In recent weeks, Afghanistan’s political landscape has undergone some seismic changes. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that had governed the country for the past two decades is now gone, its security forces having largely surrendered and its last president, Ashraf Ghani, having conceded defeat as he fled the country. The Taliban forces that surged in the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal are now in control of most of the country and have declared their intent to re-establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan founded by an earlier generation of Taliban. Leaders of the Taliban’s various factions are now stationed in Kabul, where they are discussing what exactly this new government might look like both among themselves and with a handful of other prominent Afghans, including officials from the former government. By contrast, the United States and its allies have had to shutter their once sprawling embassies and are now engaged in an urgent effort to evacuate through Kabul’s international airport, which the Taliban has agreed to leave in U.S. military control through the scheduled withdrawal date of Aug. 31, but no longer.
At the moment, the focus in Afghanistan understandably remains on these more immediate problems. But some observers and policymakers are already beginning to give thought to what is likely to come next, with a focus often converging on one question: whether or not to recognize the emerging Taliban regime as Afghanistan’s new government.
For its part, the Taliban has had a longstanding interest in recognition. More recently, it’s undertaken a charm offensive aimed in part at securing it, specifically through diplomatic engagements with potential partners and rhetoric intended to assuage international concerns about its treatment of women and girls, among other aspects of its rule. Meanwhile, the United States and others in the international community have already begun to set conditions on any such recognition, first as part of a failed effort to deter the Taliban from taking over the country and now in an attempt to encourage them to respect human rights and adopt a more inclusive model of governance. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has gone so far as to describe recognition as “the only leverage that exists” over the Taliban in this regard and has pushed for a united front among U.N. member states. The prospects for success in using recognition as leverage are unclear, however, with even President Biden expressing doubts whether the Taliban will change its behavior. Questions also remain about how sustainable withholding recognition may prove to be, given that many states’ ability to secure their interests in Afghanistan are now dependent on the Taliban who effectively run the country.
For better or worse, this is not the first time that the United States and others in the international community have faced these questions in Afghanistan. The possibility of recognition and the conditions under which it might take place were common points of discussion during the Taliban’s last rise to power in the 1990s. This was in turn part of a more than decade-long stretch in which Afghanistan had no recognized government, at least from the perspective of the United States and many others in the international community.
Examining this period in Afghan-U.S. relations specifically through the lens of recognition reveals some of the external and internal dynamics that led to this unusual status quo, several of which may be re-emerging in today’s Afghanistan. That said, the fact that the international community may be drifting back towards a status quo without any formal recognition of an Afghan government does not mean an end to diplomacy with Afghanistan. To the contrary, the tools that the United States and others used to engage with and influence events in Afghanistan through the 1990s suggest how they may pursue similar efforts today. In this sense, the focus on recognition may well be misplaced, as these policies constitute the most immediate terrain on which the Taliban’s new relationship with the world is likely to be negotiated in the weeks and months to come.
What Is Recognition?
Few topics in international affairs are the source of more confusion than recognition. The term itself is often misunderstood to imply the normalization of relations between states or even the endorsement of one government by another. In reality, recognition is a far more narrow legal act that bears on, but is distinct from, many of the substantive policy decisions that define bilateral relationships. Understanding these differences can in turn help clarify the choices that the United States is now facing in Afghanistan.
In international law and diplomacy, “recognition” is a term of art used to describe when one state acknowledges the existence of another state and an associated government able to speak for that state in international affairs. While state and governmental recognition can take place together or independently, the former is a necessary precondition for the latter. Recognition is particularly important for international law, as it helps to identify whether an entity can, as a state, possess rights and duties under international law and whether a regime may, as that state’s government, exercise those rights and duties on that state’s behalf. A state will in turn be held responsible for how its government exercises those rights and duties, even if that government ceases to exist or is replaced by another.
As a matter of international practice, recognition determinations may be communicated expressly through official statements or implicitly through certain actions that, as a matter of international law, can be pursued only with the government of another state--most notably, the exchange of credentials for an ambassador or entry into a bilateral treaty. In the United States, recognition determinations are made exclusively by the president, though Congress’s cooperation may be needed in the form of advice and consent for a treaty or appropriations for a new ambassador. Congress cannot countermand the president’s recognition determinations, but it can enact legislation that shapes a bilateral relationship in ways that simulate or substantially limit its domestic legal effects.
