complex humanitarian crisis like Afghanistan’s. It is especially problematic, writes Byrd, when it is “a primary source of external financial support propping up the economy.” The aid, delivered so as to bypass the Taleban does also inevitably help sustain the Emirate: it keeps the economy afloat, indirectly fund domestic revenues from the collection of taxes and customs from individuals, businesses, traders and NGOs, and means that some of that revenue that might have had to be spent on services, such as healthcare, can be reserved for other aspects of government, especially security. Few think this situation is ideal or even healthy.

Meanwhile, engagement between foreigners and the country’s supreme leader has not happened at all: requests to meet by those based in or coming to Afghanistan have been turned down, which means outsiders do not get to talk to the real holder of power in the country. Western diplomats also generally meet Taleban officials outside the country, typically in Doha. That has left humanitarian actors on the ground as the Emirate’s main international interlocutors. Yet, they have no say over the policy of Western states, especially over what is important to the Taleban – sanctions, Afghanistan’s frozen assets and recognition.

This unsatisfactory modus vivendi suddenly and radically deteriorated yet further on 24 December 2022 when the Emirate announced that NGOs were banned from employing Afghan women. That ban left NGOs and their UN and donor partners with uncomfortable choices, summed up in a recent AAN report on the ban as: comply, fudge, or boycott. Scores of NGOs suspended some of their operations in the immediate aftermath of the ban while they tried to find compromises and workarounds.

The ban touched off a succession of visits by high-ranking UN officials in hopes of persuading the Emirate to overturn it and allow women to continue working for NGOs. The first of such visits was that of the UN’s top-ranking woman, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (see media reporting about her visit on 20 January here and here). Her two-week trip included “consultative visits” to Turkey, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf states, where she also met diplomats based in Doha before travelling onwards to Afghanistan and visits to Kazakhstan, the UK and the European Union afterwards.The consultations, she told a press conference on 25 January on her return to New York (transcript here), were important because “the international community needs to have that unified response.”

She wanted “to see if there was any opening, any momentum that we could have on the political track.” At that press conference, she also made a case for engagement:

[The Taleban] have these two mantras. One is called self-sufficiency and the other one’s called alternatives and I think that that’s really difficult to deal with, because within the region, which is why we must engage with the region, there is engagement. Even while we were there, there were announcements to some countries of some of the investments that they were dealing with. So I think they will go to where they can get an engagement and resources will come. This is a well-functioning mindset that zero tolerance for corruption. Absolute take the max tax so they can take out of anyone to make sure the coffers are full, and they do have trade. I mean, they trade. So I think that we’re up against, you know, looking for the leverage we have to bring them to the international community, where the respect for women and girls’ rights, human rights are right up front. And that’s why I think the pressure for us to continue engaging not to leave a vacuum that will be filled by something else that will take us back decades.

One such leverage, she said, was recognition “because [the Taleban] talked about it all the time,” she added: “I went into Afghanistan thinking perhaps the most conservative of them didn’t care about recognition; they do. Recognition is one leverage that we have, and we should hold on to it.”

Meanwhile, back in Kabul, the ban had derailed the launch of the critical 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP). It outlines Afghanistan’s needs for the year and was due to make a multi-billion dollar funding appeal on behalf of humanitarian organisations working there, in January. The HRP’s launch was delayed until March while intense discussions took place between humanitarian actors, and with the Emirate about the ban. Those discussions included another visit to Kabul later in January by members of the UN’s highest-level humanitarian coordination forum, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), led by its chair, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths (see his press conference on returning to New York on 30 January 2023 here).

In the end, the ban did not alter the Humanitarian Response Plan; it still requested USD 4.6 billion in assistance for Afghanistan in 2023 to support 23.7 million people in need, with a little over half, USD 2.66 billion, going on food security and agriculture. However, the IASC mandated an “operational trial period” for humanitarian activities during which, according to the HRP, “based on the outcomes of… monitoring and related advocacy efforts,” the UN would review operations comprehensively and, if required, revise the plan. [3]

Yet those advocacy efforts resulted not in a resolution of the ban on NGOs employing Afghan women, but a doubling down by the Taleban and an extension of the ban to UN agencies. (For more detail on the plan and the delay, see AAN’s report from 19 March, Two Security Council Resolutions and a Humanitarian Appeal: UN grapples with its role in Afghanistan.)

