May 21, 2024

Addressing a Human Rights and Looming Terrorism Crisis in Afghanistan

The Need for Principled International Intervention

Executive Summary

Pursuing the same harsh policies as it did during its previous stint in power in the 1990s, the Taliban has increasingly clamped down on the rights of women and girls since recapturing control of Afghanistan in August 2021. Restrictions on education started with the Taliban mandate in March 2022 banning girls from attending school past the sixth grade. The Taliban furthered its efforts to deny women basic rights when it announced later in the year that women could no longer attend university or work for international nongovernmental organizations. These and dozens of additional restrictions on Afghan women remain in place today.

Meanwhile, terrorist threats that emanate from Afghanistan are intensifying, and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) constitutes the main international concern, especially since it took responsibility for the March 22, 2024, attack on a concert hall in Moscow that killed at least 140 people. The Taliban opposes ISIS-K and had been fighting the group and eliminating its senior leaders, including the mastermind behind the August 26, 2021, suicide bombings that killed 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members. Regional groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan are also active but face few constraints on their activities from the Taliban, with whom they share core ideological beliefs. The Taliban also remains allied with al-Qaeda and has even allowed the terrorist group responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States to take on leadership roles within its regime.

Monitoring threats from ISIS-K necessitates engagement with the Taliban, but U.S. counterterrorism goals should not prevent the United States from also pressing a human rights agenda. For the benefit of the Afghan people—especially women and girls—and the long-term stability and prosperity of the nation, Washington and like-minded partners must employ both incentives and disincentives to compel the Taliban to improve human rights. Since regional countries largely ignore human rights in their dealings with the Taliban, it is incumbent upon the United States, United Nations (UN), and European Union to follow a principled approach and incorporate human rights into their agenda on Afghanistan. In the long term, relying on regional governments to take the lead in engaging with the Taliban would result in disaster for the Afghan people and international security.

The best hope for shaping future Taliban behavior lies with the UN, which can speak coherently and convincingly on behalf of the international community. In his remarks following a meeting of special envoys in Doha, Qatar, in February 2024, for example, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres articulated a UN agenda for Afghanistan that would be a starting point for a coherent international strategy. He emphasized that meeting participants had achieved a consensus to focus on counterterrorism, inclusive governance where all ethnic groups are represented, human rights—especially for women and girls, with an emphasis on education—counternarcotics, and more effective delivery of aid.

To address human rights and terrorism challenges and bolster UN efforts in Afghanistan, the United States should:

  • Strengthen public diplomacy and messaging, coordinating efforts with like-minded partners;
  • Support the work of UN human rights experts by reinforcing the role of the UN special rapporteur for Afghan human rights with an expanded budget and staffing;
  • Encourage change in the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA’s) bureaucratic structure so that UNAMA staff responsible for human rights report directly to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva;
  • Support the UN Credentials Committee in preventing the Taliban from obtaining a seat at the UN;
  • Elevate diplomatic discussions with Afghan opposition leaders and support the consolidation of a non-Taliban political force;
  • Insist on stringent conditions on international assistance to Afghanistan;
  • Reinforce international counterterrorism norms with additional terrorist designations;
  • Impose additional human rights sanctions on individual Taliban leaders;
  • Protect Afghan refugees by leading the international community in urging national authorities in Pakistan and Iran to allow the UN high commissioner for refugees to evaluate and offer protection for the most at-risk Afghan refugees; and
  • Refrain from opening a U.S. mission inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.


Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, the human rights situation in Afghanistan, especially for women and girls, has substantially deteriorated. Female citizens are banned from attending school past grade six, working in almost all professions, and traveling outside their neighborhoods without a male companion. The Taliban also imposed a strict dress code on women and girls, prevented them from going to parks, and closed all beauty shops—further denying women sources of income and social recreation. The Taliban enforces its harsh edicts through detention, jailing, whipping, torture, rape, and disappearances.

Meanwhile, terrorist threats are growing, especially from the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), which has begun striking targets outside Afghanistan, such as at a concert hall in Moscow in March and at a commemorative ceremony in Kerman, Iran, in January. Regional groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Central Asia–focused Jamaat Ansarullah are active and face few constraints on their activities from the Taliban—with whom they share core ideological beliefs. According to reports by experts affiliated with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1988 sanctions regime monitoring committee, al-Qaeda leaders are now part of the Taliban’s administrative structure and are constructing their own training camps in the country.

Another problematic development is the Taliban’s focus on establishing religious schools (madrasas) throughout the country to displace schools with standard curricula. One interlocutor told the authors during a trip to the region that the Taliban’s goal is to establish a madrasa in each of the 400-plus districts in Afghanistan, including madrasas that specialize in teaching extremist ideologies.

Despite the worrisome trends, there has been little effective international action to try to shift the direction the Taliban is taking the country. The United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC's) December 2023 call for the establishment of a United Nations (UN) envoy in Afghanistan who will prioritize human rights, the role of women, and intra-Afghan talks, is encouraging—but there must be more urgency to UN efforts. For example, no envoy has been named even though nearly five months have passed since the UNSC called for one. Some countries, especially those in the region, are starting to normalize their diplomatic ties with the Taliban and give up on advocating for a more legitimate and inclusive government. Unless there is a near-term course correction in the international approach to Afghanistan, in addition to seeing a human rights disaster, the country will again serve as one of the most dangerous terrorist havens in the world.

  1. Matt Seyler, “Taliban Kills Suspected ‘Mastermind’ of Bombing That Killed 13 US Troops, Officials Say,” ABC News, April 25, 2023,
  2. Jeff Seldin, “Afghanistan Reemerging as a Terrorism Incubator,” Voice of America, August 18, 2023,
  3. Bill Roggio, “Al Qaeda Leaders Are Prominently Serving in Taliban Government,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, June 11, 2023,
  4. United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, “Secretary-General’s Statement Following Two-Day Meeting of the Special Envoys on Afghanistan,” statement, February 19, 2024,
  5. Heather Barr, “The Taliban and the Global Backlash Against Women’s Rights,” Human Rights Watch, February 6, 2024,
  6. Seldin, “Afghanistan Reemerging as a Terrorism Incubator.”
  7. Ahmad Mukhtar, “The Taliban Vowed to Cut Ties with Al Qaeda, but the Terror Group Appears to Be Growing in Afghanistan,” CBS News, February 1, 2024,; Ayaz Gul, “UN: Al-Qaida, Afghan Taliban Assist TTP With Attacks in Pakistan,” Voice of America, February 1, 2024,; and Roggio, “Al Qaeda Leaders Are Prominently Serving in Taliban Government.”
  8. Interview with a group of Afghan expatriate leaders in London, January 2024.


  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is a foreign policy and national security expert with over 20 years of service in...

  • Annie Pforzheimer

    Senior Nonresident Associate, CSIS

    Annie Pforzheimer is a former career diplomat with the U.S. Department of State. She is currently a senior nonresident associate at the Center for Strategic and International ...

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