'Conditional engagement' with the Taliban could help the West protect Afghan civil rights: expert
China, Russia may have role, but unclear if they'll hold Taliban to account: Madiha Afzal
A foreign policy expert says the West may have to form some kind of relationship with the Taliban's new regime in Afghanistan, in an effort to preserve some of the civil rights fostered there in the last 20 years.
"The reality of the matter is that the Taliban, unfortunately, really has the upper hand right now," said Madiha Afzal, the David M. Rubenstein Fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.
"And it may be that the West has to engage with a government that it finds extremely distasteful in order to protect some semblance of rights," she told The Current's guest host Nora Young.
"On the other hand, you know, it has to be a very conditional engagement."
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that Ottawa would not recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government, adding that Canada also did not recognize the previous regime, which ended with the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The Taliban is still listed as a terrorist organization by Canada and its allies.
The group has retaken control of the country in recent weeks amid the withdrawal of U.S. forces and other allies. Their rapid advance has prompted thousands of Afghans to flee, leading to chaotic scenes at Kabul's airport.
The previous regime was aligned with a strict interpretation of Shariah law, with women largely confined to their homes and excluded from education. But on Tuesday the group urged women to join its government, saying it "doesn't want women to be victims," and that they should partake in government, within the rules and structures outlined in Shariah law.
Many experts say those reassurances should not be taken at face value.
"I don't think we can trust, nor should we, the words of the Taliban," said Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.
"It's just a reality, frankly. The history of their terror activities and their entire ideology is so perverse."
However, Afzal said if the West does engage the Taliban diplomatically, it has some tools to use as leverage, such as imposing sanctions, or offering aid. But the options are limited, and public opinion may be opposed, she said.
"It will be hard for the West, frankly, to justify engaging with a government … just blatantly violating rights, as you know, many of us expect the Taliban to do," she said.
Other countries in the region — such as China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan — "may actually have more of a role here, but whether they're willing to hold the Taliban to account is something to be seen," she said.
Neighbours want 'eyes and ears on the ground'
Russia intends to keep an embassy in Afghanistan, a country it has a complicated history with, including a 10-year war with insurgents there in the 1980s.
But Momani said while Russia will maintain a presence, she doesn't expect "a warming of relations, necessarily."
"I think the real actor to watch is China," she said.
The country shares a small border with Afghanistan along China's northwestern Xinjiang region, which is home to the Uyghur people, a Muslim ethnic minority. In recent years, the UN has accused China of imprisoning more than a million Uyghurs in concentration and "deradicalization" camps, which the country denies.
Momani said China will want to maintain the security of that border, as the government may "fear that there might be help to the Uyghurs coming through that border."
"They also want to stop the Uyghurs perhaps escaping into Afghanistan."
Afzal said that the Taliban's resurgence has been quietly applauded in neighbouring Pakistan.
"But what Pakistanis don't realize is that the Pakistani Taliban, which has killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis, is really the ideological twin, if you will, of the Afghan Taliban," she said.
The resurgence next door could have "terrible security implications" and embolden jihadists in Pakistan, she said.
"There are elements in the Pakistani state that recognize that, but it's something that's escaping the wider majority of the population," she said.
Those security implications won't escape China's notice, she said, particularly in light of the Belt and Road Initiative, a Beijing-financed infrastructure project through Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond. Significant parts of the initiative are based in Pakistan.
China may maintain a relationship with the Taliban as a way to prevent attacks against Chinese workers and investments in Pakistan, she said.
Beyond that, Momani said China will have limited economic interest in Afghanistan, and will be there "to keep their eyes and ears on the ground."
Momani also added that Iran has a very different interpretation of Islamic law than the Taliban, and has had "quite serious skirmishes" with them in the past.
But she said Iran's leadership has always felt threatened by the U.S. presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and will be pleased the country has pulled out.
"I wouldn't argue so far that they're happy to see the Taliban come in," she said.
"But they have made an effort to try to reach out to the Taliban, in essence, to try and ensure that there's some sort of diplomatic relationship."
While thousands are fleeing the advance of the Taliban, Obaidullah Baheer has decided to stay.
"Some of us have to stay behind and use our voices to make sure that an echo chamber doesn't form in Afghanistan," said Baheer, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.
"We cannot let the Taliban just hear and see whatever their vision is and work with it," he said.
"We have to sit down and we have to negotiate in the margins to make sure that the world that is created in this country is one that is livable for all sides."
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ben Jamieson and Ryan Chatterjee.