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How the EU should — and should not —deal with the Taliban

Initial signs suggest that there might be some space for European engagement with the militia, if only for the betterment of Afghans.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Like most of the world, the European Union appeared to be caught flatfooted by the speedy collapse of the pro-Western government of Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan and seizure of Kabul by the hardline Islamist militia, the Taliban.

That much was evident from the declaration delivered on behalf of the EU by its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on August 17. The declaration called for “a political settlement” established not by force, but “through meaningful negotiations based on democracy, the rule of law and constitutional rule.” The reality on the ground may well be past that point, however. Addressing the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Borrell himself admitted that the EU had to “talk” with the Taliban as the new authorities — although he was careful to emphasize that such talks would not necessarily be a prelude to formal recognition.

This readiness to engage with the Taliban is nothing short of remarkable, given the EU’s heavy investment — as Washington’s junior partner — in Afghanistan since 2002, and the perception of the Taliban as evil in European public opinion. 

It would, however, be premature to simply hail it as a sign of European pragmatism. Human rights activists suspect that such an about-face on the Taliban is mainly due to  concerns about “migratory flows” that the crisis in Afghanistan would unleash and ultimately impact the EU, much the way the Syrian refugee crisis did in 2015. Indeed, one day after the foreign ministers met, their colleagues responsible for home and justice affairs followed suit. 

The statement produced by the European Commission as a result of that meeting is a painstakingly negotiated compromise. On the one hand, it sets out to protect the borders from the “migratory pressures;” on the other, it acknowledges that the EU cannot completely close itself off to Afghans seeking refuge and should use resettlement and other legal pathways to help them out. 

The implementation of these provisions, however, depends on the good will of the bloc’s member states. This is where the problem lies — the refugees/migration debate in the EU, while valid, is poisoned by the xenophobic, particularly Islamophobic, tropes pushed by nativist politicians. These forces were successful to the point that even avowedly “centrist” leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron are now seen pandering to the far right: his first comments on Afghanistan’s dramatic unravelling stressed the need to “protect Europe from migratory flows”. 

This context dangerously narrows the European conversation on Afghanistan to migration and its alleged threat to the European way of life. Seen from this angle, seeking transactional deals with the Taliban in order to “keep the migrants out” might look superficially attractive. In the longer run, however, they would not only make a further mockery of European ideals, such as women’s rights, but would also be short-sighted as they won’t contribute to creating conditions in Afghanistan less conducive to migration in the first place.

Instead, the EU should engage with the Taliban on a much broader agenda, including development, regional stability, human rights, and security. However reprehensible the Taliban’s ideology and brutality, there is no sound alternative to exploring whether their behavior can be tempered by the imperatives of expediency and governance of a diverse, impoverished, war-ravaged country of more than 40 million people. While waiting to see for clues on the “new” Taliban’s policies, their actions will, at least in part, be shaped by how the international community responds to their rise.

The initial signs suggest that there might be some space for European engagement with the militia. Their recent interaction with the international media shows that, unlike in mid-1990s, the Taliban desires broad international recognition. While this strategy is likely mainly directed to the regional powers, such as Russia, China, Turkey, the Central Asian republics, and even Iran, as well as the broader Muslim world, there is no reason why Europe should feel a priori excluded; no red lines were drawn in Kabul in this respect. 

But any European engagement must begin with a recognition that, as a U.S. junior partner for the past twenty years, the EU holds a weak hand in the new Afghanistan. That means that the EU should shed the notion of Afghanistan as another arena of global competition with Russia and China. To the contrary, it should leave Moscow and Beijing in the driving seat when it comes to relations with Kabul.

Where the EU could be helpful is in conditionally offering the new Afghan authorities its ample expertise and funds in development cooperation. The Taliban declared their intention to move from a drugs-fueled economy to something more productive and sustainable. They will need international assistance to make this transition. The EU could eventually dangle its offer as an inducement to relax some of the Taliban’s draconian norms, particularly on women’s rights. It may not work, but there is nothing to be lost by taking the Taliban at their word and testing their real intentions. 

Another area of potential engagement with the Taliban is regional security. Harboring international terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda, proved to be the Taliban’s undoing in their previous stint in power till 2002. Early signs are that they are learning the lesson: immediately after seizing Kabul, they executed the head of the so-called “Islamic State in South Asia,” an ISIS off-shoot. The Taliban relationship with Al-Qaeda is more ambiguous. But engaging the Taliban would lessen incentives on their side to deploy al-Qaeda against Western interests. By contrast, being dragged into intra-Afghan rivalries on the side of the anti-Taliban Panjsher alliance, for example, would almost certainly invite a tactical alliance between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and even ISIS, and draw the West back in Afghanistan.

The EU should use the crisis in Afghanistan to pursue its other significant foreign policy interests, including those that are not not narrowly focused on that country. For example, the European Commission pledged an intensification of cooperation with Iran in hosting and integrating the Afghan refugees. This is crucial on its own merits but could also serve as an early confidence-building measure with the new Iranian government, at a time when the nuclear agreement is hanging by a thread. 

The swift Taliban victory should prompt a broader rethink in the EU on how it deals with political Islam. Islamic militants everywhere interpret the Taliban’s success  and the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood-style parliamentary Islamism in Egypt, Palestine or Tunisia, as proof that violent resistance, not compromise and accommodation, works best. The EU and its member states bear their share of blame for supporting and arming dictators in the Middle East, such as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, forging an ideological “anti-Islamist” alliance with the United Arab Emirates, and failing to condemn the power grab by Tunisian president Kais Saeed against the democratically elected parliament. Continued complicity in suppressing peaceful manifestations of political Islam is sowing the seeds of future radicalization, this time much closer to European borders. The Taliban have provided an inspiration. 

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JULY 9, 2021: Shahabuddin Delavar (L) and Suhail Shaheen of Taliban’s political office (banned in Russia) during a press conference at Radisson Hotel. Sergei Savostyanov/TASS.No use Russia.
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