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Can UN Afghanistan conference succeed without the Taliban?

Zia Ur Rehman | Wesley Rahn
February 16, 2024

A UN-hosted conference in Qatar aims to increase international engagement with crisis-ridden Afghanistan. But little progress is expected with regard to the erosion of human rights under the Taliban.

Taliban fighters in the back of a truck in Kabul
The Taliban have refused to reverse a widespread human rights crackdown in exchange for international aidImage: Zerah Oriane/Abaca/picture alliance

On Sunday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will launch a two-day meeting in Doha, bringing together special envoys from UN member states and Afghan civil society representatives in an attempt to chart a course forward for international engagement with Afghanistan.

Since its takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban regime has cracked down violently on civil society, women's rights and dissent.

International donors have also pulled crucial funding used for development projects compounding an ongoing economic crisis.

In November 2023, UN Special Coordinator for Afghanistan Feridun Sinirlioglu submitted a report to the UN Security Council after engaging with Afghan political actors and stakeholders.

The report concluded that "the status quo of international engagement is not working. It does not serve the humanitarian, economic, political or social needs of the Afghan people."

It also offered proposals for a "road map that will enable more effective negotiation and implementation of the priorities of Afghan and international stakeholders."

This would include "architecture for engagement to guide and bring more coherence to political, humanitarian and development activities."

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According to the United States Institute of Peace think tank, making this work is "contingent on the Taliban meeting Afghanistan's international legal and treaty obligations."

"This process would incrementally expand engagement and assistance in tandem with steps by the Taliban to implement and enforce women's rights, human rights and key commitments on security and other concerns," a report said.

About 25 envoys and other delegations have been invited to take part in the Doha meeting, which is intended to provide a forum for these issues.

However, recent statements from the Taliban leadership have dismissed the importance of international engagement, and suggested Taliban officials will only participate under strict conditions.

DW was able to speak with some who said one of the conditions is that they be invited as official representatives of Afghanistan. They also insisted that leaders of rival militias, such as the National Resistance Front (NRF), be excluded, and that no criticism be directed towards them during the discussions.

Taliban will participate, if no one criticizes them

Meeting these conditions will likely prove problematic, as the Taliban government is not officially recognized by any country.

Countries have made any engagement with Afghanistan conditional on the Taliban improving things such as girls' access to education, human rights and inclusive government.

But the militant regime has not shown any signs that it is willing to drop hardline policies, which have included shutting women out of government jobs.

Activists have said that achieving any meaningful progress at the meeting hinges on fair and transparent representation of all relevant groups, including women, political factions, and opposition forces.

"We do not want to attend the conferences where we are not formally invited as the state, and where a group of overseas Afghans, largely associated with Western-funded projects and rival armed militias like the NRF, are invited to critique our governance," a Taliban official, who requested anonymity because he lacks authorization to talk to the media, told DW. 

Afghan girls face bleak future amid secondary school ban

As the Taliban dismiss the importance of international engagement for Afghanistan, the situation in the country remains dire. While initial fears of widespread violence have subsided, the country faces a multitude of challenges, from a crippled economy and restricted education to ongoing human rights concerns and a divided population.

The Afghan economy, already fragile before the Taliban takeover, has taken a significant hit. Frozen bank accounts and international sanctions, coupled with the exodus of skilled professionals, have plunged the country into a deep recession.

Poverty has soared, and international efforts to incentivize reforms based on improving human rights have yielded limited results, especially regarding women's rights.

"We used to have a thriving business, but now there are hardly any customers," Abdul Rasheed, a shopkeeper in Kandahar told DW. "People simply don't have the money to spend." 

Ordinary Afghans have expressed a mix of hope and anxiety about the Doha meeting. 

Nadira Khanam is a Kabul-based educator, who was barred from teaching after girls above sixth grade were banned from attending school by the Taliban. "The international community has left us in the lurch," she said. The international community "does not care about Afghan people after withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan." 

What can the conference achieve?

Providing international aid still requires engagement with the Taliban, which most organizations and governments are reluctant about. Although the Taliban have shown no sign of changing their ways, the UN conference can still draw global attention to the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan.

"While the Doha meeting lacks a defined outcome, it provides a crucial platform for key players and aid organizations to engage in frank, closed-door discussions on pressing issues," said Muhammad Israr Madani, head of the International Research Council for Religious Affairs, an Islamabad-based think tank.

"The international community ought to approach the Afghanistan issue from a humanitarian perspective rather than a political one," Madani told DW. 

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Deprose Muchena, a senior director at Amnesty International, said in a statement that the upcoming Doha meeting was a "significant opportunity for a unified and concerted action to protect the rights of all Afghan people, particularly the rights of women and girls."

"The culture of impunity that enables the Taliban's ongoing grave human rights violations needs to be addressed urgently."

"The international community cannot continue to take a 'business as usual' approach vis-a-vis the human rights situation in Afghanistan."

Amnesty International also called on everyone attending the meeting to insist that the Taliban "immediately reverse all restrictions curtailing the rights of women and girls and release all those arbitrarily arrested and unlawfully detained."

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia