U.N. Conference Highlights Global Unity but Limited Leverage Over the Taliban

Over a year and a half since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, not a single country has recognized its government. Yet, it has resulted in no change in Taliban behavior. The worst predictions of what Taliban rule could be like have come true, as the regime has implemented unprecedented restrictions on women amid a brutal humanitarian crisis. The situation is so bad that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres convened a special conference in Doha, Qatar this week — with no Taliban representation — to discuss Afghanistan’s international isolation. While there were no tangible outcomes — evidence of how limited the international community’s leverage really is — it did demonstrate remarkable consensus on the imperative to help the Afghan people.
USIP’s Scott Worden, Kate Bateman, Belquis Ahmadi and Andrew Watkins assess whether the U.N. can really do anything about the situation in Afghanistan, what this means for U.S. policy, if Afghan women can glean any hope from the Doha conference and how the Taliban have responded.

What is the significance of the U.N. secretary-general calling a meeting of international envoys to discuss Afghanistan now? Can the U.N. really do anything about the situation?

Worden: The Doha meeting this week was extraordinary in several dimensions. The secretary-general rarely calls a meeting outside of the U.N.’s headquarters in New York to deal with a particular national crisis, and even more rarely convenes such a diverse group of international and regional diplomats without inviting representatives of the country concerned. The fact that two dozen special envoys from across the world met in Doha to talk about the problems of Taliban rule without the Taliban is a sign of just how bad the regime has become.

The Taliban’s unprecedented ban on Afghan women working for the U.N. in Afghanistan was the proximate cause of the discussion. But really this was the final straw on top of waves of human rights abuses and security breaches that violate core principles of the U.N. charter. When U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed rushed to Afghanistan in January after the Taliban banned women from working for NGOs and universities, she could not even get a meeting with the Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada. Provoked by the Taliban’s enforcement of the ban on women working for the U.N. and vexed by the Taliban’s refusal to abide by the most basic diplomatic norms, the U.N. called for this week’s meeting.

Another rare feature of the U.N. gathering is the universality of member states’ condemnation of the Taliban’s policies and actions. Just before the meeting, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to condemn the Taliban’s women’s rights restrictions, calling for “full, equal, meaningful and safe participation of women and girls in Afghanistan” and for “the Taliban to swiftly reverse the policies and practices that restrict the enjoyment by women and girls of their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

It is amazing to think that the United States, Russia and China can agree on anything these days, but the Taliban have managed to unite them with their offensive conduct. At the Doha meeting, an even larger group of national envoys to Afghanistan — which included Iran, Pakistan, India, Turkey, as well as Central Asian and Gulf states — maintained their non-recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and Guterres called on the Taliban to improve their performance on the “inter-connected” issues of human rights, inclusive governance, counterterrorism and anti-drug trafficking efforts. Amid so many conflicts that the U.N. is divided on, the Doha meeting shows the body can demonstrate unity and international resolve.

Despite the solidarity, not much new leverage was found to move the Taliban off their extreme positions. No one is contemplating the use of force in a country that has seen far too much death and destruction over the past many decades. The Taliban are already the subject of multiple U.N. sanctions regimes and are not a recognized government. Humanitarian aid is declining but that tends to hurt most the Afghan people U.N. members are trying to help.

What else is to be done?

Guterres called for another meeting in several months and in that time it will be important to translate international resolve into a set of clear minimum steps the Taliban must take to even begin a conversation about international legitimacy and communicate those through detailed engagements with the Taliban. At the same time, the international community needs to develop more ways to directly support Afghan civil society that opposes Taliban excesses so they can push for reforms from within the Taliban. Guterres pointed to another recent U.N. Security Council Resolution 2679, which calls for an independent assessment to “provide recommendations for an integrated and coherent approach by the international community to the current challenges facing Afghanistan.” This presents a new opportunity to translate international resolve into more concrete actions to induce the Taliban to uphold their international obligations.

What are the implications for U.S. policy?

Bateman: The United States’ policy goals vis-à-vis Afghanistan center on mitigating the country’s severe humanitarian and economic crises; opposing and mitigating the effects of the Taliban’s oppression of women, girls and minorities; and addressing the threat of terrorist attacks emanating from the country. On all these priorities, the United States is well served by acting in concert with other countries, which to a remarkable extent share these goals.

To stabilize the Afghan economy and prevent another tailspin like that seen in the fall of 2021, sustained cashflows for humanitarian services are needed. Particularly amid donor fatigue and many other global crises, donors need to coordinate to better monitor assistance and ensure humanitarian aid does not suddenly fall off. The United States and international community also need to speak with one voice and exert as much pressure as possible on the Taliban government to restore basic freedoms and to end its gross violations of human rights and women’s rights. It is particularly important that Muslim countries and organizations and regional actors deliver similar messages. Finally, given the United States’ and others’ dramatically reduced visibility on the ground in Afghanistan, it is critical that Washington discusses with other countries developments in the security situation and activities of terrorist groups.