The Doha meeting, the women working ban and confused UN officials

One important outcome of the senior UN visits to Kabul in January was that Amina Mohammed in particular came away feeling that a ‘political approach’ and the establishment of a political track with the Taleban was needed, something which she spoke about in her January press conference:

So it’s not black and white. It’s not cut and dry. There’s lots of grey areas and weaving that we have to do, but always keeping our women right at the centre of this. Right upfront and centre. If we keep that focus, I can tell you we will go much, much further ahead. If we start to get involved in the why we can’t do it, then we won’t do it. Now we must do it because these women matter. And they are a reflection of what is happening to women’s rights around the world. And if we drop it on Afghanistan, we will drop it on many more rights of women.

Mohammed’s sense that there needed to be a political approach to the Emirate was, AAN was told by sources from invited countries that the genesis for the 1-2 May meeting in Doha, where envoys and UN officials could discuss and perhaps flesh out what that might look like. AAN was told by an official from one of the invited countries that, in parallel and feeding into the drive to explore complementary approaches to the Taleban, were the complaints of humanitarians on the ‘frontline’ in Kabul that they were neither equipped nor authorised to deal with the Emirate politically.

It was hoped that the gathering would be held soon after UNAMA’s mandate renewal in March, but the Secretary-General’s other commitments delayed it. [4] When the Taleban extended its ban on women working to the UN on 4 April, the UN responded by announcing that all staff, male and female, would work from home wherever possible while it reviewed operations: the end of that review was timed to end just after the Doha meeting, on 5 May. The extension of the ban has, of course, complicated the agenda at Doha. Also complicating what people understand the meeting to be about, and what UN policy in the wake of the working women ban might be have been remarks by senior personalities within the UN speaking at cross-purposes.

First, on 18 April 2023, UNDP’s global chief Achim Steiner told AP that the UN (not just UNDP but the entire UN family) was ready to take the “heartbreaking” decision to pull out of Afghanistan in May if it could not persuade the Taliban to reverse the ban on women working:

[I]f I were to imagine the U.N. family not being in Afghanistan today, I have before me these images of millions of young girls, young boys, fathers, mothers, who essentially will not have enough to eat.

Steiner said they were approaching “a very fundamental moment.” Their “hope and expectation is that there will be some common sense prevailing,” but right now, the “entire United Nations system [is] having to take a step back and re-evaluate its ability to operate there. His remarks came the same day as UNDP published a bleak assessment for the coming year, “Afghanistan Socio-Economic Outlook 2023”, and possibly in an attempt to influence the UN’s internal review on operations due to end on 5 May.

Dujarric was left later that day trying to downplay Steiner’s remarks at the daily press briefing. He claimed there had been a “misinterpretation or misunderstanding” and insisted: “We are staying in Afghanistan. We are committed to do whatever we can to deliver for the people of Afghanistan.” Pressed repeatedly by journalists, he said the UN was “committed to doing whatever we can in Afghanistan,” that he was “not aware that the full pull out of the UN is an option” and that they were busy trying to “thread the needle” of how to deliver humanitarian aid in an impartial way according to our principles, respect International Human Rights Law and the UN charter.

The Secretary-General’s spokesperson was back clarifying UN policy on Afghanistan the following day after another senior official sparked fresh controversy. This time, he was responding to remarks made by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed in a talk at Princeton University in the US and reported by the media (see for example, Voice of America). She spoke about the first meeting of envoys from “the region and internationally” with the Secretary-General:

“And out of that, we hope that we’ll find those baby steps to put us back on the pathway to recognition [of the Taliban], a principled recognition,” Mohammed said. “Is it possible? I don’t know. [But] that discussion has to happen. The Taliban clearly want recognition, and that’s the leverage we have.”

VOA reported that Mohammed had said the Taleban had told her during her visit in January that they had implemented laws protecting women from gender-based violence and ensuring women’s inheritance rights according to sharia, and had eliminated corruption, but that the ‘international community’ had not allowed her to engage to know if these claims were true or not. Mohammed said engagement would help hold the Taleban accountable for their actions: “We cannot allow that they continue to get worse, which is what happens when you don’t engage.” Regional economic engagement was already happening, she also said, with the aim of ensuring Afghanistan did not implode and plunge into chaos: “We either engage and pull them to the right side, or we don’t and see where it drifts. We must dine with the devil with [a] long spoon.” Mohammed also reportedly compared the Taleban to COVID, calling their actions unpredictable: “We don’t know what they’re going to do or how they’re going to react.”

