Diplomatic Recognition

Officially, Taliban control of Afghanistan ended in 2001.  The movement, which had brutally enforced its interpretation of Sharia law for half of a decade, was overthrown by the American invasion and replaced by a democratic government led by Hamid Karzai.  Unfortunately, the official change of power did not entirely alter the reality in Afghanistan.  The Taliban remains in control of a number of the nation’s more remote sectors, and continues to pose a threat to the stability of the new government, particularly as it prepares for a new leader to take office.

Recognizing that the Taliban still wields power, Karzai and U.S. leaders have made attempts to deal with its leaders diplomatically, holding formal talks with Taliban representatives on several occasions.  Holding peace conferences would be a natural approach for most leaders facing a hostile government, but the Taliban is not a legitimate governing body (and was hardly recognized as one while it was still the leading Afghan power from 1996 to 2001); therein lies the problem.

On one hand, the United States can hardly ignore the reality that the Taliban still retains control in many areas.  Progress can only be made by accepting and confronting the actual situation.  However, dealing with the Taliban as if they are a legitimate governing body has unwanted implications.  It grants the group official recognition and elevates its status despite the fact that it no longer has any authority to govern.

This balancing act led to a considerable amount of political strife when the Taliban recently opened an office in Qatar.  The administrative building was accepted by the United States as a necessity to facilitate ongoing negotiations and talks with Taliban representatives; nevertheless, many remained wary of granting the group diplomatic recognition.  Their concerns proved valid as the Taliban quickly began to overstep, using the building to display the flag and name under which it had ruled over Afghanistan.  Naturally, Afghan leaders and many others were outraged.  The chance of any peaceful resolutions emerging from the new Taliban office quickly dimmed, and the building has since been indefinitely closed.

The Qatari incident illustrated how easily something as simple as recognition could escalate the diplomatic situation with the Taliban, especially as the group is almost certain to attempt to leverage as much power as possible out of any opportunity that it can seize.  Unfortunately, the closing of the only permanent means of maintaining political discourse with the Taliban has proved how difficult it is to conduct negotiations with a body that has no official offices or delegates.  There is no clear solution to the problem; the U.S. must essentially choose between partially validating the Taliban’s claims to power in hopes of progress or being unable to conduct effective negotiations with the group and having almost no diplomatic interaction with Taliban representatives.

There are valid arguments on both sides; however, it is likely more advantageous (albeit somewhat inconvenient) for the United States to avoid granting further recognition to the Taliban.  As events in Qatar showed, attempts to be diplomatic with the Taliban will not dissuade them from attempting to seize power.  If the Afghan government is weakened (a valid concern with a presidential transition in the near future), the Taliban will not hesitate to reestablish control.  Therefore, the United States must focus on establishing and maintaining solid relationships with Afghanistan’s new leaders, hopefully allowing for continued involvement of American military support.  Attempting to negotiate with the Taliban would likely harm relations with the Afghan government; ultimately, a strong alliance with the nation’s legitimate leaders is more valuable than a chance to converse with its enemies.

Treating the Taliban diplomatically could also set a dangerous precedent for foreign relations.  While it was once a governing body, it is now very similar to the terrorist organizations that have taken control of remote regions in Pakistan and other countries.  If the United States begins to treat the Taliban as a legitimate group, it may find itself having to negotiate with other organizations that claim to be governing bodies as well.  This situation would be difficult to handle under current circumstances, but could be made even worse should a group such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (known for violence and extremism) gain control of a city or region.  If the U.S. deals diplomatically with the Taliban, it would likely be expected to take the same approach to any other group claiming governance.  The potential harm of such a situation far outweighs any small gains that may or may not be made by holding talks with the Taliban; therefore, diplomatic recognition should be reserved for legitimate governments alone.


McKirdy, Euan. “Who’s Running? The Candidates Vying to Be Afghanistan’s next President.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 06 Apr. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/02/world/asia/afghan-elections-candidate-profiles/index.html?hpt=wo_c1>.

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  6. Adam Rastatter

    It appears that the best solution would be to acknowledge the Taliban’s claim to power but that could be risky. It really doesn’t look like the US has very many options here.

  7. Yes, this is quite a predicament for the U.S. and the Afghan government. I agree that trying to negotiate especially when the legitimate government is unstable is a bad idea, but depending on how the future Afghan leaders want to deal with the Taliban, the U.S. might have to negotiate. Karzai apparently wanted to do more negotiations than the U.S. really wanted, and if the next president wants to continue negotiations, the U.S. might be drawn into it.

  8. It seems to me like this is very steadily turning into a lose-lose situation. There does not seem like a way for the US and the rest of the world powers to go about this and not have to face harsh consequences.

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