The alarming reports on women’s oppression in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule and the recently held two days of talks between the Taliban and US officials, presents an interesting case study of how the pursuit if national interest shapes power politics. What are the factors which led to the recent shift in the US approach to the Taliban? What is the driving force behind it? What are the objectives of the Taliban’s regime in politicizing women’s rights?
On 15th August 2021, the Taliban took control of the country’s capital Kabul, twenty years after their ouster by the US. In September 2021 the authorities announced the separate classrooms policy in academic institutions, following which the Taliban, in March 2022, completely banned the secondary and high schools as a barbaric response to the women’s peaceful protest for their rights. Despite their earlier claims that women would be able to practice their rights guaranteed under Sharia law, including the freedom to work and study, the Taliban have consistently barred women and girls from public life since they came into power. This gradual repression of women’s rights and the authorities’ public statements seem to suggest that the Taliban regime is emerging as an oppressor of human rights. In fact, all they are doing is political maneuvering, using the repression of women as a tool to engage the international community.
The Taliban’s politicization of women’s rights issues can be understood as a strategic move to gain international attention and recognition. They understand that human rights, especially women’s rights, are sensitive topics in the international community, and by engaging in such actions, they can put themselves in the spotlight. This attention provides leverage in negotiations with foreign powers to help the Taliban gain their political objectives.
The Taliban’s political maneuvering on this issue is aimed at engaging a key international actor, i.e. the United States. Finally, it happened when the US and Taliban officials met in Qatar on August 1, 2023, for the first time after the Taliban took control of the country. The US pressed the Taliban on human rights at the Doha talks; while the economy and anti-drug trafficking efforts were also discussed, woman’s oppression was the central issue in the talks as the US officials showed their concern over women’s rights and called on the Taliban to reverse the ban on women’s education and employment. The Taliban responded by asking the US to lift travel restrictions on their leaders and talked about the return of Afghan frozen central bank assets.
The United States and its close allies invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 and deposed the Taliban administration. The invasion’s goals were to demolish al-Qaeda in retaliation for the September 11 attacks. In that era, the US was the sole hegemon that influenced the production and distribution of knowledge, and established itself as a dominant actor to shape ideologies and maintain control. Now the decline in a liberal international order based on Western values, and the emergence of China put the US in a position where responsibility will add weight to the scale. Kabul is in intense need of foreign investment and is inclined toward China. It would be a transactional relationship as China has its interests aligned with Afghanistan for stability in the region and specifically its own stability. The Chinese are approaching Kabul with their five principles of peaceful co-existence and the Taliban are welcoming it. The Chinese are more focused on Uyghur militants who are hostile to China but their close ties with Afghanistan are based on cooperation, and mutual respect will assist them in that regard. The Taliban regime has signed an oil extraction deal with a Chinese company confirmed by the acting mining minister of the Taliban, as Reuters reported. It is significant as it is the first major public commodities extraction deal of $540 million in three years and will be continued for the next twenty five. The project will provide 3,000 employment opportunities to only Afghan citizens.
The power transition theory explains this US-China dilemma particularly in the case of Afghanistan. The factor of responsibility is adding an important debate; if any humanitarian crises as predicted emerge in Afghanistan in the upcoming years, the critics of US policies will make good use of it. This sense of responsibility is now aligned with the United States’ core national interest as the emerging powers are questioning the US standing as a global leader under the umbrella of their US-centric framed values. This has compelled the US to re-engage the Taliban and the Taliban regime is taking full advantage of it.
The United Nations report submitted to the Security Council observed that the relationship between the Taliban regime and the Al Qaeda remains close and symbiotic. The US president was questioned in this context by a reporter who asked if the former would admit to mistakes during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Biden’s response was:
“No, no. All the evidence is coming back. Do you remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said Al Qaeda would not be there. I said it wouldn’t be there. I said we’d get help from the Taliban. What’s happening now? What’s going on? Read your press. I was right.”
The Taliban, who had already rejected the UN report, now highlight Biden’s remarks as an “acknowledgment of reality”, as the Ministry of Afghan foreign affairs said.
According to the New York Times reports published on 6th June 2021, the CIA was scrambling for a new approach in Afghanistan. This “acknowledgment” above can be explained through the lens of the power transition theory. The way China approached the Taliban regime and positioned itself as a defining major player in the region is also Beijing’s acknowledgement that the Taliban are political stakeholders in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime is using the best available political cards and emerging as a rational actor in the power play between the two powers, creating opportunities from challenges and exploring multiple policy options.