The Taliban’s Foreign Policy: The Quest for Legitimacy and Neutrality

By: Ethan Bergman

It has been slightly over one year since the Taliban overthrew the Afghan government in August 2021. The repercussions of this event have marked a failure for human rights, neoliberalism, and the foreign policies of stakeholders such as the United States. Since summer 2021, women’s rights have regressed tremendously, opium production has risen despite the Taliban’s dedication to combatting drugs, and the national economy has contracted by an estimated 30-40%. The failure in Afghanistan occurred despite the involvement of the world’s superpowers which, once again, affirmed the country’s epithet as the graveyard of empires

The Taliban evolved and expanded in recent years from an insurgent militant group associated with terrorists to a short-lived governing power of the Afghan state between 1996 and 2001. Currently, the main political goal for the Taliban is to gain international legitimacy through recognition from foreign powers, maintain its supposed neutrality, and forge a consistent foreign policy. The latter is challenging. In contrast to the previous government’s position, the Taliban does not desire Afghanistan to become an interfering power in its own region,  but aspires to increasingly establish regional relations in Central Asia at the same time. Moreover, the fact that the Taliban executed a coup d’état could mark the Afghan state as violent and undemocratic, which is unappealing for potential international allies. Thus, the question must be posed whether  the newly-formed foreign policy goals are achievable for an extremist group wishing to present itself as the head of a neutral country.

The first step towards gaining international legitimacy is hard to achieve due to the societal belief that established governments cannot morally accept the Taliban as legitimate for fears of being regarded as complicit in the Taliban’s oppression. Yet, international cooperation is still possible, and international recognition as a domino effect occurs surprisingly frequently.

An illustration of this point is the Taliban government of 1996, which was swiftly recognised by Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia as a people-led movement against the communist government. However, further recognition did not follow due to three factors: women’s rights issues, exceedingly high opium production, and direct ties to the al-Qaeda terrorist group. Following 9/11, the United States viewed the Taliban as responsible for the attack on the World Trade Centre and as a crucial player in the framework of international terrorism. For this reason, the Taliban government was toppled as a result of a US-intervention, and replaced with a leadership initially sympathetic to the West.

Given their yearning for legitimacy, national influence, as well as the opportunities arising from the international economic and political system in 2007, the Taliban started engaging in discreet dialogue. In other words, the Taliban met with US, French, Qatari, Chinese, Pakistani, Afghani, and Japanese representatives to discuss stability in war-torn Afghanistan. The Taliban developed  a strategy through which foreign representation became a signal of the Taliban’s renewed emergence as a legitimate representative of Afghan society. Therefore, through this kind of interaction with foreign states, the Taliban gained certain international recognition despite not being an official part of the Afghan government. 

These discreet dialogues prove that the Taliban has the ability to meet and plan with various states behind closed doors to avoid international backlash. While nowadays no state has officially recognised the militant group’s sovereignty, dozens of state representatives have discussed Afghan economic achievements, human rights concerns, security, and military affairs with the Taliban. To illustrate this phenomenon, an elaborated graph by the Washington Institute detailing all diplomatic meetings with the Taliban from August 2021 until August 2022 can be found below.

It should be noted that these interactions, or ‘shadow diplomacy’, do not necessarily imply recognition or approval. Moreover, an entity’s effectiveness can be separated from other elements such as foreign interactions, as well as respect for human and constitutional rights.

In brief, most states follow an institutional approach, focusing on certain non-binding guidelines of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). At times, however, the UNSC can take a binding decision that a situation or entity is illegal, and should not be recognised. For instance, when Namibia was occupied by South Africa, the UNSC required all states to abstain from relations with South Africa. 

As for the Taliban, it is required to adhere to specific obligations in achieving foreign policy goals. The essential criteria for legitimate recognition are an unchallenged control of a state, full governmental independence, and the commitment to international rights and obligations. However, the definition of such commitments is certainly vague and varies in terms of international expectations based on criminal, financial, humanitarian, environmental and other aspects. In the case of contemporary Afghanistan, it is unclear which states will deem specific reforms to be sufficient to declare the Taliban as legitimate. For instance, Sudan may have different expectations regarding the reforming of women’s rights than Canada, while the United States may have broader financial reform expectations than Iran. This unclarity, coupled with various national expectations, poses an issue for the Taliban to meet specific goals in order to achieve legitimacy.

