How to deal with the Taliban? At the World Economic Forum in Davos
Qatar’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, outlined how his country intends to deal with the radical Islamists in Afghanistan. Certainly, he conceded, the Taliban’s recent actions are “highly disappointing.” But Doha will continue its diplomatic engagement as it is the only way to bring about change in Afghanistan.
Doha is also consulting with other Muslim countries to engage in dialogue with Taliban officials in Kandahar, the foreign minister said. Although this is “not an easy task”, it is important to keep trying.
Qatar will continue to support Afghan women. Afghan women “will assert themselves, just as they have asserted themselves before. We will stand by them, we will support them,” the foreign minister told CNN on the fringes of the World Economic Forum.
Qatar does not want to be discouraged
At the same time, he admits that his country has not yet been able to achieve any success in dialogue with the Taliban. “We even tried Kandahar (traditional center of power of the Taliban and informal seat of leadership – Red.) and have a dialogue with them. So far we have not been able to do that, but we are in constant contact with other countries in the region, some Muslim countries,” Al-Thani said in a public round of talks in Davos.
The United Nations are also seeking talks with the Taliban. In mid-January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres denounced the “unprecedented systematic attacks on the rights of women and girls” in Afghanistan. He spoke of a “gender apartheid”. A few days ago, a UN delegation headed by Deputy UN Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and the Director of the UN Women’s Organization, Sima Bahous, traveled to Kabul to discuss the human rights situation there.
It is necessary to talk to the Taliban, says Thomas Ruttig, co-founder of the independent think tank Afghanistan Analysts Network. Precisely because the Taliban’s anti-women and human rights measures are unacceptable and the Afghan population is unable to articulate their own ideas openly and without risk, states and institutions need to talk to the Taliban. “Talking doesn’t mean agreeing with the other side’s positions,” Ruttig told DW.
Saudi Arabia’s new course
That is why Ruttig also welcomes the initiatives of some Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. “They probably have more opportunities than the Western countries to make themselves heard by the ultra-conservative leadership of the Taliban. Because Hibatullah Achundsada, the leader of the Taliban, has so far received no Western diplomats and very few diplomats in general.”
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been involved in Afghanistan for years. After Saudi Arabia supported religiously motivated resistance fighters there for years after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979-89 and also contributed to their ideological radicalization, the kingdom is now pursuing other goals. As the country in which the founder of the Islamic religion Mohammed was born and in which the central Islamic sanctuaries are located, Saudi Arabia enjoys a certain reputation in Afghanistan, despite all the political differences. The kingdom uses this to propagate its version of a – comparatively – moderate Islam. Funds are provided by the Islamic Development Bank and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Through them, Saudi Arabia is engaged in humanitarian activities and, as far as possible, also in order to convey its concept of modern Islam to the Taliban leadership.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Al-Thani (middle) and then US counterpart Mike Pompeo (l) at the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020 in Doha.
Qatar takes a different approach. The country has established itself as a regional diplomatic authority and as such brokered the 2020 Doha Accord between the US and the Taliban. Instead of the agreed peace talks with the then government in Kabul, however, the Taliban took over control of Kabul after the western troops withdrew.
The Taliban have maintained a political office in the Qatari capital, Doha, since 2013. This is still an important international contact point for them, although according to press reports they have told their hosts that they also want to try other diplomatic channels. In addition, the Taliban have repeatedly demonstrated to the Qatari leadership that they have limited influence: so far, they have not been wrested from their hosts by making significant concessions, for example in relation to human and women’s rights. “The Afghan dilemma cannot be solved by one country alone,” says a January 2023 analysis by the Washington think tank Atlantic Council, which is close to the government.
International community required
According to the Atlantic Council, the Gulf States have not yet found a clear answer to the question of the extent to which they want to cooperate with the Islamist Taliban regime. But there seems to be a growing belief that limited ties with the Taliban could help address security and humanitarian concerns. “As long as these efforts are focused on the basic needs of the suffering Afghan people and have a humanitarian basis, the international community should not leave the burden of providing humanitarian assistance to the country to its Gulf partners alone.”
All in all, however, the possibilities for influencing are manageable, says Thomas Ruttig. This also applies to international organizations such as the United Nations as well as to Western countries. Their decision to suspend development cooperation after the Taliban took power in August 2021 is problematic in that it primarily affects the population. However, there are mechanisms to work directly with local communities. “Of course it’s problematic that you can’t completely avoid working with the Taliban. But to ensure people’s survival, you have to be willing to make compromises,” says the German Afghanistan expert.
UN special envoy for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarow: “It is important that we continue”, despite the ban on women working in NGOs.
The UN must not act as representatives of the West
For the United Nations, on the other hand, it is important that they do not act as representatives of the West. “In this role, the Taliban would reject the UN even more,” warns Ruttig. It is all the more important to rely on the more moderate parts of the Taliban, those who also follow a radical Islamist agenda, but at the same time want to serve the country. However: “As long as there is no progress in contacts, the population will continue to be exposed to the irrational restrictions of the government led by the Taliban.”