The international community seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place as coercive tactics to reform the Talibann are proving to be ineffective.
Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, there has been broad uncertainty on how to deal with the new regime. Although the international community has safe-distanced itself from the unreformed Taliban, they have adopted coercive diplomacy to reform the latter. Yet, these coercive tactics haven’t achieved the desired outcomes as they pose high costs for the Taliban while having low political stakes for the organisation. Further, with a looming humanitarian disaster, there is also a risk that the Taliban will take these tactics for granted.
After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, several states have embraced a wait-and-watch policy before deciding whether to extend recognition. They have adopted coercive tactics such as sanctions, assets freeze, and suspension of direct aids with the hopes of persuading the Taliban to form an inclusive government and also prevent them from harbouring terrorists and trafficking networks.
However, this coercive diplomacy hasn’t come to fruition yet. Having completed nearly 100 days in the office, the Taliban has achieved very little progress. This even seems unlikely with the hardliners having consolidated power, with 14 of them being listed on the UNSC terror blacklist. In addition, the Taliban continues to attack minorities, exclude women from government and public spaces, and maintain links with terrorists and transnational traffickers.
The international community’s suspension of aid, assets and financial linkages thus left the Afghan economy fragile and its people vulnerable.
Generally, sanctions and coercive tactics take years to achieve their policy outcomes. But Afghanistan is an unusual exemption. For the most part, Afghanistan is a failed economy that is largely depended on international aid to survive and sustain. The international community’s suspension of aid, assets and financial linkages thus left the Afghan economy fragile and its people vulnerable. Currently, over 18.4 million Afghans need humanitarian assistance, 23 million suffer from food insecurity, and 72% percent live below the poverty line. It is also anticipated that the economy will further shrink by 30% percent in 2022.
In a parallel world, these dire consequences and coercive tactics would have already moderated the Taliban. Yet, nothing of the sort has occurred in this realpolitik world. So why have these coercive diplomacy tactics failed?
Primarily, it is important to evaluate the costs for the target. For now, the imposed tactics are aimed at moderating the Taliban and influencing their policies. These are not punitive sanctions, and nor do they directly aim at a regime change. However, for the Taliban, it is otherwise. The desired policy outcomes of women rights, inclusive government, and cutting off links with other terror organisations are sensitive for the Taliban and its survival.
A similar dilemma haunts the organisation when it comes to distancing and harbouring the terrorist organisations that had helped the Taliban fight the US.
The Taliban is a conglomerate of entities, groups, and sub-groups of various interpretations of the same extremist ideology. As popularly known, a moderate-extremist divide continues to thrive in the regime, where the former emphasises international recognition and the latter is keen to deter any social changes. Issues like women education and employment, human rights, and suicide bombing have also been widely divisive and controversial topics for them. Consequently, the senior leadership has maintained a delicate balance between its cadres to sustain its internal cohesion. Seemingly, they used vague terms such as ‘Islamic Interpretation’ when asked about the country's future and human and women rights.
A similar dilemma haunts the organisation when it comes to distancing and harbouring the terrorist organisations that had helped the Taliban fight the US. It will prove to be more difficult with terror catalysts, such as the Haqqanis, enjoying a major share in the government. Thus, any kind of heeding to the international community's demands would harm the organisational unity and the regime while also pushing the hardliners to the extremist rival—ISKP.
While the coercive tactics aim to reform the Taliban, the former has no political stakes to lose even if it fails to do so. The Taliban leads a non-democratic regime and the only tactic of governance they have familiarised themselves is to control the population with fear, corruption, and manipulation. They have neither been skilled nor been sensitive to good governance. The cadre has been trained to fight Jihad and establish an Islamic Emirate, and what happens beyond it has hardly been a concern for them. Therefore, they have very little to do with public pressure, grievances, and governance, and it is even more so the case as there are no political repercussions and opposition for their actions.
Standing up against these sanctions and international pressure also benefits the Taliban by being loyal to their ideological rhetoric and maintaining internal cohesion.
On the contrary, the political stakes favour the Taliban if the organisation resists international pressure. After the international community abandoned Afghans, the way they did, the Taliban has begun exploiting these coercive tactics for their political rhetoric. It has allowed them to build support, feelings of national pride, and nationalism by stating that the international community has never been friends with Afghans and will never be one. Hence, trying to muster sympathy and legitimacy. Standing up against these sanctions and international pressure also benefits the Taliban by being loyal to their ideological rhetoric and maintaining internal cohesion. Thus, considering the low stakes and high benefits, the Taliban will continue to resist any kind of external pressure for reforms.
Diplomacy dilemma Finally, the Taliban knows that the problems from Afghanistan, such as a refugee crisis, incapability to govern, illicit trafficking, parallel economy, and the presence of ISIS, and other terrorist organisations have the potential to impact the rest of the world and the region. Thus, considering this leverage, there is a general perception within the Taliban that international aid is inevitable regardless of their reforms. The Taliban has thus asked the international community to strengthen their government with international aid and by repealing the coercive tactics.
On the other hand, with a fast-approaching winter, an already drought-hit Afghanistan is going to be hell on earth. The international society knows that it cannot ignore the Afghan humanitarian crisis for long. They have thus begun mitigating the transnational impacts by assisting Afghanistan without recognising the government. The US is providing over US $474 million for humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and has also begun providing licenses to limitedly engage with the Taliban and provide humanitarian assistance to the people. The EU and the UK have also begun providing aids to Afghanistan’s neighbours to avoid a mass refugee influx. Even China, India, Russia, and Pakistan have also promised humanitarian aid without recognising the Taliban government. Although the assistance remains less efficient due to political and legal implications of sanctions and the non-recognition of the Taliban government, it has provided some currency for the Taliban’s perception of aid being inevitable. Therefore, trapping the international community's coercive diplomacy between a rock and hard place.
The EU and the UK have also begun providing aids to Afghanistan’s neighbours to avoid a mass refugee influx.
Overall, the international community’s coercive tactics haven’t produced the desired outcomes. This is because the tactics pose high costs for the Taliban while having low political stakes. Further, there is also a perception among the Taliban that international aid is inevitable. There is a probability that the Taliban will take these coercive tactics for more granted, as the humanitarian disaster intensifies.
There is no doubt that the Taliban will surf through these testing times with their illegal and covert fundings, while the people suffer. It is thus high time that the international community cooperate and help the Afghans while also revising their coercive tactics. They have to clamp down on the covert funding and also prioritise carrots over sticks, i.e., incentives over high-costs, while setting their coercive tactics against the Taliban. Treating the Taliban as multiple entities and incentivising the relatively moderate factions might also push other sections of the organisation to reform.
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Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy is an Associate Fellow with ORFs Strategic Studies Programme. He focuses on broader strategic and security related-developments throughout the South Asian region ...Read More +