Could Al-Zawahiri’s killing end Taliban’s isolation?

The killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri on Sunday underscored a major dilemma facing the international community in its dealings with the Taliban: Whether to provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people while they are governed by an extremist group insistent on flouting international law.

According to US announcements, Al-Zawahiri was in the center of Kabul when he was killed, not far from Taliban offices and security centers. Since seizing power last August, the Taliban have been repeatedly urged to sever ties with Al-Zawahiri and his terrorist group, which is still active in recruiting fighters and strengthening its presence worldwide. While the Taliban appeared to be forthcoming on fighting Daesh, they made no commitments on expelling Al-Qaeda.

The fact that Al-Zawahiri was living in downtown Kabul puts added pressure on the Taliban to dismantle the organization following the elimination of its leader and cooperate with other countries that may have outstanding warrants for some of the group’s members who are believed to be sheltering in Afghanistan.

The Taliban are seeking international recognition and the removal of sanctions against their group and officials, but those rewards may not be forthcoming as long as they flout international law and provide shelter for known terrorists.

In addition to maintaining links with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban have reneged on their repeated commitments to safeguard women’s rights and have done little to protect minorities or establish an inclusive government.

In June, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said after a visit to Afghanistan that the ban on secondary schooling for girls directly affects 1.1 million girls, “depriving them of a future.”

Since March, several other decrees have also been passed that impact women’s and girls’ rights, further limiting their freedom of movement and access to humanitarian and health services and employment, including in all-female nongovernmental organizations, according to the UN, which described the situation as the “institutionalized, systematic oppression of women.”

Despite the Taliban’s repeated public commitments to respect human rights, more restrictions have been imposed on freedom of opinion and expression, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to participate in public affairs. The UN has also reported the Taliban’s dissolution of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the key national mechanism providing support for Afghans facing violations of their human rights.

While some international observers have noted an improvement in the overall security situation in Afghanistan since the Taliban came to power, civil society actors, including human rights defenders and women’s rights and minority activists, have been subjected to killings, enforced disappearances, incommunicado detention, attacks, harassment, threats and arrests. While some have been released, others remain deprived of their liberty, separated from their loved ones and deprived of their right to speak out, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The humanitarian situation has also suffered under the Taliban. With mounting unemployment rates, 93 percent of all households are facing a high level of food insecurity, with an especially devastating impact on female-headed households, aged persons, people with disabilities and children. Access to basic services including healthcare is also diminishing. According to the World Health Organization, more than 18 million people are in need of health services, including more than 3 million children aged under five.

Last month’s massive earthquake in eastern Afghanistan brought into focus the country’s need for engagement with the rest of the world to deal with the immediate effects of this disaster and to help the country address its longer-term humanitarian and developmental needs, including the provision of basic services such as health and education. Since the Taliban took over Kabul last August, the group has not been able to establish a working relationship with the rest of the world, let alone get political recognition.

Those failures were amplified in the inadequate response to the earthquake.

The failures have been mostly self-inflicted because of the Taliban’s backtracking on their commitments to respect international norms and failure to form an inclusive government and engage with Afghans outside its inner circle.

The earthquake and its aftershocks resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people and injuries to thousands more. Hundreds of children were among the victims. Tens of thousands were made homeless throughout the affected area, adding to the millions of Afghan refugees and internally displaced persons.

Regrettably, the Taliban have subordinated the needs of the Afghan people to their own narrow views about governance, ignoring pleas from the international community and from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which has urged the group to moderate its views and last December dedicated a meeting of its foreign ministers to the Afghanistan situation. In June, the OIC dispatched a delegation of religious scholars to Kabul, headed by Dr. Koutoub Moustapha Sano, secretary-general of the International Islamic Jurisprudence Academy. The delegation met with the Taliban and with Afghan scholars.

Despite the deteriorating humanitarian and economic situation in Afghanistan, the scholars’ meeting was a good sign. While the Taliban have yet to change course, further religious leaders’ engagement could provide a breakthrough if the group has the political will to change its misplaced priorities, which are out of the mainstream in Muslim countries.

The limited progress made by US and Taliban representatives last week when discussing frozen financial reserves was also promising. According to press reports, they exchanged proposals for the release of billions of dollars from Afghan central bank reserves held abroad into a trust fund. Significant differences remain but if they are bridged in the near future significant funds could be freed up to help the Afghan people. Equally important, it could facilitate the work of the central bank, shore up the exchange rate and make it easier to send money in and out of the country.

While the Taliban have yet to change course, further religious leaders’ engagement could provide a breakthrough.

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Also promising was the meeting this week in Riyadh between the GCC Aid Coordination Committee and international partners. They agreed on a set of mechanisms to help the Afghan people without conferring political recognition, directly or implicitly, to the status quo authorities absent a significant change in their policies.

Given these faint signs of optimism in dealing with Afghanistan, the removal of Al-Zawahiri may make the Taliban more flexible on cutting their ties with Al-Qaeda, which is a key demand of the international community before it considers conferring political recognition.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

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