While the transcript of her speech at Princeton has not been released, the words quoted do recall what she said during her press conference back in January. Back then, she was not proposing that the Emirate should be recognised, but that recognition was one thing that the Taleban had been clear about desiring and as such, it might be used as valuable leverage to obtain concessions. In that sense, there was nothing new about what she was reported to have said at Princeton. However, the very mention of ‘recognition’ stirred up horror and hope – depending on a person’s hostility towards, or support for, the Emirate. Any number of tweets, articles, blogs and opinion pieces were triggered by the Princeton talk, mainly to attack, but some to support putting recognition on the table, despite the UN Secretary-General’s spokesperson’s clarification the very next day, 19 April, when he told reporters:

So let me be clear. First of all, on the topic of recognition, that is clearly in the hands of the Member States. And it’s a fact, it’s according to the Charter, and there’s no question on that.

The spokesperson then tried to put Mohammed’s remarks in context.

I think in her remarks in Princeton, she was reaffirming the need for the international community to have a coordinated approach regarding Afghanistan, which includes finding common ground on the longer-term vision of the country and sending a unified message to the de facto authorities on the imperative to ensure that women have their rightful place in Afghan society. She was not, I think, in any way implying that anyone else but Member States have the authority for recognition.

Dujarric’s attempts to tell reporters what the Doha meeting was about were mystifying – at least to this author who is not fluent in UN-speak. He said the aim of the gathering was to:

[R]einvigorate the international engagement around the common objectives for a durable way forward on the situation in Afghanistan. The Secretary-General has said and continues to believe that it’s an urgent priority to advance an approach based on pragmatism and principles, combined with strategic patience, and to identify parameters for creative, flexible, principled, and constructive engagement. It is his aim that the discussions, which will be held behind closed doors, can contribute to a more unified consensus regarding the challenges ahead.

The following day, 20 April, UN deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq, was still trying to clarify the nature of the Doha meeting after “several countries have sort of expressed some concern, and maybe slight confusion” that it was about recognising the Emirate. He insisted this was not the case.

Meanwhile, back in Kabul, on 19 April, UNAMA Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Humanitarian Coordinator Ramiz Alakbarov urged the international community to “stay the course [and] maintain the humanitarian response in the current operating environment to the best extent possible, avert famine, prevent disease outbreaks & avoid excess mortality.” In a series of tweets, [5] which appeared to be in response to, and contradicting, UNDP boss Achim Steiner’s remarks that the UN might be leaving Afghanistan, he said:

3/4 While the Taliban de-facto authorities have taken a series of decisions that have negatively impacted the ability of humanitarian actors to mount a full-scale response, this is not the time to turn our backs on the people of Afghanistan. They need everyone’s solidarity.

Western officials who spoke to AAN were all privately perplexed by the mixed messaging from these senior officials. The outcry against Mohammed’s reported remarks meant some had had to privately clarify what the aims of the UN’s Doha meeting ‘really were’ to their ministers, while some have also felt the need to re-state their governments’ position publically. For example, US Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls and Human Rights Rina Amiri tweeted on 25 April:

I have received a number of messages expressing concern regarding recognition of the Taliban. We remain clear. There will be no normalization of relations with the Taliban without respect for the rights of all Afghans, especially women.

The conflicting remarks have been a comms disaster for the UN, stirring up controversy and concern. Perhaps more worryingly is how they pointed to the UN having collectively had its head in the sand over the possibility that the Taleban might extend the ban. On 4 April, after the extension to the ban became evident, the Secretary-General made clear, via his spokesperson, that he found it “frankly, inconceivable.” Yet anyone involved in Afghanistan had assessed the extension of the ban as probable, indeed, likely. It was a possibility that was also mentioned by his deputy, Amina Mohammed, back in January:

There was the notion that a third edict may come out that would take out international women from the international organizations, the embassies.[6] The author was told that some embassies have indeed been affected by the ban on employing Afghan women. I mean this was talked about. I have to tell you we went with, in our back pocket, three responses to that. It hasn’t happened so far, touch wood and the tree of knowledge. I don’t say that it won’t, but clearly the pressure that we’re putting on has stopped that roll back as quickly.

The utter confusion displayed by senior officials has given every impression that the UN had carried out no scenario planning during the more than three months following the announcement of the ban on women working for NGOs as to what it would do and say if the Taleban extended the ban. It took a week for the ‘UN in Afghanistan’ to come up with a policy and a statement, published on 11 April. Different UN agencies have different interests, mandates and priorities, as well as perennial squabbles over finances and resources. Yet, this should have been one time when planning, coordination, and unity of messaging, won out.