More recently, the UNSC announced on August 30, 2021, that any political settlement with the Taliban regime is predicated on ensuring the full socio-political participation of Afghan women. This decision was most likely taken in an effort to not further push the Taliban into isolationist attitudes after decades of condemnations, especially because these could endanger the fragile social cohesion in Afghanistan. From a humanitarian perspective, some Western states in the UN regard the Taliban as captors holding the Afghan population hostage, and must therefore cooperate with the Taliban to ensure the welfare of Afghanistan’s 39 million inhabitants.

While states rarely question the group’s effectiveness of governance, serious obstacles to gaining legitimacy, such as the lack of governmental independence and international commitments, are embedded in the practices of the Taliban. The group must radically reform itself on respecting human rights and international law (which it fundamentally disagrees with) prior to attempting to achieve its foreign policy goals. Such aspects include respecting equal human rights. Since the Taliban constitutes the current Afghan government, it is now responsible for handling its own past and current violations according to international law. The group is thus required to enforce UNSC financial sanctions against certain individuals from the Taliban itself and against al-Qaeda in line with international counter-terrorism norms. These decisions, necessary for international recognition, imply a radical alteration of the essence of the Taliban. This, in turn, could either cause a civil war or an ultimate power vacuum, which would result in the opportunity for surrounding states to exploit Afghanistan. 

The Taliban itself is waging war against the international legal order through its connections to state-sponsored violence and terrorism, which also traps Afghans and prevents them from benefitting from a globalised system. The question remains – can the Taliban reform itself to fit into this order? The implications of non-recognition affect businesses and institutions alike, making Afghanistan further spiral into isolation. For instance, both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund withdrew funds intended to combat the current financial crisis in the country and the Covid-19 pandemic. Parts of civil society have recognised the perceived international limitations of the Taliban’s rule and lack of legitimacy due to the group’s structure and rigidity in policy. Therefore, foreign agents and organisations have supported various Afghan groups instead of the Taliban government, an action that could have otherwise improved Afghanistan’s international recognition. According to the UN, around 22 resistance groups have been formed in the country since the Taliban’s takeover last year, including the popular National Resistance Front. Despite allegedly being supported by regional powers, the fact that no cohesive opposition to the Taliban has emerged proves that domestic legitimacy and violence are also factors which pose complications regarding the UNSC’s requirements for international legitimacy. These factors are brought on by the aggressive nature of the new government and its connections to allied terror groups aiding to combat the resistance. 

Even if the Taliban regime introduces political reform, it cannot present itself as truly neutral, as its ties with Pakistan and its support of widely-recognised terror groups has so far kept the leadership afloat. Following UN resolution 1373 (2001) requiring further actions to suppress terror financing and foreign fighters, the current reality of Taliban’s ‘extremist diplomacy’ with major terror groups in Pakistan and across the MENA region appears problematic. Failure to address active links with terror organisations posing a regional threat signifies that the Taliban prefers remaining stuck with its current allies rather than engaging in rapprochement with powerful foreign states such as China, Russia, or the United States. However, in committing to such ideological connections, it has alienated the Pakistani government’s support for the coup and has, ironically, eliminated all prospects for regional neutrality. 

While it is true that Pakistan’s Islamists supported the Afghan Taliban’s coup last year, the Taliban has been challenging the current Durand Line border, providing shelter and support to the anti-Pakistan insurgency, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban. In retaliation, Pakistan cut ties with the Taliban government and performed air strikes on Afghan territory. Therefore, despite making commitments to modernise and respect international law and rights in 2021, the Afghan Taliban prioritises its relationship with ideologically similar groups to assure its physical and financial survival rather than complying with the UNSC’s guidelines. As long as the Taliban acts as an insurgent group which shares fighters, funds, and weapons with external threatening agents, its promise of neutrality and hopes of recognition remain challenging.

Although the Taliban’s leadership appears committed to effective rule and to establishing a foreign policy through dozens of ‘discreet dialogue’ meetings, its domestic policies and its undemocratic statesmen are deemed unacceptable by foreign states, preventing international state recognition. While the Taliban has made progress through ‘shadow diplomacy’, the meetings were presumably organised for other reasons than furthering legitimacy. In the case of China, for example, contact was established through foreign diplomats for purposes of humanitarian aid and realpolitik defensive priorities. 

Finally, it is unlikely that the country will improve under the Taliban unless it undergoes fundamental reform, or that state recognition is granted for humanitarian reasons. As the saying goes, a man without friends is a man without power. Either that man changes to accept friends or the man has to go. After a century of deception, occupation, and isolation, Afghanistan’s only chance to flourish is through its re-integration into the international sphere by adapting to, and respecting international law and obligations. 

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