Biden officials place hope in Taliban desire for legitimacy and money

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WASHINGTON – President Biden’s plan to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan has drawn strong criticism that it could allow a Taliban takeover, with brutal consequences, especially for the rights of women and girls.

In response, senior officials in the Biden administration explained why the outcome might not be so dire: The Taliban, they say, could rule less harshly than expected after taking partial or full power – in order to gain the recognition and financial support of the world. powers.

This argument is among the most important defenses against those who warn that the Taliban will take control of Kabul and impose a brutal, premodern version of Islamic law, echoing the harsh rule that ended with the post-US invasion. attacks of September 11, 2001..

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made the case Sunday on TBEN’s “This Week,” saying the Taliban must gain power through an organized political process and not by force “if they are to be internationally recognized, s “they don’t want it. to be an outcast,” he said.

On Wednesday, Blinken announced that the administration would work with Congress to accelerate a $ 300 million humanitarian aid pledge for Afghanistan, pledged last fall under the Trump administration.

“As the United States begins to withdraw its troops, we will use our civil and economic assistance to advance a just and lasting peace in Afghanistan and a better future for the Afghan people,” Blinken said in a statement.

In a briefing note to reporters after Mr Biden’s withdrawal was announced last week, a senior administration official said denial of international legitimacy would be a punishment for any effort to roll back the human rights and women’s rights in the country.

Other US officials and leading experts call this theory the “outcast” valid, claiming that Taliban leaders have a history of seeking international credibility, placing a high priority on lifting sanctions against them. Taliban officials have made it clear that they want foreign aid to rebuild their country after two decades of bitter warfare.

For critics, however, such notions are tragically misled, ignoring the fundamentalist ethos of the Taliban – and are a thin cover to abandon the country to a cruel fate.

“It’s a story we tell ourselves to make us feel better about leaving,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, who has been the senior human rights official in the Department of Justice. State within the Obama administration.

“There is nothing we have to offer that will cause them to preserve the things they fought to erase,” added Mr. Malinowski, who opposes Mr. Biden’s withdrawal plan.

Given that Mr. Biden will withdraw all U.S. troops by September 11, diplomatic and financial pressure remains among the few tools the U.S. can use to coerce the Taliban. For now, the United States will also continue to provide military assistance to the Afghan government in the hope that its security forces will not be overwhelmed.

But in the long run, there is almost no doubt that the Taliban will be part of the Afghan government or take full control of the country. The United States’ response is not clear.

“Defining what is ‘acceptable’ for the future influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan will be difficult,” said Jeffrey W. Eggers, who was senior director for Afghanistan at the Obama White House and adviser to the commander-in-chief. of the country, the general. Stanley A. McChrystal.

Mr Eggers said it would be relatively straightforward to define and enforce expectations regarding the Taliban’s ties to terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. But social and human rights will be more difficult, he said.

Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan who served as senior adviser to President Barack Obama’s special representative for the country from 2009 to 2013, is among those who say they hope the Taliban can be tempered by non-military means.

In an article published last month by the United States Institute for Peace, ahead of Mr. Biden’s announcement, Mr. Rubin claimed that America “has overestimated the role of pressure or military presence. and underestimated the leverage that the Taliban’s quest for sanctions relief, recognition and international aid provides. “

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Mr Rubin added that the deal the Taliban leaders signed with the Trump administration in February 2020 committed Washington to begin the process of lifting US and United Nations sanctions against the group, including some that target its individual leaders. It also included a guarantee that the United States “will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government.”

General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, credited the idea in February during testimony to Congress after a group he helped lead, the Afghanistan Study Group released a report.

“Sometimes we think we have no influence over the Taliban,” General Dunford said, saying the group’s desire for sanctions relief, international legitimacy and foreign support can temper its violence.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, director of the Non-State Armed Actors Initiative at the Brookings Institution, agreed that key Taliban leaders place great importance on relations with the international community, if only to ensure financing for development. .

“There is a real understanding at the leadership level, and not just false postures, that they don’t want to bankrupt the country to the same extent as they did in the 1990s,” Ms. Felbab-Brown, who spoke at length with the Taliban. officials and commanders. “In the 1990s, bankruptcy was not inadvertent – it was a deliberate policy that sought to solve Afghanistan’s problems by destroying the institutions of the past decades.”

It is unclear, however, how the Taliban can resolve the contradiction between their doctrinal positions restricting women’s rights and political pluralism with the standards upon which any US administration and Congress will condition development aid.

Among other things, Samantha Power, recently confirmed as head of the United States Agency for International Development, is one of the administration’s most prominent human rights defenders.

“America is not releasing aid unconditionally,” Malinowski said. “Much of America’s aid is designed to help governments do exactly the things the Taliban despises.”

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The Taliban faced such choices when they controlled much of Afghanistan in the 1990s. For several years in a row, the group sent delegations to United Nations headquarters to seek recognition, to no avail.

A desire for recognition and assistance, however, was not enough to get the group to heed the U.S. demand to hand over Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, a position that ultimately led to the invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.

“I think Afghans deserve more than being told, well, the Taliban had better not do that,” said Christine Fair, professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. and who has studied Afghanistan for years. “They are really clear that they want to roll back women’s rights. And they don’t want to run for office. They believe in giving them a share of government because they have the power to kill.

Ms Fair added that the Biden administration should focus more on the role of neighboring Pakistan, which has long wielded great influence over the Taliban.

HR McMaster, a retired three-star general who served as a national security adviser under the Trump administration, said it was “illusory” to believe the Taliban had fundamentally changed in 20 years, and dismissed the idea that the group was seeking greater international acceptance. .

It is wrong, he said, to think “that there is a bold line between the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” he said on Monday in a discussion for the Kennedy’s Belfer Center. Harvard School of Government in which he sharply criticized Mr. Biden’s decision.

“They said their first step was to reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” he said. If that were to happen, it would be “a humanitarian catastrophe of colossal magnitude.”

Mr Eggers said the reality could be more nuanced and that could confuse US policymakers.

“For example, what if Afghanistan ends up being as bad as the Saudis when it comes to their treatment of women?” he said. “It’s not good enough, but what do we do then?”

Mark Mazzetti and Eric schmitt contribution to reports.