Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

West Hints at Taliban Recognition Deal

Only Osama bin Laden appears to stand in the way of Western recognition of the Taliban
By Oliver Roy

Prospects of Western recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate Afghan leadership have been set back over the past week or so.

In a tit-for-tat move on Feb 14, the Taliban closed the UN's office in Kabul after the US shut the Islamic group's headquarters in New York the previous week.

Washington said it was complying with current UN sanctions against the Afghan movement. The international embargo had been tightened earlier this year in order to bring pressure on the Taliban to hand over suspected Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden.

The US has told the Taliban that once they offer up bin Laden, or even if bin Laden leaves the country of his own accord, sanctions will be lifted. This would pave the way to UN recognition of the Kabul regime as successors to the Rabbani government-in-exile.

Political commentators had indicated that recognition has been a genuine possibility following the Taliban's military successes last year, which secured them 90 per cent of the country and established them as de facto leaders.

Problems of human and minority rights, the repression of women and the Taliban's open support of Central Asian Islamic militants are not mentioned by the UN as preconditions for the lifting of sanctions. It simply wants the Taliban to wash its hands of bin Laden.

Washington has been demanding his extradition ever since a US court indicted him for allegedly masterminding the bombing of two American embassies in East Africa in 1998. The Taliban have so far refused to countenance Washington's demands.

Should they eventually agree to them, there are several factors which indicate that the international community would consider transferring their allegiance to the Taliban leadership.

Prior to the embassy bombings, the US had sent signals that, while not actively supporting the regime, it was not actually hostile to it.

As far back as 1996, former under-secretary of state Robin Rafel called the Taliban's capture of Kabul "a positive step". (Attitudes did however change when Madeleine Albright took over the State Department in 1997. Albright called the regime "despicable".)

Also, though the Rabbani government-in-exile is both the country's only officially recognised administration and a vocal critic of the Taliban, Washington has never supported Rabanni's allies in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance.

The US Congress has offered financial support to the 'loyah jirgah', a grouping of prominent Afghan individuals living in exile, but this could be interpreted as an attempt by Washington to bring pressure to bear on the Taliban without actively attempting to force them from power.

NGOs operating in Afghanistan have been lobbying for a more conciliatory approach to the Kabul regime. Despite most of them temporarily withdrawing from the country following the imposition of sanctions, they have been able to maintain a working relationship with the Taliban. Improved international relations would certainly make their job easier.

The Taliban have already shown their willingness to negotiate with NGOs on such issues as the education and employment of women, agreeing, somewhat reluctantly, to the setting up of health and education programmes for them and allowing foreign female aid workers into the country.

Another positive indicator for the Taliban is the slowly changing attitude of Afghanistan's neighbours, with the exception of Russia, which has always been strongly opposed to the Kabul regime and has openly supported the Northern Alliance.

Pakistan has long been a staunch supporter of the Taliban and has waged a relentless diplomatic campaign for their international recognition.

Central Asian states have adopted a more benign approach to the Kabul regime recently, especially since its recent military victories over the Northern Alliance. Their reasons for establishing closer ties have varied.

Turkmenistan, for example, is keen on running a gas pipeline through Afghanistan to South Asia, while Uzbekistan and Kazakstan are keen to establish ties as they believe the Taliban may soon become legitimate rulers.

Similarly, Iranian attitudes towards the Taliban shifted at the end of last year. Kabul has sought to encourage a rapprochement by going some way to tackling drugs production and accepting back Shia refugees - two key Tehran demands. So, the only real impasse seems to be bin Laden.

And it's conceivable that the Taliban have intentionally let the pressure mount over bin Laden. With or without Pakistan's connivance, Kabul may have calculated that by doing so western agencies would be ready to forget their qualms over human and women's rights.

Oliver Roy is the author of numerous books and articles on political Islam, the Middle East and Central Asia.