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Two years after exiting Afghanistan, Biden resists calls for more contact with the Taliban

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When the last American soldier left Afghanistan on August 30, 2021, leaving the country in the hands of the Taliban, the world braced itself for a human rights nightmare.

In this sense, the Taliban have lived up to expectations. The country’s extremist leaders, who took power after 20 years of US-backed government, have committed revenge killings, torture and kidnappings, according to international observers. They have also imposed the most radical gender policies in the world, denying education and jobs to millions of Afghan women and girls – and even closing beauty salons.

On August 14, a group of United Nations officials released a report claiming that the Taliban had engaged in “a continuous, systematic and shocking abrogation of a multitude of human rights, including the rights to education, work and freedom of expression, assembly and liberty”. association.”

Some US analysts and officials clung to hopes that the Taliban had shown restraint since they last controlled the country in the 1990s, or that they would at least make concessions to Western human rights demands. man for diplomatic recognition or economic aid as the country suffers. a worsening humanitarian crisis.

It was not to be.

“The concept of a ‘reformed’ Taliban has been exposed as erroneous,” the UN experts wrote.

As a result, Biden administration officials have ruled out accepting Taliban demands for international recognition, sanctions relief and access to billions of dollars in frozen assets in the United States.

At the same time, some aspects of the Taliban regime have come as a slight surprise to some US officials. Fears of a civil war have not materialized and the Taliban has clamped down on corruption and banned opium poppy cultivation, although it remains to be seen how strictly this ban will be enforced.

And on President Biden’s top priority for the country — preventing the return of terrorist groups that could threaten the United States — the Taliban leadership appears to be getting Washington’s approval. This is crucial, given that the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 because the Taliban were harboring al-Qaeda leaders who planned the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“I said al-Qaeda wouldn’t be there,” Biden said June 30, in response to a reporter’s question about the US pullout. “I said we would get help from the Taliban. What happens now?”

The question was rhetorical; Mr Biden’s clear implication was that he had been vindicated by his decision to withdraw US troops.

That was not enough to convince Mr. Biden to restore American support for the country. But some Afghan humanitarian groups and experts are calling on the Biden administration to soften its stance and, at a minimum, provide the Taliban with direct economic aid to alleviate the country’s desperate poverty and hunger.

“The world has to think seriously about what it’s trying to accomplish in Afghanistan these days, and most of the things we want to do require working with the Taliban,” said Graeme Smith, a Crisis Group analyst who has worked in Afghanistan since 2005 and recently spent months in the country assessing conditions under the Taliban regime.

Mr Smith recently wrote an essay in the publication Foreign Affairs urging Western governments and institutions “to establish more functional relations with the Taliban”. This could include aid to the country’s electricity grid, banking system and water management, Smith said.

The need is especially dire, Smith added, given that international humanitarian aid — which the United States and other countries are currently sending directly to aid groups, bypassing the Taliban government — is dwindling.

Such cooperation is unlikely in the short term, Smith said, given what he called “toxic politics” in Afghanistan. Republicans have attacked Mr. Biden for what they have called a mishandled and undignified exit from the country, a dynamic that could make the president more risk averse.

“If Biden is re-elected, it will give him some operational space for some practical solutions,” Smith said.

Taliban officials say US policy is exacerbating suffering in Afghanistan, as longstanding US sanctions against Taliban leaders discourage foreign investment and trade in the country.

They insist that the United States does not have the right to hold $7 billion in assets deposited by its predecessors at the New York Federal Reserve. (Mr. Biden last year placed half of that money in a trust for the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people.)

The Biden administration maintains some contact with representatives of the Taliban. Over the past two years, Thomas West, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan, has traveled to Doha, Qatar, for several meetings with Taliban officials, most recently on July 30 and 31. .

An official State Department description of this session criticized the Taliban and “the deteriorating human rights situation in Afghanistan, particularly for women, girls and vulnerable communities”, and said that U.S. officials “expressed grave concerns about detentions, media repression, and limits on religious practice. »

But the summary also contains positive talk about declining opium poppy production, promising economic indicators and counter-terrorism efforts, and hints that further cooperation may be possible. In a meeting with Afghan government finance and banking officials, according to the description, Mr. West and his colleagues “expressed their openness to a technical dialogue on economic stabilization issues in the near future.”

However, when it comes to cooperation against terrorism, some officials and analysts remain deeply suspicious, fearing the Taliban is merely containing al-Qaeda in the short term to avoid provoking the United States. The Taliban are also fighting a local branch of the Islamic State terrorist group. But some say that means little, given that the Islamic State openly challenges Taliban rule, making such operations clearly in the interest of the Taliban.

“Seeking to engage the Taliban in the fight against terrorism while ignoring what they do to women is wrong,” Lisa Curtis, the head of Trump’s White House National Security Council, said during a table round organized by the Middle East Institute in July.

The Biden administration, however, imposes clear limits on such contact. “Any form of recognition of the Taliban is totally irrelevant,” deputy State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters in April. And officials say US diplomats won’t be returning to Kabul, the capital, anytime soon.

Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as President Donald J. Trump’s envoy to the Taliban and brokered the troop withdrawal plan Mr. Biden inherited, argued for a change in US policy. “We wanted the problem to go away,” he said.

Mr. Khalilzad is among those who say that, in the face of the worst expectations, the Taliban showed some restraint.

“Many thought things would be much worse than they are, that there would be a lot more terrorism, a lot more refugees and that there would be a bloodbath” on a much larger scale, a- he declared.

But extending credit to the Taliban remains highly controversial. Last month, Tobias Ellwood, a senior Conservative Party official in Britain’s parliament, visited Afghanistan and released a video declaring it was “a country transformed” – in many ways for the better. “Security has improved dramatically, corruption has decreased and the opium trade has all but disappeared,” he said, adding that the economy was growing.

Mr Ellwood called on Britain to reopen its embassy in Kabul, which was closed in August 2021, and on its government to engage with the Taliban rather than “scream from afar”.

But after being widely exposed, he deleted the video from X, the former Twitter site, and now faces a vote of no confidence in his chairmanship of the House of Commons Defense Committee.

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nytimes

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