For Afghanistan, Security via Human Rights Is Not a “Either/Or” Situation

A belief that so-called hard security goals require tradeoffs with human rights imperatives underpinned some of the more egregious mistakes of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, such as supporting a brutal commander in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar or excluding women’s issues from the 2020 Doha Agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. 

We can’t make this mistake again and give up human rights at the negotiating table at the upcoming U.N. meeting in Doha from June 30-July 1.

In the name of “hard security,” U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly cooperate with the Taliban against the “common enemy” of the Islamic State, and look the other way when Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior Taliban official and head of the U.S.-listed terror group Haqqani Network, sanctioned by the U.N. and the subject of a “rewards for justice” notice by the FBI for information about his location, meets with UAE leadership in Dubai before going on hajj in June. 

But this realpolitik has only netted the world a regime that according to U.N. reporting hosts multiple terror groups, uses al-Qaida to train its security apparatus, and murders former government officials and regime opponents.

A different way of considering the Afghanistan conundrum is to start with the goal of a peaceful and stable country in which internal critics can advocate for reforms. The international community doesn’t need to micromanage the human rights process or air-drop in a perfect constitution. But it should use all available tools to protect and strengthen the role of those non-violently opposing oppression, both in exile and within Afghanistan. 

Another U.N. Meeting, But No Clear Roadmap

The United Nations, at the prodding of the United States and some European nations, is holding the third meeting of two dozen-plus special envoys for Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar, June 30-July 1. These meetings aim at kicking off a political process proposed in a November 2023 report to the U.N. Security Council, authored by former Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu, designed to lead to the normalization of Afghanistan within the international system. 

Sinirloglu’s report describes this happening only if the Taliban abide by international human rights norms and engage in a political dialogue with the Afghan opposition. The Taliban’s abject failures in this regard, however, have been widely documented, most recently in devastating detail by the U.N. special rapporteur on Afghanistan during his June 18 report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. In addition to describing the clear gender “apartheid” underway in Afghanistan, which has derailed the lives of tens of millions of women and girls who face violence and harassment both in their homes and when they try to venture out of them, the rapporteur’s report documents how Taliban security forces repress freedom of expression and political organization, with indiscriminate arrests and murders of former Republic security forces and those considered to be opponents of the regime.

The Doha meeting process is an effort to maintain a unified set of requirements for the normalization of relations, essential to the international community’s push for the Taliban to end these abuses. As of mid-2024, nearly three years after the Taliban seized power, there remains an unusually cohesive international position of denying the Taliban recognition as a government, but a predictable fraying of that consensus. Some self-interested regional states (such as China, and several Central Asian nations) are getting closer to the regime, prioritizing economic and security cooperation; others are making “Great Game” chess moves to block their traditional adversaries (India and Pakistan); while a few other nations (Norway and Japan, prominently) have decided to ignore multiple lessons of history and offer even more incentives to the Taliban, once again in the hope they will reciprocate with reform. 

What is at Play – and at Risk – This Week in Doha

The upcoming special envoy meeting, known as “Doha 3,” is shaping up to be a step toward  normalization for the Taliban. 

The U.N.’s most senior official in the office of political and peacebuilding affairs, former U.S. diplomat Rosemary DiCarlo, traveled to Kabul in May to invite the Taliban to attend, giving the clear impression that their presence is key to the success of the process. Subsequent negotiations over how to get the Taliban to show up – with support for their position from Russia and China, in particular – have led the U.N. to truncate the agenda. According to the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Kabul, who said during a June 21 press availability that the Taliban had brought “stability,” the meeting will focus on counternarcotics and the development of the private sector. She noted there would be “many Doha meetings” to come, implying that human rights topics could wait. Perhaps without this attendance, per her thinking, the process could peter out.

But if the Taliban does attend and pushes human rights off the agenda, the process will simply die a more public death. The international community will be badly served by a repeat of the 2020 Doha Agreement, which empowered the Taliban’s most extreme factions. At play is not only the agenda but also the idea of whether to invite Afghan women activists, other leaders and civil society from both inside the country and in exile. No such invitations have been made as far as it is known, and the meeting is fast approaching. There are repeated calls by the special rapporteur, human rights organizations, and Afghan women activists to ensure that civil society has a seat at the table to keep these issues in the forefront. 

Extremists everywhere use misogyny as a recruiting tactic and a badge of belonging. Civil rights and the personal safety of all citizens are mainstream security conversations, not “nice to have” goals or “Western” inventions. Human rights abuses have always driven the instability and terror which haunt Afghanistan, impacting its region and the world. The Taliban may have stopped bombing the country’s infrastructure, but there is no true peace in a country when grave domestic violence is rising with total impunity, suicide of women is on the rise, and adolescent girls die in childbirth without women doctors. Empowering women’s voices at the negotiating table, in local councils, and even within their own homes is the actual key to security for all.

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