The controversy and confusion caused by the varying remarks of senior UN officials have exacerbated what was an already difficult situation facing the UN and NGOs on the ground. It has further muddied already muddy waters over international policy towards the Emirate. If Taleban are now discussing splits in the UN and the ‘international community’ and wondering what their ‘real aims’ are, it would be no surprise.

Is greater engagement a good idea?

For both the UN and other international actors, deciding what to do in the face of both the bans on working women in particular and dealing with the Taleban in general, is far from easy – for all the reasons explored here and in another recent report by the author, “Bans on Women Working, Then and Now: The dilemmas of delivering humanitarian aid during the first and second Islamic Emirates”. One interviewee in that report with experience working in Afghanistan in the 1990s and today described the dilemmas as “fundamental, complex and largely irresolvable,” which means that whatever choices are made “will feel at least partially wrong. In a situation this complicated, a good choice doesn’t really exist.” The very difficulty of the situation makes the need for clarity and profound thinking obvious.

There are thoughtful proponents of both greater and lesser engagement. Former US ambassador to Kabul and senior career diplomat Ronald Neumann, for example, has pointed out that the “current approach of sanctions, demands and restricted contact with the Taliban is not working” to progress US goals. He made practical and thoughtful suggestions in a piece, “Why, when and how America should engage the Taliban”, published on 6 April in The Hill, which included being mindful of the mistrust, misconceptions and ignorance about the other party’s intentions and interests, and taking “a more limited approach based on certain principles.”

One [principle] is to limit goals for much smaller steps designed to slowly make some progress and, perhaps, build Taliban confidence that negotiations can be useful. A second principle is that every step must have a clear something given by them for something concrete from us. We should not advance based on promises; that approach led to the failure of the Doha withdrawal agreement. We withdrew U.S. troops. The Taliban gave virtually nothing.

Others are adamant that the Taleban need to amend their policies first, before they are ‘rewarded’ with any positive change in relations, or believe the Emirate is actually incapable of change and engagement is pointless and counter-productive. This position has been cogently argued by former Deputy Head of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance and former senior analyst with Crisis Group, Timor Sharan, in a piece published in Just Security on 20 April.

[I]nternational engagement with the Taliban keeps hitting a brick wall and has mainly proved ineffective, including on women’s rights. The United States and its allies are dealing with a regime on a radical mission, making any meaningful engagement very difficult beyond technical discussion over the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The carrots the international community has proposed so far subject to Taleban’s improved policies towards women – broader engagement and potential development assistance in specific areas – such as salaries for teachers or in the healthcare sector – is of secondary importance for the Taliban core leadership. They are driven and motivated by a puritanic mission and elements of a shared ideology. Indeed, they would rather see the Afghan population starve to death than undermine this mission.

The Doha meeting, and a new UN resolution

The extension of the ban to women working for the UN raised the bar for foreign governments to present a united front. Just a few days ahead of the Doha meeting, on 27 April, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed a resolution condemning the ban. It took six drafts and 17 days of heated negotiations to finalise the content and language of resolution 2681 (2023). (For a readout of the negotiations in the lead-up to the vote, see UN Security Council Report here).

According to a UN press release, the resolution condemned the Taleban ban on Afghan women for UN, saying it “undermines human rights and humanitarian principles” and called for “the full, equal, meaningful and safe participation of women and girls in Afghanistan.” It also called on the Taleban to “swiftly reverse its policies and practices restricting women and girls’ enjoyment of their human rights and fundamental freedoms — including those related to their access to education, employment, freedom of movement and participation in public life.” (The resolution will be publicly available as document S/RES/2681(2023) in due course.)

Speaking before the vote, Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, ambassador to the UN for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the penholders on Afghanistan (these are the council members who lead the negotiation and drafting of resolutions on a particular issue – the other current penholder on Afghanistan is Japan), said her country was:

[P]leased to be joined by over 90 co-sponsors, not just from the Council, but also from Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood, the Muslim world and all corners of the Earth…. The cross-regional support for this resolution makes our fundamental message today even more significant: the world will not sit by silently as women in Afghanistan are erased from society. (See video here and UN press release here).

