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US ‘Re-Engages’ Afghan Taliban; Is China The Reason Behind America’s Changed Stance In Afghanistan?

OPED By Vaishali Basu Sharma

Last week the US State Department announced that Thomas West, special representative for Afghanistan, and Rina Amiri, the US special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights, will meet a Taliban delegation led by the group’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi.

The American officials are expected to talk over two-day beginning today, i.e., July 30, in Doha, and discuss humanitarian support for Afghanistan, security issues, women’s rights, economic stabilization, and efforts to counter narcotics production and trafficking.

The Taliban representative to the United Nations, Suhail Shaheen, who is also based in Doha and will likely be part of the discussions, said US media organization Radio Liberty, adding that the issue of Afghan central bank funds frozen by the United States would also be on the agenda.

The talks come at a time when the Taliban has doubled down on its abuses against fundamental freedoms in the country and restrictions on women. And so the announcement of talks has sparked speculation that Washington might be on track to consider recognizing the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan.

However, the State Department has explained that the upcoming meeting “does not indicate any change in the policy of the United States.” Vedant Patel, deputy spokesperson, state department said this doesn’t mean “any kind of indication of recognition or any kind of indication of normalization or legitimacy of the Taliban.”

The latest ban on beauty salons is another indication of the needlessly unrelenting posture of the Taliban over women’s freedoms. In Kabul, 3,000 women-run salons that employ many thousands were ordered to be shut down.

Banned from schools, parks, and most professions, this new ban has led to further anguish among ordinary Afghans as the regime’s edicts curb women and girls from public life.

Rina Amiri, the US official set to hold discussions with the Taliban officials, had, tweeted, “The Taliban ban on beauty parlors removes another vital space for women’s work at a time when they’re struggling to feed their families, eliminates one of the few refuges for women outside the home & further transforms the country into a cruel & extreme outlier in the world.”

When US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader at the time, signed a peace agreement in Doha on February 29, 2020, they agreed to “seek positive relations with each other” with the Taliban assuring that it would work towards countering terrorism threats and forming an “inclusive Islamic” government.

But in August 2021, in a sudden 72-hour blitzkrieg when the Taliban took control of the country, US and Afghan relations collapsed with the American exit after twenty years in Afghanistan. With the last US flight out of Kabul, Taliban soldiers entered the airport and declared victory.

Since then, relations appeared unlikely to improve, as the US froze Afghan central bank assets in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Following the American example, no other country officially recognized the Taliban-led government.

In fact, in December 2022, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said, “We are not prepared to improve our relationship with the Taliban until and unless they start to uphold the commitments they’ve made to the Afghan people,” reacting to the news that the Taliban had banned women from working for nongovernmental organizations, including international aid agencies.

The Taliban, on its part, appears unfazed that its policies might be the biggest hurdle to its international recognition. Even though it continues imposing harsh Sharia laws, it has remained defiant. It has been postulated that the US deliberately denies its legitimacy even after signing the Doha agreement.

Exactly one year ago, in June 2022, chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, “As far as recognition by foreign countries is concerned, I think the United States is the biggest obstacle.”

It is to be noted that the concerns of Central Asian countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan may be ‘central’ to the upcoming discussion of Afghanistan between the US and Taliban representatives.

The Kazakh government recently hosted a #C5PlusUS discussion on Afghanistan in Astana, in which the discussions centered around the joint support of the Afghan people.

In her tweet, Rina Amiri said that the US and Central Asian nations, with an ambassador-at-large-special representative on Afghanistan, Talgat Kaliyev, and Special Representative for International Cooperation, Erzhan Kazykhan, held a “robust discussion” and ‘Explored ideas of how Central Asian countries can mobilize to support Afghan women and girls.”

Oddly the same Rina Amiri, who is now set to hold talks with Taliban reps, had exactly one year ago, in June 2022, opted not to sit in a meeting with the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, stating that she was “gravely concerned by the Taliban’s actions and current stance on the areas my office oversees.”

Taliban fighters patrol a street in Kabul. (via Twitter)

And despite signing the Doha agreement, US charge d’affaires of the mission to Afghanistan, Karen Decker, kept communication channels with resistance fighters sheltered in Tajikistan open without involving Taliban representatives. On November 30, 2022, Decker traveled to Tajikistan to attend a meeting of mostly anti-Taliban figures.

It is unclear what has prompted the US to slacken its resolute posture and now seek talks with the Taliban. One possible reason could be to gain an advantage over increasingly eager Chinese overtures to the Taliban regime. Since the American withdrawal, China has reportedly invested around US$2 billion in Afghanistan.

In May, the Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan, Wang Yu, held meetings with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban interior minister, and Nida Mohammad Nadeem, the minister for higher education.

Interestingly both these Taliban officials have been repeatedly faced by America, with Sirajuddin Haqqani facing a US$10 million terrorism bounty and Nadeem criticized for closing universities for girls.

Before this meeting in January, a Chinese firm signed an agreement with the Taliban government in Afghanistan to extract oil from the Amu Darya basin.

In a ceremony held in May, high-ranking Taliban and Chinese officials signed the agreement, by which, during the initial three-year period, more than US$540 million will be invested in exploration. Beijing has reportedly been eager to invest in lithium mining in Afghanistan.

  • Vaishali Basu Sharma is an analyst of strategic and economic affairs. She has worked as a consultant with India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for nearly a decade. She is presently associated with the New Delhi-based think tank Policy Perspectives Foundation.
  • The author can be reached at postvaishali (at) gmail (dot) com.
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