The current situation in Afghanistan primarily raises questions of governmental recognition. No one believes Afghanistan has ceased to exist as a state, at least not yet; instead, the question is who can speak on its behalf. The international law standard for when a regime should be treated as the government of a state is when it exercises “effective control” over that state, classically defined to mean when the regime is “sufficiently established to give reasonable assurance of its permanence, and of the acquiescence of those who constitute the state in its ability to maintain itself, and discharge its internal duties and its external obligations.” By most contemporary accounts, international law obligates states to treat a regime that is in effective control of a state as that state’s government for certain fundamental purposes under international law. These include accepting that the unrecognized government’s actions can create international legal rights and obligations for the state. (This is sometimes referred to as de facto recognition.) But states almost universally extend a broader range of privileges to governments that they officially recognize (often called de jure recognition), none of which are necessarily available where there is no formal recognition. Thus regimes that are not recognized as governments will not necessarily be able to access other states’ domestic courts, claim ownership of state-owned property located overseas, exercise control over their state’s foreign diplomatic facilities, or take advantage of various other prerogatives that would be available to them if they were recognized. The exact benefits they do and do not receive depends on the domestic legal system of the other state and may well vary. While these consequences may not be significant in relation to every bilateral relationship, they can be costly when a major power is involved and potentially debilitating if a substantial share of the international community shares the same position. This in part is why states who wish to advance a policy agenda through their recognition policy often seek to coordinate with as many other states as possible.
As a practical matter, states exercise a great deal of discretion in making recognition determinations. The most common approach in the modern era has been to downplay express forms of governmental recognition and tacitly recognize new governments by simply continuing to routinely engage with them on official matters as if they were the state’s government. But states sometimes feel the need to make their recognition determinations more explicit, especially when there has been a revolution or other irregular transition in power. States have also been known to use recognition as a foreign policy tool, either by making it subject to preconditions—for example, by requiring that a regime acknowledge certain international legal obligations, implement democratic reforms, or capitulate on a given policy dispute before they formally recognize it—or by extending formal recognition to a favored opposition movement in order to provide it with legitimacy and access to state resources, even if its claim to effective control is dubious. That said, public reliance on recognition policies as a source of stability in transnational economic relations and other contexts often makes states reluctant to change them too readily. In addition, many democratic states are often hesitant to accept the replacement of a lawfully appointed government, however flawed, with one that has taken power through violence or other unlawful means. As a result, states have sometimes continued to recognize foreign governments to at least some extent even after they have ceased to exercise effective control and become governments-in-exile. Similarly, when a given state is plagued by domestic political instability, other states have sometimes been unwilling to recognize it as having any government whatsoever.
Only states engage in the practice of recognition. Some international organizations may treat regimes the same as governments for certain purposes, but they arrive at these positions pursuant to their own internal rules and procedures and their decisions do not necessarily reflect, let alone define, the recognition policies of their member states. For example, in the U.N. General Assembly, a credentials committee considers and provides recommendations on who should be allowed to represent each member state; these recommendations are in turn voted on by the entire body. States usually vote in a manner that aligns with their own recognition policy, but not always. And because no one state controls that process, there are inevitably delegates representing regimes in the General Assembly that some other member states choose not to recognize.
Recognition is also distinct from the establishment of diplomatic relations, though the two are often conflated. “Diplomatic relations” is another term of art that specifically refers to the traditional exchange of ambassadors, diplomatic personnel, and related facilities between states, all of which are guaranteed certain legal privileges and immunities under international law. State recognition is a necessary precondition for diplomatic relations, as these legal protections require a shared ability to enter into international legal obligations to be effective. But states may decline to establish or even sever diplomatic relations without implying nonrecognition of each other or their governments. They may also maintain diplomatic relations even when one state ceases to recognize the government of another, provided that the former state does not undertake any steps—such as submitting the credentials for a new ambassador—that require the affirmative consent of the other state’s government. Of course, diplomatic relations are not the only way that states may interact with each other. Any given state may send representatives to meet with foreign regimes, non-state actors, and private citizens and receive representatives from the same at any time. These representatives and communications simply won’t receive the same international legal protections as conventional diplomatic relations.
Finally, recognition by no means entails the normalization of relations or any moral or political approval of the government being recognized. States and governments that recognize each other not only may sever their diplomatic relations with each other but sanction each other, withhold foreign assistance and trade from each other, or even attack each other militarily. These are all separate policy questions involving domestic and international legal authorities that are related to recognition only tangentially, if at all, and may do far more to define the true tenor of the relationship between the two parties.
This legal context is essential for understanding the long and complicated history of U.S. recognition policy toward Afghanistan. The United States first recognized Afghanistan as an independent state in 1921 and established diplomatic relations with it in 1935. But for at least the last two decades of the 20th century, the United States did not recognize any government as being able to speak on Afghanistan’s behalf. This policy was not directed at the Taliban, whose existence it predates by at least a decade. But it helped shape how the United States responded the last time the Taliban came to power, and examining it may shed light on how the United States and others in the international community may respond this time.
The last U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan of the 20th century was career diplomat Adolph Dubs. Dubs presented his ambassadorial credentials to the Afghan government in July 1978, shortly after a coup d’etat—the second in less than a decade—brought the Soviet-aligned People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) into power. Eight months later, Dubs was kidnapped by militants and killed in what appeared to be a botched rescue attempt, though some embassy officials maintained it had been orchestrated by Soviet agents. A few months later the Soviet Union launched its military intervention, sending thousands of troops into the country and assassinating the head of the PDPA in order to replace him with their preferred candidate.