The meeting in Doha, despite lacking any substantive statement on outcomes, was an important opportunity for closed-door, frank conversations among key players and aid organizations on all the above issues. It was announced that a similar meeting will be held in three to six months. If between now and then, the international consensus on non-recognition of the Taliban government holds, we can assess that this week’s meetings might have reinforced that consensus — which preserves some of the very limited leverage that exists for outsiders seeking to improve the situation in Afghanistan.

Can Afghan women derive any hope from statements in Doha?

Ahmadi: Afghan women’s rights advocates have been consistent and vocal about the need for the international community to maintain pressure on the Taliban to reverse their draconian restrictions on women’s rights and to keep discussion about recognizing the Taliban government off the table as long as a system of gender apartheid remains. Afghan women were therefore given new hope by the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2681 calling for a reversal of the Taliban’s ban on women working for the U.N. and for the Taliban to “swiftly reverse the policies and practices that restrict the enjoyment by women and girls of their human rights and fundamental freedoms including related to their access to education, employment, freedom of movement, and women’s full, equal and meaningful participation in public life.” The resolution further “urges all States and organizations to use their influence … to promote an urgent reversal of these policies and practices.” The U.N.’s refusal to invite the Taliban to join the discussion in Doha was a good step in this direction.

Guterres’ statement that now is not the right time to meet with the Taliban sends a strong signal to the Taliban that the international community cannot separate the regime’s request for political legitimacy from international demands for rights reforms. Indeed, Guterres said after the meeting that it is essential for the international community to maintain unity behind their collective concerns about human rights, terrorism, political inclusion and narcotics trafficking, and recognize that the issues are intertwined. Guterres underscored that “we will never be silent in the face of unprecedented, systemic attacks on women and girls’ rights” and that “when millions of women and girls are being silenced and erased from sight … [it] is a grave violation of fundamental human rights.”

A coalition of Afghan women, including many currently living in Afghanistan, submitted written recommendations to the international envoys on ways they can deliver on their commitments to pressure the Taliban on women’s rights. These include expanding travel bans on Taliban officials to include political representatives in Doha and better monitoring humanitarian assistance within Afghanistan to ensure the Taliban are not siphoning aid for their own benefit. Another request is that future meetings of international envoys include side meetings with Afghan women — particularly important considering that Afghan women are not otherwise represented by any Afghan officials and are being intentionally erased from the political conversation by the Taliban. It will be important for the special assessment of international engagement with the Taliban, led by Turkish diplomat Feridun Sinirlioglu, to meet directly with Afghan women to understand their priorities and fully account for the Taliban’s violations of women’s and human rights.

How do the Taliban read the signals from the Doha meeting?

Watkins: In the days leading up to the gathering, there were conflicting reports that the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, might attend. U.N. officials insisted the Taliban was not invited, but there may have been some planning for the Taliban to arrange meetings on the sidelines. In the end, influential member states, including the United States, appear to have enforced the U.N.’s travel ban on senior Taliban officials (including Muttaqi) and there was no trip. Beyond any of the speeches or statements issued from the gathering, this may have been the strongest signal sent to the Taliban.

The Taliban have not put out an official statement on the summit in Doha, but at least one of their diplomatic officials offered comments to the press. Suhail Shaheen, head of their political office based in Doha, “expressed regret” that the group was not invited to participate, and said such exclusion was “one-sided and ineffective.” That their chief spokesman, ministry of foreign affairs and other senior officials declined to comment on the summit is a statement of itself.

The Taliban have, however, commented on other recent U.N. actions and statements. The latest was a U.N. Security Council resolution, adopted just days before the summit, that strongly condemned the Taliban for having applied a ban on female Afghan staff working in U.N. offices across the country. The Taliban’s official response was Orwellian: They praised the resolution for reaffirming the Security Council’s “strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan,” as well as “support for the Afghan people” and the principle of self-determination. Only further into the statement did the Taliban reject the resolution’s condemnation, insisting that restrictions on women are an “internal social matter … that does not impact outside states.”

The U.N.’s position on the women’s ban, its prominent place in this Doha gathering and the remarkable global consensus it demonstrated are unlikely to pressure a reversal in the Taliban’s gender policies in the foreseeable future. If anything, in the near term the gathering may heighten Taliban suspicions toward the United Nations as a vehicle for Western interests and agendas, which many in their leadership seem to believe are meant to harm or weaken them. It may also further confirm, among their leadership, that the only diplomatic approach offering any open doors is one that anchors itself in the region, especially in engagement with adversaries of the United States, such as Russia, Iran and China. In spite of those countries’ attendance and agreement with the U.N. summit’s position, they and other neighboring states have increasingly offered de facto normalization of relations, a consolation prize that does not require the Taliban to bend to outside pressure.

U.N. Conference Highlights Global Unity but Limited Leverage Over the Taliban