American diplomats should stay out of Afghanistan


While the world has paid close attention to wars and atrocities elsewhere, Afghanistan’s people have been ruled by a sanctioned extremist group since 2021 that keeps public order through force and coercion. The depth of Taliban depravity includes extrajudicial killings, silencing free speech and even kidnapping teenaged girls on the grounds that they are “improperly” covered and holding them in prison, where they are subject to torture and rape.

On Feb. 18-19, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will meet in Qatar with special envoys for Afghanistan from over 20 countries, plus the European Union and Organization of Islamic Cooperation. This is the second time such a format is being employed in an attempt to bring unified international pressure to mitigate the human rights and security disaster that is Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The Secretary General also is trying to advance the nomination of a new special envoy for Afghanistan, as authorized by the UN Security Council in late December.

This miracle-worker-to-be must focus world attention on how to support a united non-Taliban Afghanistan populace to take part in intra-Afghan talks, while withholding formal recognition from the Taliban until it tangibly implements the international human rights obligations of the Afghan state.

Kathy Gannon, a journalist versed on Afghanistan and the region, wrote recently that the U.S. should “go back to Afghanistan” by reopening an embassy. She argued that this would lead to a deeper understanding of the Taliban and therefore improve our foreign policy. Deep understanding certainly is a policymaking asset. But one must balance that against the strongly negative impact that American “wingtips on the ground” would have on our wider strategic policy goals. 

Having an American embassy may appear to be a neutral act — after all, they exist in countries with hostile governments — but sending U.S. diplomats back to Afghanistan without any Taliban concessions would not be neutral. After all, an embassy is not a newspaper bureau of independent foreign correspondents; it is an ecosystem of diplomats whose presence would confer an unearned legitimacy on the Taliban and require a strengthening of ties.

Given ongoing security threats, U.S. diplomats would need Taliban guards on the compound and armed Taliban escorts to move around; those diplomats’ meetings with Afghans would be as honest as a visit to a Soviet-era Potemkin village. Normalization of an inexcusable gender-apartheid regime could follow. A reopened U.S. embassy would lead to other countries opening their missions, serving as an endorsement of the Taliban, which inspires terror groups around the world, thus giving those groups all the blueprint they need to imagine holding their own territory. 

So much has been lost since the ill-fated Doha Agreement was signed four years ago. The only lever of international suasion remaining rests with diplomatic recognition and paths to power and money, which the Taliban want to posses without changing their ideology or repression.

Rather than concede to the Taliban, the U.S. and like-minded countries should strengthen their commitment to the Afghan people. For example, in September, during the UN General Assembly High-level Week, foreign ministers should meet with prominent Afghan human rights defenders representing multiple political and ethnic groups. Diplomats should meet, and publicize those encounters, with various Afghan constituencies, particularly women (photographed from the back for safety), business and professional sectors and the youth.

Contact with the Taliban should be downgraded to the lowest possible technical level, without allowing photographs in official settings. UN travel sanctions against specific Taliban officials should be strengthened, and more officials should be listed under the current sanctions regime for harboring terror groups and creating new jihadi-based madrassas for the purpose of indoctrinating Afghan youth, not educating them.

Afghan citizens push back on social media, one of the few semi-free civic spaces still available to them, and international allies should help. There should be a consistent assessment of the Taliban’s measures against women as potentially acts of “gender apartheid” within United Nations circles. The UN and NGOs should launch social media campaigns to highlight the Sustainable Development Goals and the Taliban’s failure to abide by these and Afghanistan’s many international commitments to human rights, including the right to a formal education. Radio campaigns aimed at rural Afghans, especially at-home women, could also support these goals. 

International humanitarian relief should continue, but donors need full disclosure of Taliban budget, income and expenditures, and should press them to spend their own money on basic human needs as conditions of continued assistance beyond emergency aid. In this light, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction should investigate how foreign aid could have inadvertently freed up resources from Afghanistan’s national revenues to finance the Taliban’s repressive measures. The findings and recommendations of such an assessment should ensure maximum aid effectiveness and deny the Taliban any opportunity to indirectly benefit from foreign aid that is meant to address the urgent needs of the Afghan people. 

The future UN Special Envoy’s nearly impossible job is to be the voice of a unitary international position challenging the Taliban’s flagrant violations of human rights. Opening a bilateral embassy — or in any way upgrading U.S. contact with the Taliban — undermines that envoy, negatively affects American security interests and betrays those in Afghanistan still struggling for their rights. 

Annie Pforzheimer, a former career diplomat, was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan and is currently an adjunct assistant professor of international relations at the City University of New York. M. Ashraf Haidari has served as the ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, and recently taught as an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. 

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