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U.S. allies and adversaries are holding off for now on recognizing, aiding the Taliban

Some countries’ support hinges on the group’s actions on human rights. Others say dealing with it is unavoidable, given its control of Afghanistan.

Armed Taliban fighters stand next an imam during Friday prayers at the Abdul Rahman Mosque in Kabul on Aug. 20. (Hoshang Hashimi/AFP/Getty Images) (Afp Contributor#afp/AFP/Getty Images)

Countries around the world — some more reluctantly than others — are accepting a new political reality with the Taliban as the ruling power in Afghanistan, though they’re stopping short of officially recognizing the group’s governance and are placing aid packages on hold.

Some governments have signaled that financial assistance and symbolic acceptance — a validation of legitimacy that President Biden has said he’s not sure the Taliban even wants — could follow if its leaders show they can respect human rights.

The varying degrees of welcome in the days since the militants swept to power in Kabul has illustrated the sharp divisions between U.S. allies and adversaries — a preview of the international tussle as a new and uncertain diplomatic dynamic takes hold in relation to Afghanistan.

“The Taliban have won the war, so we will have to talk with them,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, said at a news briefing. “It’s not a matter of official recognition. It’s a matter of dealing with.”

No rush to recognize

The last time the Taliban seized power, in 1996, the organization was recognized by just three nations: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. No government has yet gone that far, undermining the militants’ ability to run the country effectively.

The E.U.’s communication with the group this week has been logistical: coordinating the evacuation of E.U. staffers, relaying humanitarian concerns and setting the conditions for providing development aid.

“Talking to them does not imply a recognition, and we will certainly not rush into it,” European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said Friday. The E.U.’s policy approach offers crucial guidance to the 27 members that make up the world’s largest trading bloc, although individual countries are not bound by that guidance.

France and Germany generally recognize states, not individual governments. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in an interview with BFM TV on Wednesday that the issue of recognizing the Taliban “is not currently of relevance for France.”

“When you take power by force, you are not legitimate,” he said, adding that the Taliban needs to take certain actions, including respecting women’s rights and forming a transitional government, if it wants to sway the international community.

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In Germany, the Afghanistan crisis comes as Berlin prepares for parliamentary elections next month that will usher in a new government.

Armin Laschet, the candidate from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union who hopes to succeed her as chancellor, noted that “the art of good foreign policy” is finding solutions with states whose goals and ideals other societies reject.

Yet Annalena Baerbock, the candidate for Germany’s Greens, drew a hard line. Dialogue with the Taliban is necessary for evacuations, she told MDR television, but its government should not be recognized “because it is not the legitimate government but an Islamist terror group.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said “it would be a mistake for any country to recognize any new regime in Kabul prematurely or bilaterally.” During a rancorous special session of Parliament on Wednesday, he urged that “those countries that care about Afghanistan’s future … work toward common conditions about the conduct of the new regime before deciding, together, whether to recognize it and on what terms.”

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Chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters in Kabul this week that the group would respect women’s rights within the norms of Islamic law but did not elaborate. Mujahid also said the Taliban would not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacking other countries, as was the case with the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

The Taliban was last in power from 1996 to 2001. With the fundamentalist group taking over again, Afghanistan could be a “humanitarian crisis in the making.” (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Ishaan Tharoor/The Washington Post)

Pursuing warmer relations

Two U.S. adversaries, Russia and China, have taken the lead in making overtures to the Taliban.

Russian President Vladimir Putin encouraged other countries to establish good-neighbor relations with Afghanistan’s new leaders and “to stop the irresponsible policy of imposing alien values from the outside.”

“The Taliban movement currently controls virtually the entire territory of the country, including its capital. These are realities, and we should act based on these very realities, not allowing the Afghan state’s breakup,” Putin said.

Russia sees potential cooperation with Taliban, but also prepares for the worst

Russia views Afghanistan through a complex lens, given the humiliating withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 after a 10-year occupation of the country. It has remained concerned about the region’s potential instability and extremism.

But in recent years, Russia has been in touch with a range of key political forces and ethnic leaders. That included the Taliban, even though the group is a banned terrorist organization in Russia. Moscow’s strategy of talking to all sides was designed to give it influence in Afghanistan once U.S. forces departed.

