A Taliban-led Afghanistan presents a challenge that will probably confront U.S. policymakers for generations. To craft a successful long-term diplomatic strategy, however, Western diplomats must avoid any misapprehensions that they can control the Taliban’s policies through coercion, public humiliation, or by trying to divide it. So far, the Biden administration appears to understand that attempts to divide the Taliban will fail. But the international community, including Washington, has not yet learned that coercion and shaming will not alter Taliban behavior, however much satisfaction it provides.
It is time for governments to tone down their sanctimonious posturing about women’s rights and democracy—issues they already deemed not important enough to militarily fight for years ago—and instead commit to a constructive diplomatic, humanitarian, and development strategy. This is not an endorsement of Taliban policies, but rather a pragmatic path toward creating the best conditions possible for change that will actually improve human rights.
Calls to isolate the Taliban, add new sanctions, or support the Taliban’s political opposition will achieve little for Afghans. No amount of criticism or statements will change the minds of Taliban leaders about their social policies. This is equally true when it comes from Muslim countries or revered Deobandi scholars respected by the Taliban. Even public statements of praise may be counterproductive if they are caveated with criticism; in fact, Western governments are so discredited by the war that in some instances the support of diplomats is enough to tarnish an idea as a foreign conspiracy or order that the Taliban’s leadership must reject.
Western diplomacy is ultimately accountable to the public opinion of its own citizens, so such statements will continue, even when they are useless or counterproductive. It is understandable that the Afghan diaspora and organizations working on the ground would vocally express their indignation at the Taliban’s egregious human rights violations. However, Western officials must remain focused on the practical realities of the situation and not allow their own sanctimony to impede progress or obscure history. Three consecutive U.S. presidents decided it wasn’t worth remaining in Afghanistan militarily, and most coalition partners left years before U.S. troops finally departed. Western diplomats should now exercise pragmatism and patience.
Read the full piece in Foreign Policy.