UN Security Council Stumbles on Taliban Travel Waiver

The Taliban have been in control of Afghanistan for more than a year but still do not have an ambassador in the United Nations or any country. And since last Friday, the regime’s foreign minister has been banned from traveling abroad.

Diplomatically, the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is even worse off than the dictatorship in North Korea, often said to be the most isolated country in the world, which has embassies in more than 45 countries and a seat at U.N. headquarters in New York.

A short-term travel waiver that had been granted to 13 Taliban officials expired on August 19 because U.N. Security Council members did not agree to extend it.

Since 1999, under UNSC Resolution 1267, 151 Taliban officials have been banned from traveling abroad because of their alleged links to international terrorism.

The U.S. government, which fought the Taliban for two decades in Afghanistan and has designated several Taliban leaders as international terrorists, wants “strictly limited” diplomatic engagement with the Taliban.

“[F]ace-to-face discussions in third countries with the Taliban have proven to be useful to advance our interests, particularly as we have no presence in Afghanistan at this time,” a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told VOA.

Two other UNSC members, Russia and China, have also expressed the need for continued diplomacy with the Taliban.

“For China, definitely, we hope that engagement is very much necessary since Afghanistan is at a critical stage,” Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the U.N., told reporters Thursday.

But despite their ostensible agreement on the need to engage with the Taliban, major powers on the UNSC appear to strongly differ on how and where to do business with Taliban representatives.

For years, U.S. officials dealt with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, where a small U.S. diplomatic mission handles Afghanistan-related issues. The U.S. reportedly prefers a Taliban travel exemption only to Doha, where Taliban officials can meet diplomats from any country or international organization.

China and Russia have not only kept their respective embassies open in Taliban-controlled Kabul but have also accredited Taliban diplomats in Moscow and Beijing without officially recognizing the Taliban regime.

While the U.S. wants to meet Taliban interlocutors in Qatar, Chinese and Russian officials prefer to host Taliban envoys in Russia and China.

Extending the travel exemption to a smaller group of more moderate Taliban officials is also an option cited in some diplomatic circles.

But the differences among UNSC powers are deeper than minor preferences, some analysts say.

“The Taliban travel ban waiver issue is no longer so much about the situation in Afghanistan. It is now a … great power alignment crisis within the UNSC,” Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador, told VOA.

“The real issue itself is sensitive enough, given the political and technicality pillars, but it has now become embroiled in high-wire diplomacy influenced by East-West tensions.”

Ineffective sanctions?

From asset freezes to travel bans to rewards for their arrest, Taliban leaders have been facing strong international sanctions for more than two decades.

While many observers criticize these sanctions as largely ineffective, others say the Taliban’s refusal to accept international laws leaves the world with few options but to impose sanctions on them.

“As much as you offer latitude to the Taliban, they think that’s a reflection of their strength,” said Shinkai Karokhail, a former Afghan lawmaker and diplomat, “and they show no commitment to international norms.”

Karokhail said the sanctions regime needs improvement and should specifically target the most problematic elements in the Taliban leadership.

“If Taliban’s ties to Pakistan are effectively sanctioned, this will bring cataclysmic changes in the Taliban regime,” she told VOA, referring to the alleged support of the Taliban by Pakistani intelligence.

The Taliban deny receiving orders from Pakistan, but U.S. officials and many Afghan observers say the group has deep ties to Pakistan.

In a recent interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai alleged that the Taliban have shut secondary schools for Afghan girls at the behest of Pakistan.

Taliban officials say that the sanctions are counterproductive and that no external pressure will force them to compromise on their Islamist policies, “even if they use a nuclear bomb,” the Taliban’s supreme leader told a religious gathering in Kabul in July.

US presence

With more than $700 million in aid, the U.S. has been the single largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan over the past year.

The U.S. has channeled funds through the U.N. and other international organizations and has no presence in Afghanistan to monitor how its aid dollars are being used.

“The best way for the United States to maintain regular contact and develop insights into conditions on the ground would be to reestablish a diplomatic presence in Kabul,” a report by RAND, a U.S. global policy think tank, recommended in May 2022.

The authors of the report, two former senior U.S. diplomats and one researcher with extensive work on Afghanistan, described the engagement policy with the Taliban as a preferable option for the U.S. to further its interests and hold the Taliban accountable to their counterterror commitments.

“The United States has no immediate plans to resume operations at Embassy Kabul,” a State Department spokesperson said without offering details.

On August 1, a U.S. drone killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, an event that significantly set back U.S. engagement with the Taliban. U.S. officials have accused the Taliban of “a flagrant violation” of their commitment not to host al-Qaida and other terrorists in areas under their control.

More than three weeks since the drone bombing, Taliban officials maintain they have not found al-Zawahiri’s body and instead criticize the U.S. for violating Afghanistan’s aerial sovereignty.

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