The Taleban were quick to react, with foreign ministry spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi telling Turkey’s Anadolu news agency the ban was “an internal social matter of Afghanistan that does not impact outside states,” adding that the Emirate “remain[s] committed to ensuring all rights of Afghan women while emphasizing that diversity must be respected & not politicized.” Emirate spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid also weighed in: “The only solution to address all the problems of Afghanistan,” he said, “is to have engagement, dialogue and understanding. They should not block the route for engagement and dialogue, it is very harmful.” Finally, senior Taleban member, Anas Haqqani, called on the UN Security Council to stop chasing “its failed policies” and instead of passing resolutions, concentrate on removing political, economic and banking sanctions, which he said amounted to the “collective punishments of the Afghan people.” Balkhi did, however, say parts of the resolution were positive: “[Its] acknowledgement that Afghanistan faces multifaceted challenges is welcomed…. Afghanistan has suffered from decades long conflict often imposed by foreign powers. The path to post-conflict recovery requires the unconditional removal of UN, multilateral, & unilateral sanctions & restrictions, in addition to the provision of humanitarian & development. Assistance to the country.” (For more media reporting, see ToloNews and BBC Persian.)

It is following the world’s unequivocal condemnation of the Emirate’s working women ban that special envoys and UN officials will start arriving in Doha. The original purpose of the meeting, to come up with a practical approach to engagement, was already difficult enough, given the diverse nature of the participants. The Taleban’s ban on women working for the UN has further complicated matters, as that issue will inevitably loom large, skewing the conversation and taking up airtime – although fleshing out of a common position would be useful, as would backing for whatever the UN does: pull out, suspend, restrict or carry on with its operations.

Many would prefer to shelve any discussion on possible engagement with the Taleban until after the Emirate changes its policies on women, political participation and other freedoms, but for those who advocate political engagement, however limited, the Doha meeting could be an opportunity to start discussing preliminaries: How might the outside world influence Taleban policy? Are there common interests despite bigger differences? Should UNAMA have a role, and if so, what could it look like? How does one engage when even the most senior UN officials, globally, do not get to meet the Kandahar-based leadership?

People from three nations or organisations that have been invited to Doha have told AAN the agenda is limited – “skeletal” was the word used by one. All said that ambitions and expectations were low. It appears the meeting will focus on deliberating international concerns over the Taleban and exploring to see if there are any tools to influence them, or any common ground for better relations between the Emirate and the world – in other words, the very ‘baby steps’ that Amina Mohammed was talking about when she spoke at Princeton. We should not expect an outcome statement, they said, nor a final communiqué, nor a press conference.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Jelena Bjelica


1 On 25 March 2023, Taleban Spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, told AP: “The Islamic Emirate has sent diplomats to at least 14 countries,” including China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, “and other Arab and African countries.”
2 The following countries have diplomatic missions in Afghanistan: China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates. In addition, there is a European Union Delegation, which focuses on the delivery of humanitarian aid and monitoring the humanitarian situation and the United States also maintains an interest section at the Qatar embassy.
3 According to the HRP:

The Humanitarian Coordination Team (HCT) in collaboration with other humanitarian partners and basic human needs actors have developed a related monitoring and reporting framework to report back to the IASC [Inter- Agency Standing Committee] on the permissiveness of the access environment and sectoral and local authorisations, and humanitarian partners’ ability to operate within the IASC Mission recommendations / minimum criteria for operations under the impact of the ban. In the meantime, the humanitarian community continues to assess the impact of the ban across all sectors and engage with [de facto authorities] at the national, regional and provincial levels to overturn the ban.

4 UNAMA’s mandate is another element in the background to questions of engagement with the Taleban and the UN’s role in dealing with them. Divisions among Security Council members around whether UNAMA’s primary focus should be assisting humanitarian and economic crises in Afghanistan or taking on a broader governance and human rights mandate came to the fore when UNAMA’s mandate was up for renewal earlier this year. While UNAMA’s mandate was renewed unchanged for another year, a second UNSC resolution requested “an independent assessment that provides an integrated and coherent approach among different actors in the international community in order to address the current challenges facing Afghanistan”, with a report to be presented to the council before 17 November 2023 (see UN reporting here and AAN analysis in “Two Security Council Resolutions and a Humanitarian Appeal: UN grapples with its role in Afghanistan”. The person charged with making that assessment has now been appointed, Feridun Sinirlioğlu of Türkiye as the Special Coordinator, Independent Assessment Mandated by Security Council Resolution 2679 (2023) (announcement on 25 April here).
5 See his tweets hereherehere and here.
6 The author was told that some embassies have indeed been affected by the ban on employing Afghan women.


The May 2023 Doha meeting: How should the outside world deal with the Taleban?