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The Taliban's Quest For Legitimacy Faces Mounting Obstacles


Taliban officials arrange a Taliban flag before the start of the group's press conference on August 17, at which the militants sought to assuage fears that they would reestablish a repressive regime in Afghanistan similar to that of their previous stint in power in 1996-2001.

A week after the Taliban established near complete control over Afghanistan, its leaders want to assure international audiences that they are considering an inclusive political system and would not let the country again become a hub for terrorists.

But the Islamist group's attempts to gain widespread legitimacy are meeting significant obstacles, with few Western countries seemingly willing to recognize a Taliban government in what would be a repeat of its 1996-2001 rule.

But Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China seem prepared to work with the new government, which might prevent the Taliban from again becoming an international pariah. Its previous regime was recognized only by neighboring Pakistan as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Western leaders dangle recognition as an incentive for the Taliban to rein in its behavior, but the economic costs are rising. The U.S. government has frozen billions of dollars in Afghan central bank reserves and the International Monetary Fund said it will withhold $450 million in aid due to be sent to Kabul.

"The Taliban do understand, at least at the leadership level, the absolute necessity and significance of international aid, and they also know that those aid flows cannot happen unless the Taliban regime has international legitimacy," Hameed Hakimi, a research associate at London's Chatham House think tank, told RFE/RL's Gandhara. "The Taliban are very keen on international recognition because they want to clear up their international image."

Janan Mosazai, a former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan and China, agrees.

"[The Taliban] have made it clear that they have made mistakes in the past and that they have learned from those mistakes and they want to take actions this time that would not repeat those mistakes," he said. "One of those mistakes was that they governed in a way that repulsed the international community, which won them very narrow recognition."

Well-Oiled PR Machine

Mosazai added that the Taliban cannot gain international recognition by making promises.

"They must show their genuine commitment to the establishment of what they call themselves an inclusive representative Islamic government that will have representation from all the ethnic and linguistic groups -- the rich diversity of Afghanistan."

The Taliban's well-oiled PR machine is intent on honing this message.

"We are working toward setting up an inclusive government -- [this] means that we do not…want a monopoly of power," Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, told TRT World as senior Taliban leaders held talks with top political leaders, including former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Afghanistan's national reconciliation commission in the recently ousted government.

The Taliban has declared a general amnesty for soldiers and anyone who worked for the government, and thus far has largely refrained from targeting senior former officials or other opponents.

"We want Afghans of all ethnicities to be united and be a part of the government as now is the time to build Afghanistan after the foreign forces have left," Shaheen added.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid talks with journalists during a press conference in Kabul on August 17.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid talks with journalists during a press conference in Kabul on August 17.

"You will not be harmed [by anyone based on] our soil," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said as he reiterated that the militant Islamist group would not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists.

Like other Taliban leaders, Mujahid emerged from two decades of hiding. He also claimed responsibility for thousands of Taliban attacks while telling Afghanistan's independent media that the militants were "committed to letting women work in accordance with the principles of Islam."

But just more than a week since it took control of the capital, Kabul, the Taliban is under mounting international scrutiny.

'Existential Crisis'

Under fire for his decision to withdraw and its poor execution, U.S. President Joe Biden has indicated that Washington is working with its Western allies to pressure the Taliban into meeting tough conditions in exchange for recognition and the legitimacy that comes with it.

"It will depend on whether they get help -- based on whether or not and how well they treat women and girls, how they treat their citizens," Biden said on August 20.

He had indicated earlier that the Taliban was going through "an existential crisis about [whether] they want to be recognized by the international community as a legitimate government."

'I Cannot Believe Them': Afghan Women Skeptical Of Taliban's Promises
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But the Taliban's alleged violations of human rights and possible links with transnational militants have prompted Britain to reportedly push for sanctions during this week's Group of Seven summit.

"It would be a mistake for any country to recognize any new regime in Kabul prematurely or bilaterally," U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week. "Those countries that care about Afghanistan's future…work toward common conditions about the conduct of the new regime before deciding, together, whether to recognize it and on what terms."

In the European Union, leaders remain on speaking terms with the Taliban but are withholding their recognition.

"The Taliban [has] won the war, so we will have to talk with them," Josep Borrell, the EU's top diplomat, said on August 17. "In order to engage in a dialogue as soon as necessary to prevent a humanitarian and potential migratory disaster."

Together with Japan, Australia, and other allies, the United States and the EU were the leading donors in Afghanistan. Their economic and humanitarian assistance will be key in preventing an economic crisis.

But Hakimi said the Taliban leaders' presence on UN sanctions lists and the freezing of the country's assets put the group in a tight spot.

"For the Taliban [to gain] legitimacy and the ability to govern, they have to show that they can manage the economy and the governance system."

"Remember, the Afghan government has been the largest employer in the country, so if it is now sanctioned, you are talking about hundreds of thousands of families affected," he added. "The West sees [aid] as a leverage point against the Taliban. The more vulnerability they see in the Taliban, the more they could be reluctant to [give aid] in order to change the behavior of the Taliban."

Taliban Fighters Going 'House To House' For Kabul Street Executions
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Afghanistan's influential neighbors -- Pakistan and Iran -- and global powers China and Russia, however, are taking another approach. As Western diplomats left in the last few weeks when the Taliban swept across Afghanistan, they have kept their embassies open.

Pakistan is eager to recognize the Taliban government after hosting the movement's leadership and bankrolling the insurgency for nearly two decades.

Senior politicians in Islamabad speaking on condition of anonymity told Gandhara that Pakistan's powerful military leaders have told the country's political parties to demand their government recognize the Taliban's administration. They requested anonymity because of possible reprisals.

But publicly, Islamabad is pushing for a regional and international consensus in recognizing the Taliban.

"We are in touch with our friends, both in [this] region and internationally, and we will decide accordingly," Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry recently said of his government's efforts to secure a consensus before recognizing the Taliban.

China is reportedly ready to recognize the Taliban government once it is formally announced.

"We hope the Afghan Taliban can form solidarity with all factions and ethnic groups in Afghanistan and build a broad-based and inclusive political structure suited to the national realities, so as to lay the foundation for achieving enduring peace in the country," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told journalists on August 16.

In recent months, Beijing has made it clear that it will support the future Afghan government with investment and infrastructure projects in return for cooperation in battling the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a Uyghur separatist group.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, has publicly stated that the Kremlin will recognize the Taliban government.

"The Taliban now controls almost the entire territory of [Afghanistan], including its capital. This is the reality, and we must proceed from this reality as we strive to avoid the collapse of the Afghan state," he told journalists on August 20. "It is imperative to put an end to the irresponsible policy of imposing outside values on others."

Like China and Russia, Iran has cultivated and nurtured contacts with the Taliban for years and is looking at its return to power with optimism.

"The military defeat and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan should offer an opportunity to restore life, security, and lasting peace in that country," new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi reportedly told his outgoing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on August 16.

Hakimi said that in addition to external and internal pressures, the Taliban's actions might be motivated by a desire to change its image from an ultraradical group bent on grabbing power through force.

"For the past 20 years, the world has closely watched Taliban actions, and the Taliban are aware of that baggage," he said. "They are now very keen on clearing that image."

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. 

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