UN preparing for Doha-III meeting on Afghanistan, Taliban not ready for reforms which contradict Islam and local traditions

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By Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI – The diplomatic action is in full swing for holding the third international conference on Afghanistan in Qatar’s capital, Doha, on June 30. Titled “Doha-III”, the global meet will take forward the process initiated by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres in association with special envoys on Afghanistan to promote an effective world approach to the Taliban-governed country, which is facing dire humanitarian and economic crises.

The conference assumes significance with the third anniversary of Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan approaching fast. It also comes close on the heels of the visit of Afghanistan’s acting Minister of Interior Affairs, Sirajuddin Haqqani, to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has ignited intense speculations and debates over the recognition of the Taliban government.

Haqqani is wanted by the U.S. over his alleged involvement in an attack which killed an American citizen and other assaults. His appearance in Dubai, where he reportedly also met key American and other western officials, was preceded by critical talks between Qatari ministers, U.N. and European Union officials and some Taliban Ministers in Kabul last month to convince them to participate in the two-day Doha-III meeting.

The U.N. has informed Taliban leaders that it is working to finalise the agenda for the crucial international conference, and it is aiming for it to be accepted by all sides. Roza Otunbayeva, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, met Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul and discussed the matter.

According to Muttaqi’s office, the two sides exchanged views on the detailed outlook and necessary coordination for the June 30 U.N.-convened meeting. “At the outset, Roza Otunbayeva said that her team is working on the agenda of the third Doha meeting and trying to arrange an agenda that could be recognised by all sides,” the Taliban Foreign Ministry stated.

While laying emphasis on the significance of the conference agenda which may be acceptable to all sides, Muttaqi was quoted as pledging to work closely with the concerned sides regarding the matter. The U.N. did not immediately comment on its envoy’s meeting with the chief Taliban diplomat.

All of these diplomatic activities have raised some basic questions on whether the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is willing to attend the Doha-III meeting and whether the circumstances have forced the Taliban to drop their insistence on six conditions for participation. It is still not clear if all the major stakeholders, including the U.N., the U.S. and the E.U., have come on the same page as far as the engagement with the Taliban is concerned.

The original conditions put forth by the Taliban included these points: (1) Afghanistan’s seat at the U.N. be restored to the Islamic Emirate; (2) The U.N. must drop the appointment of a special representative for Afghanistan; (3) Agenda and composition of the Doha-III conference be discussed with the Taliban; and (4) Girls’ education, women’s employment and formation of an inclusive government should not be on the agenda of the Doha-III meeting.

The Taliban leaders have repeatedly stated that they have no intention of implementing any reforms which contradict “Afghan traditions and norms of Islam”. At the same time, almost all major powers and regional players demand serious reforms, an inclusive government, and regime liberalisation from the Taliban. The western countries are making efforts to lead the Taliban towards a more liberal and tolerant regime.

According to the political observers in South Asia, a comprehensive strategy is needed to normalise the situation in Afghanistan. It should include the willingness and desire to engage in dialogue with the Taliban, especially those factions which are committed to a dialogue with the outside world and seek international recognition. As for the most conservative groups and their sponsors, pressure needs to be exerted on them, which will imply solid rewards for transforming their strategies.

Taliban has affirmed that it wants a genuine Islamic system for Afghanistan and to build an open and inclusive Islamic government with the promises to make provisions for women’s and minority rights in line with cultural traditions and religious rules. It goes without saying that since Taliban are firmly entrenched as the rulers of Afghanistan with no significant opposition which could topple them, the western world needs a more constructive approach to deal with them with a farsightedness.

However, activists have criticised the U.N. for inviting the Taliban to the Doha meeting and allegedly working hard to persuade them to attend the event. The Afghan authorities did not participate in the first two Doha gatherings, saying the U.N. had failed to meet their conditions for doing so. Though the Taliban have informally stated their intention to join the June 30 conference, a formal announcement is likely to be made only after they receive the final agenda of the event from the U.N.

About a dozen rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have jointly shot off a letter to the U.N., the Security Council and member states, affirming that the Taliban’s participation in Doha is being sought at the cost of the rights of Afghan women and girls. The letter has reportedly highlighted several concerns, including reports that women’s rights will neither be on the agenda nor fully represented at the conference.

The U.N. officials have defended their invitation and engagement with the Taliban, saying that they are the de facto authorities in Afghanistan and underlining the fact that the world body is persistently urging Kabul to uphold the rights of women and girls. The Afghan authorities also sought a meeting between their delegation and the U.N. at a very senior level, saying it would be beneficial for both sides.

No foreign country has recognised the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan since they stormed back to power in August 2021 as all the U.S.-led NATO troops withdrew from the country after their two-decade-long presence. Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, has since declared that he is governing the country in line with local culture and Islamic teachings and rejected the international criticism of his policies as an interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Muttaqi, after his meeting with U.N. Deputy Secretary General Rosemary Anne DiCarlo, has stated that the Islamic Emirate is doing its research on the framework of the Doha-III meeting before announcing its position on the issue. Muttaqi said his country’s policy was based on a balanced and positive engagement with all the countries of the world, and expressed the hope that the June 30 conference would bear positive results for Afghanistan.

Amid the diplomatic action, there is a visible unrest among the western stakeholders over Russia’s decision to consider taking Taliban off the terror list, as such a move will bring Kabul and Moscow ever closer. The E.U. as a bloc also seems to be keen to push for engaging the Taliban, without formally recognising them.

A greater desire is discernible to help the poor in Afghanistan, based on stories of economic adversity that the majority of population in the country faces. This positioning has apparently grown from a realisation that the Taliban are here to stay. Some diplomats wonder whether the Emirate will be able to govern effectively and take care of its citizens if they want to rule for a long time.

Instead of the emphasis on women’s rights on which conflicting claims are being made, a much bigger issue is the survival of millions of Afghan citizens who are in financial distress. Despite increased revenues and improvement in some sectors of the economy, the Emirate still faces the challenge of taking the country out of mere survival mode. Economic development and international trade come largely through lifting or easing of sanctions on the regime.

The Taliban leadership has begun to realise that an international engagement is unavoidable and Kabul will have to take some of global communities’ aspirations into consideration which may lead to easement of international trade and financial transactions. The absence of an organised opposition and the negligible scope for an armed conflict are some of the important factors playing in favour of the Taliban regime.

The Doha-III conference will help evolve a middle ground for the stakeholders, in which no side will lose face and a bargain will be made for helping out Afghanistan during its present crisis. Despite serious challenges, this will lay new foundations not just for survival, but for well-being and hope for the people of Afghanistan in the run-up to the third anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power in August this year.

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