March 09, 2023
Against All Odds
Supporting Civil Society and Human Rights in Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan
Eighteen months after taking power, the Taliban is intensifying its repression of Afghan civil society and cracking down on the rights and freedoms of all Afghans, especially those of women and girls. The Taliban’s harsh approach to governing the country is repressing millions of people and fueling civil unrest, promoting extremism, and laying the foundation for the reemergence of a terrorist hotbed that will almost undoubtedly become a threat to global peace and security in the years to come.
Humanitarian needs in Afghanistan remain immense, and the country will require large amounts of international aid for the foreseeable future to avoid famine and other health challenges. Twenty-three million Afghans (or nearly 60 percent of the population) currently require food assistance, and unusually cold winter temperatures this year have caused further hardship and death. The Taliban’s December 2022 order barring Afghan women from working for nongovernmental organizations led some international humanitarian organizations to suspend operations, complicating aid distribution, especially to women-headed families.
The abolition of democratic institutions—the Parliament, judiciary, free press—and key government ministries and departments charged with protecting human rights demonstrates that the Taliban is adhering to the same extremist policies that marked their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001. The Taliban rules by fear and intimidation; torture, kidnapping, illegal detention, and extra-judicial killings are part of daily life in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s rollback of women’s rights has been swift and comprehensive. Among the most devastating anti-female policies, which will have far-reaching negative impacts on Afghanistan’s social and economic development and relations with the world, are the edicts forbidding girls from attending secondary school or university. Women and girls in today’s Afghanistan also are prohibited from accessing parks or gyms, leaving home without a male companion, and working outside the home—except in the health sector—and have been publicly flogged for not adhering to the strict behavioral edicts. Women demonstrators have been arbitrarily jailed and subject to torture and death.
The United States will have the greatest chance of impacting human rights inside Afghanistan if it works closely with European players committed to protecting Afghan women and preserving civil society gains.
The international community’s response to the situation in Afghanistan is starting to coalesce around specific principles and actions as the Taliban’s approach to human rights becomes more intolerant. While far from playing its leading role of the past, the United States still controls levers of influence, such as holding Afghan financial reserves, donating the largest sum of humanitarian assistance of any country, and maintaining a powerful voice at the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council. U.S. diplomatic leadership on Afghanistan has been compromised following the 2020 Doha Agreement and August 2021 troop withdrawal and subsequent disengagement by senior officials at the State Department and White House. Moving forward, the United States could be a catalyst for addressing the human rights disaster befalling the country if it chooses.
The United States will have the greatest chance of impacting human rights inside Afghanistan if it works closely with European players committed to protecting Afghan women and preserving civil society gains. As part of the long-standing U.S.–European Union (EU) partnership on Afghanistan, the EU may be poised for greater influence in impacting the country’s political and human rights situation. The EU is increasingly motivated by the threats it will face due to its greater proximity to Afghanistan from uncontrolled terrorist, drug, and migrant flows out of the country. EU entities have issued clear human rights benchmarks about future political relations with the Taliban and are nesting Afghanistan policy within multiple action plans on human rights and gender equality.1 U.N. entities have uniquely strong credibility, capacity, and reach inside the country but would benefit from a more clearly articulated strategy.
The United States, therefore, must join the EU and U.N. in sending a clear signal that it will continue to prioritize support for Afghan human rights alongside its efforts to achieve counterterrorism objectives. Washington must avoid policy arguments that pit human rights and counterterrorism objectives against each other since the two issues are directly linked. The Taliban’s control of the population through its repressive and extremist policies and its narrative victory over the United States inspire jihadi groups worldwide. That inspiration would be heightened by U.S. cooperation with an unbending Taliban regime. In addition, the more women are abused and denied their rights and opportunities to work and go to school, while boys are indoctrinated with the Taliban’s extremist interpretation of Islam, the greater the likelihood Afghanistan will become a locus of radical ideologies and terrorism once again.
The Taliban may well stay in power for some years; therefore, the international community will need to maintain some level of engagement with the group to prevent a humanitarian disaster and to influence their behavior, if only in minor ways. But the international community must continue to use its leverage with the Taliban to improve human rights, especially for women and girls, conditioning its engagement and applying calibrated penalties on the Taliban, even if it risks losing diplomatic access to the Taliban leadership.
More specifically, to support the protection of human rights and the development of Afghan civil society, the United States should:
Limit its engagement with Taliban leadership and maintain support for keeping the Taliban travel ban in place.
U.S. senior-level engagement with the Taliban is one of the few diplomatic levers Washington holds to negotiate for better human rights conditions. Therefore, Washington should suspend it in favor of technical-level and issue-specific contact. Another step the United States can take to show the Taliban their human rights violations come with a price is for Washington to continue to back the U.N. travel ban on Taliban leaders.
Empower diplomats of the former Afghanistan regime to support the Afghan diaspora and exile communities, including reopening the Afghanistan embassy in Washington.
This would facilitate consultative gatherings of Afghans and serve diaspora members, including evacuees and refugees who need consular services. Washington should authorize the Afghan Fund to support the reopening of the Afghanistan embassy in Washington with a limited diplomatic presence and pay for new passport books for this mission and Afghan diplomatic missions worldwide. Many key Afghan diplomatic missions across the world remain open and staffed by members of the previous government.
Engage robustly with the Afghan diaspora and exile communities, including the political opposition.
This will put pressure on the Taliban, which still craves international recognition. The November 2022 participation of U.S. Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. Mission to Afghanistan Karen Decker at an international conference that featured Afghan political opposition leaders in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, was a step in the right direction.
