The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Countries are establishing relations with the Taliban even though none has offered formal recognition of the militant government

Taliban fighters holding Taliban flags stand guard along a road in Kabul on Sept. 9.
Taliban fighters holding Taliban flags stand guard along a road in Kabul on Sept. 9. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly a month after its takeover, there has been no formal recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. But that step appears increasingly irrelevant, at least for the short and medium term, as countries around the world have established varying degrees of relations with the militant regime.

For some, including the United States, the need to extricate their remaining citizens and Afghan partners has imposed acceptance of the Taliban as the sole national authority. At the same time, the Biden administration has pledged to continue humanitarian aid that has amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars in the past few months alone.

“There is no diminution in our humanitarian assistance to the people of . . . any country around the world where we may have differences, including profound ones,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday. “We do not express those disagreements by taking it out on the people.”

Many of Afghanistan’s closest neighbors in Central and South Asia are consulting with one another in search of a unified policy that will prevent them from being overcome with refugees and maintain security in the region.

Others, including China and Russia, see the Taliban ascension as an opportunity, both to highlight U.S. failure over 20 years of warfare and nation-building, and to boost their own regional sway.

As they did on the battlefield, the Taliban outlasted the U.S. at the negotiating table

One signal of how many of the world’s richest economies plan to use their leverage over the militants is likely to come when the Group of Seven finance ministers meet in coming days, said Kanni Wignaraja, director of the United Nations Development Program’s regional bureau for Asia and the Pacific. Those governments hold billions in frozen Afghan government assets in their banks — most of them in the United States — and control deciding votes in the international financial institutions that have suspended payments to Afghanistan.

“That discussion is right in the center of their table,” Wignaraja said at a U.N. briefing for reporters on Thursday. “It will be a significant signal as to whether they are going to engage, how much they will,” and the extent to which Afghans will be able to access needed injections of cash.

The Biden administration has said its future cooperation depends on how the Taliban’s interim government conducts itself.

“We are not providing any bilateral assistance to the government of Afghanistan,” Price said of the payments that paid most of the former government’s bills, and “are reviewing the extent of assistance we have provided over the years to determine what may be appropriate. Our approach . . . is going to be predicated on the answers that [the Taliban] government provides.”

However world governments decide to relate to the Taliban, there is little disagreement that the Afghan population is in dire need of help.

“Afghanistan pretty much faces universal poverty by the middle of next year. That’s where we’re heading,” Wignaraja said. The combination of political instability, the freeze of foreign reserves and a collapsed public finance system, drought and the coronavirus pandemic has projected a worst-case poverty rate of 97 to 98 percent, she said.

The current poverty level is 72 percent, although significant development progress had been made with massive aid flows during the war years. “Per capita income more than doubled, life expectancy at birth increased nine years, years of schooling from six to 10,” Wignaraja said.

Equally important, said Abdullah Al Dardari, the resident UNDP representative in Afghanistan, has been the education and entry into the economy of women.

“Seventy percent and more of the Afghan economy is . . . informal,” he said. “Seventy percent of that sector is made up by women” who operate small businesses and agriculture in small towns and rural areas. “They are the backbone of the Afghan economy.”

An Afghan politician spent her life working for women’s rights. She barely made it out of the country.

That poses a critical question for the Taliban, whose interim government named this week contained no women and eliminated the ministry in charge of ensuring opportunity and rights for women and girls. Although senior militant officials have said that women will be allowed to work, they have caveated those promises as “within Sharia law” and Afghan “culture.”

So far, the United Nations and the 156 partner nongovernmental organizations with which it works in Afghanistan have been allowed to continue operations in most of Afghanistan. “It’s really Kabul that has to open up,” Wignaraja said.

Although the administration has said that humanitarian assistance — all of which goes through nongovernmental agencies such as the United Nations — should not be subject to relations with the Taliban, political critics of its handling of the exit from Afghanistan have charged that continued aid is tantamount to ransom for ensuring that American citizens and Afghan allies can leave the country.

“Any agreement to allow safe passage should not be paired with the promises of U.S. aid, dropping terrorists from U.S. or other sanctions lists,” as the Taliban have demanded, “or the release of frozen financial assets,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) said in a statement Wednesday. “It is clear to both of us that the Taliban are seeking to hold family members of American visa holders hostage to gain leverage over the United States.”

Asked Tuesday whether he was worried that countries such as China would eliminate leverage held by the United States and its Western partners by buying its own influence, President Biden told reporters that “China has a real problem with the Taliban.”

“As does Pakistan, as does Russia, as does Iran,” he said. “They’re all trying to figure out what they do now.”

But Beijing seems less worried about its “problem” with the Taliban, including whatever affinity the militants may have for Muslims in western China, than it is eager to point out U.S. failings and responsibility.

“All believe that the United States and its allies are the culprits of the Afghan issue,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said Thursday after a Pakistani-hosted meeting on the subject attended by foreign ministers from China, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the deputy foreign minister of Turkmenistan.

The Americans, the spokesperson said, “are more obligated than any other country to provide economic, livelihood and humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people, and help Afghanistan maintain stability, prevent chaos and move toward sound development.”

The Chinese also see the departure of the United States from Afghanistan as an opportunity to expand their Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, already a major factor in their close relations with Pakistan.

But even as it takes a different approach to the Taliban, China clearly shares some U.S. concerns. “We should guide and urge the Afghan Taliban to unite with all ethnic groups and factions,” not least to stem the flow of refugees, and “make a clean break with terrorist forces,” the spokesperson said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shares China’s concerns. “We are, of course, not interested in Afghanistan remaining a threat for the neighboring states,” with terrorism, drug trafficking or migrant flows, he said Thursday, according to Russian media.

But Putin has also taken advantage of the opportunity to blame the Americans for what he said were “irresponsible attempts to impose foreign external values and establish so-called democratic institutions . . . that ignore historical features and traditions.”

“The people of this country have been fighting for decades and deserved their right to define their state themselves,” Putin said.