A Taliban fighter stands in the corner of a busy street at night in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 17, 2021.

Afghanistan

The Taliban want international recognition. Countries are debating.

The Taliban are back in power, and they want the world to recognize them as the new government in Afghanistan. Foreign powers are each making their own calculations.

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A Taliban fighter stands in the corner of a busy street at night in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 17, 2021.

Credit:

Felipe Dana/AP

It’s been one month since the Taliban captured Kabul, and it now has an interim government in Afghanistan.

Taliban leaders see themselves as the country’s rightful leaders — even though they grabbed power by force. And, they want the world to recognize them. Foreign powers are each making their own calculations about how to handle the situation.

Related: 'It is a catastrophe': Afghans are in desperate need of food, humanitarian aid, refugee worker says

This week, about two dozen former Afghan diplomats put out a statement asking countries not to recognize the Taliban. Doing so, they wrote, would be to “validate their suppressive regime.”

In the US, a number of Republicans are urging the Biden administration to designate the Taliban as a terrorist organization, saying in a letter on Wednesday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the “current version of the Taliban government presents a significant threat to the United States.”

Although the Taliban were Specially Designated Global Terrorists under George W. Bush in 2002, they are not currently on the US’ list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, the State Department told The Hill, though they are categorized as an insurgency.

The Taliban, meanwhile, have been doing their own outreach — they met with UN officials and asked for all sanctions to be lifted and their assets to be unfrozen.

But what is recognition and what does it entail? The World spoke with several analysts who weigh in, below.

What recognition means

According to Scott R. Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and senior editor for Lawfare, “the term itself is often misunderstood to imply the normalization of relations between states or even the endorsement of one government by another.

“In reality, recognition is a far more narrow legal act that bears on, but is distinct from, many of the substantive policy decisions that define bilateral relationships.”

Scott R. Anderson, Brookings Institution fellow and senior editor for Lawfare

“In reality, recognition is a far more narrow legal act that bears on, but is distinct from, many of the substantive policy decisions that define bilateral relationships.”

Anderson compared state and government recognition to corporate management.

Related: Afghan women to the Taliban: #DoNotTouchMyClothes

“You think of a company like Walmart. You see the board of Walmart, the CEO and others might get fired but the legal entity of Walmart still exists and any contracts it enters into, any property it owns as a corporate entity, continues to be with that corporate entity even if it’s under the control of new individuals.

“When a state enters into a treaty or takes on various international legal obligations, those obligations carry through with the state, even when governments change.”

History repeats itself 

This is not the first time that countries are having to decide whether to recognize the Taliban.

In 1996, in scenes not too different from today’s, the group rolled into Kabul and took over the country by force. But at the time, there were pockets of the country that the Taliban didn’t control and a resistance movement was holding out in the north.

The former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, also continued to represent Afghanistan at the United Nations.

“Because you still had that continuity of that claim of government and other parts of Afghan territory that [the] Taliban didn’t quite fully control, the United States and the rest of the international community resisted recognizing them,” Anderson explained.

Related: Taliban’s 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan' is based on specific ideology

Three countries recognized the Taliban in the 1990s: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. And so, in the short time that the Taliban were in power, they were an international pariah.

But today, why should the Taliban care about international recognition?

“Well, recognition brings governments [...] a lot of international legal benefits.”

Scott R. Anderson, Brookings Institution fellow and senior editor for Lawfare

“Well, recognition brings governments [...] a lot of international legal benefits,” Anderson said.

That includes diplomatic immunities, for example, which means Taliban leaders can travel outside the country without the risk of getting arrested.

“That’s actually a big issue for the Taliban, because figures involved in their current interim government, such as the head of the Haqqani Network who’s in the new Interior Ministry, are wanted criminals in a good part of the world.”

There are other benefits, too. Like if the US recognizes the Taliban, then they can eventually get access to Afghanistan’s assets in the United States.

A ‘discussion on two levels’

So far, the US isn’t rushing to formally recognize the Taliban.

Related: The post-9/11 generation 'came to understand the limits of what America could accomplish,’ former Obama adviser says

Neither is the European Union, according to Judy Dempsey, editor of the Strategic Europe blog from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The discussion is on two levels,” Dempsey said. “On the highest political level, there’s now a consensus that the European Union should start sending humanitarian aid and assistance to the Afghan people, but there’s also an awareness that in some ways, this will legitimize the Taliban government.

“But Europeans are doing this out of the sake of … they owe to the Afghan people … and they’re doing it out of self-interest. They don’t want a flood of refugees.”

Judy Dempsey, editor of the Strategic Europe blog from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

“But Europeans are doing this out of the sake of … [that] they owe [it] to the Afghan people … and they’re doing it out of self-interest. They don’t want a flood of refugees.”

On another level, she said, many in Europe “just want to wash their hands of Afghanistan and look inward.”

Some experts point out that foreign governments can use recognition and humanitarian aid as leverage to pressure the Taliban on human rights.

Dempsey said she is not convinced: “We have to be very clear if we’re going to use the word ‘leverage’ what exactly this means and what means do we have to actually implement this leverage.”

Fears ‘this kind of extremism’ could cross borders

Some powers in the region are quickly making their calculations based on their own interests. Russia and Iran, for example, have kept their embassies open. Pakistan has long had close relations with the Taliban and the Chinese are taking stock of the situation.

“China’s primary interest in Afghanistan is security,” said Ian Johnson, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It shares a small border with Afghanistan and is worried about the perceived threat of terrorism that could emanate from there.”

Johnson, who lived in China for 20 years, added that right now, Beijing is struggling to control a western part of China called Xinjiang. And it has implemented draconian policies on the population there, justifying it on the grounds of Islamist terrorism.

“They worry that this kind of extremism could come across the border from Afghanistan if the Taliban were to revert to its ways [of] the 1990s.” 

Ian Johnson, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

“They worry that this kind of extremism could come across the border from Afghanistan if the Taliban were to revert to its ways [of] the 1990s,” he said.

China also sees some potential economic benefits in Afghanistan — such as in mining and infrastructure. And Afghanistan could really use China’s help since aid from Western countries has dropped significantly, and Afghanistan is highly dependent on aid for its economy.

“So, if China can step in and, maybe not replace the West, but at least keep the coffers somewhat filled, then that would be really, really important,” Johnson said. “And I think among the countries that could do that, China is the main one. Russia would probably like to do something like that, but it lacks the financial, economic muscle to do that kind of thing.”

On the one hand, some experts say that an Afghanistan that is integrated in the international community would mean a better economy and less suffering in the country. On the other, for some Afghans, formal recognition of the Taliban by the international community would be a betrayal of their democratic aspirations.

Many Afghans are caught in the middle of the debate.

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