Taliban talks to Malaysia, Indonesia ‘to create engagement perception’

Taliban talks to Malaysia, Indonesia ‘to create engagement perception’

The Taliban is reaching out to Muslim-majority nations far from Afghanistan, like Malaysia and Indonesia, to create the perception that an increasing number of countries are interested in engaging with the regime to “strengthen their case for international recognition”, say analysts.

On Sunday (July 24), the Taliban’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi met Malaysia’s special adviser on Afghanistan, Ahmad Azam Abdul Rahman, to discuss banking, education, bilateral cooperation and scholarships for Afghan students, said the Kabul-based Tolo news channel.

On the same day, the Taliban’s Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, wanted by the FBI for questioning in relation to a 2008 attack on a Kabul hotel that killed six people, called on the global community to recognise its legitimacy as the official government in the country.

Malaysia’s foreign ministry was approached for a comment about the recent visit to Afghanistan. In Feb, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah said a humanitarian mission to Kabul was not to recognise the Taliban but to ensure Afghans were helped.

Last year, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, deputy director of the Taliban’s political office, in Qatar’s capital, Doha, and stressed the importance of an inclusive government in Afghanistan and respect for women’s rights.

Amid such meetings, analysts say the Taliban administration is becoming frustrated it is still unrecognised by any world government since returning to power almost a year ago, although its diplomats have been accepted in several nations, including China.

Nishank Motwani, a fellow on the Edward S. Mason programme at Harvard Kennedy School, said the Taliban had three objectives in broadening their outreach to geographically distant countries.

“First, to create the perception that an increasing number of countries are interested in engaging with their regime. Second, to utilise the perception of a broader support base to strengthen their case for international recognition. Third, to seek some degree of financial, technical, or developmental support.”

Faran Jeffery, deputy director and head of the South Asia desk on terrorism at the Britain-based Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism (ITCT) think tank, said the Taliban was approaching states like Malaysia (almost 5,000km away) and Indonesia (more than 6,000km away), partly because members are desperate to gain some level of legitimacy “since they have lost all hope of recognition from Western countries”.

“So they’re placing their bets on Muslim countries, and sure enough, their bets have even paid off to some extent. Türkiye is set to be the seventh country to accept Taliban-appointed diplomats,” he said. “This is after Pakistan, China, Qatar, Turkmenistan, Iran and Russia have already done so.”

Although the Taliban has pushed extensively to receive international recognition, so far no country has agreed to recognise the group as a legitimate state. It is hoping that the seven nations will eventually help it lobby Western governments, said Jeffery.

Pakistan and China have, though, both called on the international community to engage with and support the Taliban. “Although such calls have been mostly falling on deaf ears,” he added.

Domestic legitimacy

Motwani said the Taliban desired international recognition but “is not actively seeking it with urgency” because the core support base and source of legitimacy for the Taliban is their home base, not other states.

“What the Taliban is seeking is domestic legitimacy and one way to characterise their engagement with external actors is that international recognition is a nice to have but not a must have from their point of view,” said Motwani, adding that international recognition for the Taliban “is extremely unlikely”.

Since signing the 2020 Doha Agreement, a peace deal with the US, the Taliban has only upheld one commitment on a long list of them.

“That (is) they won’t attack foreign forces during the withdrawal (of US troops). That is the only commitment they upheld, likely in their own self-interest,” said Jeffery.

Jeffery said the Taliban had violated all other commitments, including on human rights and supposedly not allowing any foreign terrorist groups to operate on Afghan soil.

Pakistani jihadi group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani branch of the organisation, is still headquartered in Afghanistan with its senior leadership even being welcomed in Kabul, said Jeffery.

Similarly, Uygur militants and al-Qaeda are also still present in Afghanistan, warned Jeffery.

“Al-Qaeda is keeping a low profile right now and doesn’t seem interested in launching attacks from Afghanistan for the time being, partly to avoid getting the Taliban into trouble with the international community. So for now it is maintaining primarily an advisory role,” he said.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda have a common enemy in Afghanistan in the form of Islamic State Khorasan (ISKP), a local branch of Islamic State, against which the Taliban has had some recent success. Jeffery said the Taliban was “unlikely to expel” the likes of al-Qaeda and TTP “considering that it refused to expel TTP even after the Pakistani government’s request”.

Azmi Hassan, a political analyst at University Technology of Malaysia, said the nation’s envoys had met the Taliban several times in an effort to “help” the citizens there.

He said Malaysia, like other Muslim countries, were trying to nudge Afghanistan towards respecting human rights, including women’s rights, by engaging with the regime and not punishing it with sanctions as Western nations have done.

“I think the strategy of Muslim countries right now is to be friendly, show them some respect to help them (the Taliban) at least respect human rights,” said Azmi, adding that sanctions hurt the people, not the Taliban.

Motwani said the Taliban “has not changed” but what has shifted is their political messaging and engagement to make it appear that their regime is softer when, in fact, their treatment of Afghans remains anchored in “terrorising the population and punishing them with impunity”.

He said the Taliban was interested in human rights or women’s rights in terms of what other countries, “including Muslim majority countries, have to say about their gender exclusionary policies that discriminate against girls and women”.

But he said Malaysia “has no sway over the Taliban” and it would be “a fantasy to imagine that it could convince the Taliban to reverse their lethal and exclusionary policies on human rights and women’s rights”.

The Taliban has routinely denied accusations of rights abuses since overthrowing the previous Western-backed government last year, but a United Nations mission in Afghanistan report released on Wednesday listed multiple accounts of often fatal human rights violations.

It documented 160 allegations of extrajudicial killings, 56 incidents of torture and ill-treatment, and more than 170 arbitrary arrests and detentions against former government officials and national security force members since Aug 2021.

The most common methods of torture included kicking, punching and slapping, beatings with cables and pipes, and the use of electric shock devices.

The UN report documented more than 200 instances of cruel, inhumane or degrading punishments, including beating shopkeepers for not attending mosque, and more than 100 cases involving the excessive use of force.

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