Time to Get Tough on the Taliban

A year after the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, it is clear that the extremist group has changed little since it first took control of the country in 1996. In March 2022, the Taliban decided not to reopen secondary schools for girls across the country – as they had promised just two days earlier – dashed any hopes that the group would rule the country differently this time. And in the weeks since a CIA drone strike killed al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri in a leafy enclave in Kabul, it’s become even clearer that the Taliban continue to harbor terrorist groups.

It is time for the United States and its partners to acknowledge these facts and take an approach to the Taliban that appropriately addresses their actions, rather than encouraging them to continue making empty promises and offering excuses for their outrageous behavior. Cracking down on the Taliban would not mean interfering in humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. It would mean working closely with the UN and like-minded countries to impose consequences on the Taliban for their unacceptable behavior, and withholding high-level engagement with the group until their leadership adopts more dovish policies.


Prior to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, many observers hoped that the Taliban’s desire for international support and legitimacy would help moderate their behavior once in power. On August 17, 2021, just two days after the Taliban took Kabul and took control of the Afghan government, longtime Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid addressed journalists gathered for the Taliban’s first official press conference and assured them told them that Afghanistan’s new Taliban-led government would allow women to work, study and otherwise participate in society “within the limits of Islamic law.”

In today’s Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, women and girls over the age of 12 are officially banned from attending school and have few opportunities to earn wages or work outside the home. They face strict dress codes, new restrictions on leaving their homes without a close male relative, and rising rates of child marriage and domestic violence.

The Taliban have dissolved Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, banned political activities and arrested and interrogated leaders of civil society organizations. They have systematically silenced human rights activists, women’s advocates and others working to build an open and inclusive Afghan civil society. In February, the Taliban arrested more than 20 women activists in a single day.

The Taliban have silenced human rights activists and others working to build an inclusive Afghan civil society.

In May, the UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, warned that the Taliban are creating a society ruled by fear. For many Afghans who worked in the previous government or its national security forces, the Taliban’s disregard for basic human rights has proved deadly. Since last August, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has documented over 237 extrajudicial executions by members of the Taliban. The casualties included 160 members of the former Afghan government and security forces. In the same period, new media restrictions have restricted journalists’ ability to report freely and forced at least a third of Afghan news outlets to close – meaning the number of killings is likely much higher.

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Some courageous Afghan activists are fighting back. PenPath, an Afghan organization working to reopen schools, remains committed to educating girls in some of the most remote parts of the country. Women officials from the Advocacy for Change movement continue to call on the Taliban-led government to respect women’s rights. These and similar organizations deserve international attention and support.

As part of the 2020 Doha Accords the Taliban struck with the United States, the group pledged to prevent al-Qaeda from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States and its allies. But any illusion that the Taliban intended to make good on that promise was shattered in late July when it became clear that Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader, had been living in a Kabul neighborhood at the home of an aide of acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.

To some extent, Zawahiri’s elimination confirms US President Joe Biden’s argument that operations “beyond the horizon” are an effective means of dealing with terrorist threats. But it also shows that the Taliban remain close ties to Al Qaeda and that the terrorist group is taking advantage of the Taliban’s return to power to rebuild their base in Afghanistan. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban’s housing of Zawahiri was in violation of the Doha Accords. But the vaguely worded deal negotiated by the Trump administration does not specifically require the Taliban to expel al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations from Afghan territory.


Some security experts argue that if the United States does not continue its high-level cooperation with the Taliban, Afghanistan is likely to descend into civil war and chaos, creating even greater headaches for the West than it already is. Others argue that the immediate need to work with the Taliban regime to ensure humanitarian aid reaches desperate Afghans should take precedence over human rights concerns. Both arguments miss the mark.

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Agreeing to work with the Taliban regardless of their human rights record will not promote long-term stability. How the Taliban govern their own people is a better determinant of the country’s political stability than whether the United States or any other country sits down for talks with the Taliban. If the Taliban regime continues its repressive approach, the Afghan people will increasingly resent violations of their rights and freedoms, and may even be drawn to further violent resistance – regardless of whether US officials speak to the regime. Pashtana Durrani, the executive director of the Afghan non-profit educational organization LEARN, said in a recent interview that “the most important thing I would like the international community to understand is the fact that hitting the Taliban does not help.”

In late August, the UN warned that 24 million Afghans are still in need of humanitarian assistance and that more than $700 million is needed to help Afghans get through the coming winter. But Washington should confine its cooperation with the Taliban to agreeing on a set of principles for the delivery of aid, including non-interference by the Taliban in the work of organizations implementing aid programs. There is growing concern that Taliban leaders are attempting to manipulate humanitarian aid by choosing which communities receive it and by directing aid organizations to recruit workers from lists they provide.

Working with the Taliban, regardless of their human rights record, will not promote long-term stability.

Last month, the US State Department announced that $3.5 billion in frozen Afghan assets would not be released to the Taliban-controlled Afghan central bank. That was welcome news. On September 14, the Biden administration announced that the money would instead be distributed to the Afghan people through an international fund managed by Swiss government officials and Afghan experts. The new Afghan fund itself will disburse that $3.5 billion to benefit the Afghan people and ensure it remains inaccessible to the Taliban.

But the most important step the United States can take to show the Taliban that business is not the way to go is to support the reinstatement of the UN travel ban on all Taliban leaders, which has been waived since 2019. The exemption expired in late August when the UN Security Council failed to reach an agreement on whether to extend it, but Russia and China are likely to seek further travel exemptions for the Taliban in the future. If the international community continues to allow Taliban officials to travel abroad, it will send the signal that it is acceptable that they continue to oppress women and girls. Last year, the Taliban used the lifting of the travel ban to try to establish international legitimacy by attending international conferences in Norway in January and Uzbekistan in July. Meanwhile, at home, the regime continued to violate women’s rights and intensified its crackdown on Afghan civil society.

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While Washington is reducing its diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, it should also focus on finding creative ways to support Afghan civil society, such as international gatherings. Washington could also allocate more resources to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to increase its focus on preventing human rights abuses and work more closely with Afghan civil society. It is also important that the international community maintain its informal consensus against recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, at least until the group meets basic standards on governance and human rights and takes steps to sever ties with terrorists.

It has been over five months since the Taliban broke their promise to reopen secondary schools for girls. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support organizations working for women’s rights in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, the United States has a moral obligation to Afghan women and girls. The very women and girls whom Washington helped empower are now losing their rights to education and employment, and many now fear for their lives. The UN and international human rights organizations have documented numerous human rights violations in addition to those against women and girls, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, forced evictions, persecution of minorities, torture and a crackdown on journalists and freedom of expression in recent years. The actions of the Taliban are unacceptable and US policy must reflect this by adopting a far tougher crackdown on the Taliban until the group lives up to its earlier promises to respect the rights of all Afghans.


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