And as the Taliban took over the Afghan capital, Russia, Pakistan, China and Iran all kept their embassies in Kabul open. Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Dmitry Zhirnov, said the Taliban had guaranteed diplomats’ security and placed a guard on the embassy compound.

China, which shares a short stretch of closely guarded border with Afghanistan, has its own worries about the Taliban’s takeover, especially the risk that certain Chinese Muslims could be radicalized. In prior years, state-affiliated scholars in China have criticized the Taliban as encouraging “separatists” in China.

During a call with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the international community should encourage and guide Afghanistan “instead of exerting more pressure,” according to a readout published by the ministry.

Wang hosted top Taliban officials in late July. At that meeting, he sought assurances that the Taliban’s leaders would support China’s policies on ethnic Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region. In exchange, Wang pledged that China would not interfere with Afghanistan’s internal affairs and said the Taliban had an important role to play in Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

Afghanistan’s neighbors watch warily as Taliban completes its dramatic takeover

In Pakistan, a country whose diplomats and military have long supported the Taliban, the reaction this week was mostly triumphant.

As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled and the Taliban moved in, Prime Minister Imran Khan declared in a speech that Afghans had “broken the shackles of slavery.” Foreign Minister Shah Masood Qureshi was more measured. When the time came, he said, Pakistan would “recognize the Taliban government in line with the international consensus.”

Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, speaking from the United Arab Emirates, said in a Facebook video on Aug. 18 that he had left Kabul to prevent bloodshed. (Video: Reuters)

Generally, officials are moving more cautiously than in 1996, when Pakistan was first to formally recognize the Taliban during its initial takeover, said Samina Yasmeen, a professor at the University of Western Australia who is an expert on the politics of the Afghanistan region.

Pakistan’s government has been sensitive to perennial international criticism of its backing for the Taliban, Yasmeen added, and Islamabad hopes to “be acknowledged as playing a role in stabilizing Afghanistan and establishing certain criteria of behavior for the Taliban — not just jump straight into giving it recognition.”

Aid considerations

Vivek Katju, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, said the Taliban has shown some restraint, reflecting its need for international legitimacy — and, more important, for the United States to unfreeze billions of dollars of Afghanistan’s central bank reserves.

“The question of legitimacy is also a question about the flow of funds,” Katju said. “The Taliban are aware that the state they have to manage is not the state of the ’90s. They need money.”

Afghanistan’s economy is now on the brink of devastation, given the country’s high dependence on international funding. The crisis has created a complicated dilemma for countries choosing between maintaining leverage by withholding aid and exacerbating severe economic conditions that threaten millions of Afghan citizens.

Biden administration faces big choices as economic calamity hangs over Afghanistan

The E.U. is a leading source of humanitarian funding — with more than $66 million committed to Afghanistan in 2021 — and that money will continue to flow through nongovernmental agencies.

Development aid is a separate matter, and the E.U. has suspended all such assistance “until we clarify the situation,” said Stano, the European Commission spokesman. Afghanistan has been the largest beneficiary of such funding, with about $1.4 billion earmarked for distribution from 2021 to 2024.

Germany gives around $500 million a year in aid to Afghanistan, making Berlin one of Kabul’s biggest benefactors. As the Taliban advanced earlier this month, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that aid would be stopped if the group took over.

“We will not pay one cent to Afghanistan anymore when the Taliban take over the country, when they introduce sharia law and Afghanistan becomes a caliphate,” he told ZDF television. “The Taliban know that.”

The Taliban says it will rule under sharia. What does that mean?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg explained that the 30-state military alliance has suspended all financial support because “there’s no Afghan government for NATO to support.”

Future aid will be conditioned on the Taliban’s respect for its international commitments, including to the United States last year, and its safeguarding of human rights. Any new government that undermines these conditions, Stoltenberg said Friday, “risks international isolation."

William Booth in London, Alicia Chen in Taipei, Taiwan, Robyn Dixon in Moscow, Eva Dou in Seoul, Loveday Morris and Frederik Seeler in Berlin, and Rick Noack in Paris contributed to this report.