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23 August 2021

Will the Taliban receive international recognition?

The militant group will likely attempt to reverse social advances but there are signs of resistance already. 

By Ido Vock

Evacuations from Kabul airport of foreign citizens and Afghans linked to Western governments will continue this week, as the ahead of the deadline of 31 August for the complete withdrawal of Nato forces approaches. 

As the Taliban prepares to form a government following its takeover of Afghanistan, the country will find itself in the relatively rare – though not entirely novel – position of having diplomats posted abroad representing a deposed government. Unless foreign countries recognise the new authorities, Afghan ambassadors and diplomats will continue serving the defeated republic. Russia and China have signalled relative openness to recognising the Taliban government, while Western countries have been more circumspect. 

Last week, I spoke to an Afghan ambassador posted abroad about the position they and their colleagues now find themselves in. “We are the new generation of Afghans,” they told me, “the ones who were educated within the country and rose up the ranks [of government] over the past ten or 15 years. If there is any hope for Afghanistan’s future, it lies not with the Taliban but with us.”

In many ways, the ambassador – well educated, fluent in English, relatively wealthy – is hardly representative of their fellow citizens, who live in one of the poorest countries in the world. In one way, however, they are. 

The median age in Afghanistan is about 18, meaning a majority of Afghans have never known life under the Taliban, which previously ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. Many will have become accustomed to living under the relative freedom of the past 20 years, especially in cities. Social media and smartphones mean Afghans are more connected to the wider world than they have ever been. That contrasts with the years of Taliban rule, when many Afghans did not even know what their leaders looked like because of the group’s near-total ban on photography and television.

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The wisdom of the West’s failed 20-year attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan will be debated for decades to come. Yet there were some gains, as the former British prime minister Tony Blair wrote this weekend. “Though worse than imperfect, and though immensely fragile, there were real gains over the past 20 years. And for anyone who disputes that, read the heartbreaking laments from every section of Afghan society as to what they fear will now be lost. Gains in living standards, education particularly of girls, gains in freedom,” Blair argued.

The Taliban will likely attempt to reverse the social advances they view as un-Islamic Western imports, such as women’s empowerment, democracy and individual freedom. Yet Afghanistan today is a changed country. Some young Afghans will object if the group reinstates the barbaric laws it imposed during its last stretch in power, such as virtual house arrest for all women. There are signs of resistance already: last week protestors brandished the black-red-green flag of the republic in defiance of the Taliban, who use a white banner. 

Quite how these developments have influenced the Taliban’s ultra-conservative ideology is still unclear. Anglophone spokesmen reassure the media that the rights of women will be respected, but are light on details about what that will mean in practice. Whether the Taliban’s radicalism has genuinely been tempered remains unknown. It will ultimately be part of what determines whether the ambassador I spoke to remains in post or is eventually replaced by a representative of the Islamic Emirate.

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[See also: Afghanistan’s plight and its contested future are a reassertion of the brutal realities of geography]