Support the opening of an office for the Afghan political opposition in a country near Afghanistan.
Washington should back the establishment of a political office for the Afghan opposition in a third country near Afghanistan, which could serve as the central location for the groups’ activities and engagement with the Taliban and international community. Several members of the political opposition already engage individually with Taliban leaders; however, establishing a formal opposition office would give more weight to those discussions and facilitate a negotiation process among Afghans.
Maintain U.S. Treasury sanctions on individuals involved in terrorism, resist Taliban demands to lift the sanctions merely because these leaders now hold positions of power, and add new human rights–related sanctions.
Washington should apply Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on Taliban leaders guilty of egregious human rights abuses, including the torture and killing of protesters, journalists, and former government officials.
Work through the U.N. Security Council to designate as terrorists additional Taliban leaders involved in terrorist acts and prevent unsanctioned travel by listed Taliban members.
The United States, France, and the United Kingdom, along with like-minded partners, should ensure the U.N. Security Council 1988 sanctions regime, including the blanket travel ban against listed Taliban leaders, stays in place and propose listing additional Taliban members who have been involved in acts of terrorism.
Formally and publicly abrogate the Doha Agreement, which most Afghans view as favoring and legitimizing the Taliban and which the Taliban has violated.
Most Afghans view the Doha Agreement as a U.S. withdrawal agreement that favored the Taliban and provided it legitimacy. Moreover, the deal has neither led to a peace process among Afghans nor the Taliban breaking ties to terrorists, which was underscored by the July 31, 2022, killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul at a home associated with Taliban acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the Taliban’s harboring of Zawahiri was a clear violation of the Doha deal.
Support human rights and civil society activists inside Afghanistan.
The United States and the international community must utilize all diplomatic tools to ensure the release of political prisoners and the end of Taliban harassment and attacks on activists, media, and women and girls for exercising their fundamental human rights to employment, mobility, education, and speech.
Develop a joint plan of action with the EU to promote the rights of women and girls, and support EU-U.N. joint programs to protect and assist Afghan women and girls.
The United States and EU should ensure their efforts to promote human rights reinforce one another. Working through U.N. agencies in Afghanistan and with the World Bank, donors should support community-level programs that afford women educational and employment opportunities. These efforts could also include funding private schools that allow school-aged girls to attend.
Leverage its new role as a member on the U.N. Human Rights Council to push for action on Afghanistan.
The United States should support the creation of a commission of inquiry, which is a robust mechanism for documenting human rights abuses.
Increase funding for U.N. efforts in Afghanistan that promote human rights.
Washington should help empower the special rapporteur for Afghanistan and the U.N. rapporteur on violence against women to enhance their work in Afghanistan.
Help protect and strengthen the U.N. Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) mandate to include a role in facilitating an intra-Afghan peace process.
Washington should ensure that the mandate for UNAMA is not weakened during its renewal in March 2023. In addition to reinforcing UNAMA’s role in advocating for the promotion and protection of human rights, the United States should ensure existing language authorizing it to “facilitate dialogue between all relevant Afghan political actors and stakeholders, the region and the wider international community, with a focus on promoting inclusive, representative, participatory and responsive governance” remains in the UNAMA mandate.2 Finally, Washington should encourage Special Representative of the Secretary-General Roza Otunbayeva to use her office to vigorously promote and protect such dialogue.
Offer alternative forms of education for girls until the Taliban allows them to attend school.
Alongside pressure on the Taliban to formally reopen schools, the United States and international community should pursue parallel efforts in support of girls’ education. For instance, Washington should encourage the World Bank to fund alternative education mechanisms, including online models, and ensure salaries are paid to Afghan women teachers in rural areas, so that Afghan girls can continue to learn.
Press regional countries to use their influence with the Taliban to address human rights issues, noting that the Taliban’s repression and backward policies will lead to instability and regional insecurity.
Iran, Russia, China, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Central Asian states have varying degrees of influence on Taliban leaders but have so far not prioritized the issue of human rights in their interactions with and policies toward the Taliban. These countries regard the treatment of women and civil society as “internal matters,” which ignores the clear risk of state failure and burgeoning instability.
For its part, the U.S. Congress should:
Require the administration to report on Afghanistan with a focus on its centrality to U.S. global policies on counterterrorism, democracy promotion, protection of women’s rights, atrocity prevention, the fight against human trafficking, and countering China’s growing influence in Central Asia.
While the Afghanistan War Commission will examine U.S. actions and policies in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2021, the U.S. Congress must remain actively engaged in overseeing U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. Congressional members must hold the administration accountable regarding current human rights and counterterrorism concerns and how U.S. policies in Afghanistan will impact broader U.S. geostrategic interests.
Finally, the Afghan diaspora, exile, and civil society communities should:
Develop common platforms and advocacy strategies for governments of the countries where they reside and with the U.N.
The Afghan opposition and diaspora must establish a unified statement of purpose and a process for agreeing on goals if the community wants to successfully lobby foreign governments and the broader Afghan population on its agenda and vision for the future of Afghanistan. There is a concern that if foreign governments provide material resources to Afghan diaspora groups, they will spend time competing against one another for those resources, rather than developing common positions and a clear roadmap for a path forward.
Download the Full Report
- Council of the European Union, Council Conclusions on Afghanistan, 11713-2-21 (September 15, 2021), https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-11713-2021-REV-2/en/pdf. ↩
- “United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan Mandate,” United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, March 17, 2022, https://unama.unmissions.org/mandate. ↩
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