The United States did not attempt to appoint another ambassador to Afghanistan following Dubs’s murder. But its embassy in Kabul remained open under the supervision of a series of charge d’affaires ad interim—a category of diplomatic official that notably does not require accreditation by the host government and thus does not necessarily imply recognition. This presence continued through the bloody decade of Soviet military intervention that followed, which included several violent transitions of authority between different factions within the PDPA and an armed insurrection against the regime by the religiously oriented (and U.S.-backed) mujahideen. American diplomats were not evacuated from the country until January 1989, when the Soviet Union’s own imminent withdrawal triggered a spike in security concerns.
The fact that Dubs presented his credentials to become ambassador to the pre-Soviet intervention PDPA regime strongly suggests that the United States recognized it as the government of Afghanistan at the time. But at some point thereafter this policy changed. By 1990, an internal State Department memorandum described U.S. recognition policy towards Afghanistan as follows:
The United States maintains diplomatic relations with Afghanistan, but U.S. nationals at the American Embassy were evacuated in January 1989. Before American personnel were evacuated, the U.S. Embassy did not conduct normal diplomatic relations with the current Kabul regime. Our limited presence there did not imply acceptance of the regime as the lawful government in Afghanistan.
In other words, the United States argued that it still maintained diplomatic relations with the state of Afghanistan, which had been established through the consent provided by earlier Afghan governments. But it did not actively engage in those relations by seeking to accredit an ambassador or undertaking other activities that would require the affirmative consent of the PDPA regime because it did not recognize that regime as Afghanistan’s government.
The United States appears to have kept this tack through 1992, when the mujahideen finally succeeded in overthrowing the PDPA regime, took control of Kabul, and declared a new government under the moniker the Islamic State of Afghanistan. A mujahideen leadership council selected former Kabul University professor Burhanuddi Rabbani to temporarily serve as president later that year, but factions within the mujahideen quickly dissolved into infighting. Rabbani, meanwhile, chose to remain in office well past the end of his original mandate, bringing his own legitimacy into question. Nonetheless, Rabbani’s regime had some success in representing Afghanistan to the outside world. Most notably, he successfully submitted credentials to represent Afghanistan before the United Nations. He was also allowed to send diplomatic staff to operate the Afghan embassy in Washington, D.C. But the fact that Rabbani does not appear to have accredited any ambassadors to or received any ambassadors from the United States most likely reflects the fact that the official U.S. position remained that Afghanistan was “characterized by the absence of effective central authority and an ongoing civil war among contending political factions[,]” none of which warranted recognition as its government.
This U.S. policy of nonrecognition—one emulated by many others in the international community—was thus well established by 1994, when the Taliban rapidly transformed from an Islamic students’ movement into one of the country’s most influential armed factions. By 1996, the Taliban had successfully taken control of much of the country, including Kabul, and declared the creation of a new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that they claimed was the country’s legitimate government. The Taliban’s authority, however, was contested by Rabbani, who claimed to be Afghanistan’s lawful leader even after he fled Kabul for the northeast of the country, where he and his allies continued to hold out against Taliban control and ultimately formed what came to be known as the Northern Alliance.
Within months, the struggle between the Rabbani and Taliban regimes spilled overseas as they competed over who would represent Afghanistan internationally. Despite having limited experience with international relations, the Taliban regime sent representatives to a number of national capitals—as well as the United Nations in New York—to push to be recognized as Afghanistan’s government. The Rabbani regime, however, had the advantage of being something of an incumbent. When both regimes approached the United Nations seeking to represent Afghanistan, the U.N. credentials committee chose to avoid stepping into their dispute and simply deferred consideration of the question, allowing the incumbent representatives appointed by Rabbani to continue in their role. The committee then repeated this decision at subsequent meetings, allowing Rabbani’s representatives to remain in place through 2001 while the Taliban found itself relegated to having a single unofficial representative nearby, without any diplomatic status or protections. Similarly, the Afghan embassy in Washington, D.C., continued to be run by the incumbent staff appointed by Rabbani until May 1997, when the embassy’s second-in-command swore loyalty to the Taliban, ousted his superior, and raised the Taliban flag over the facility. But instead of taking one side or the other, the United States suspended the embassy’s operations altogether in August 1997 on the logic that “there is no effective government in the country” and that the Clinton administration’s policy was to remain “strictly neutral towards the Afghan factions[.]” Most other states in the international community followed suit, with only three countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—ultimately signing on to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new government.
Throughout this period, the Clinton administration was clear that the United States “d[id] not recognize the Taliban as the legal government of Afghanistan, nor any of the other factions.” Nonetheless, it did engage the Taliban diplomatically, both in Afghanistan and elsewhere, on its human rights record, treatment of women and girls, abuse of ethnic and religious minorities, and participation in the global narcotics trade, among other issues. It also supported a U.N. process aimed at bringing various Afghan factions together into a political process intended to produce a more consensus government. Conditionality played a significant role in these discussions as the United States and others sought to leverage foreign and humanitarian assistance, the flow of which had been interrupted by Afghanistan’s instability and concerns over the harsh restrictions the Taliban had imposed. The prospect of recognition may have also played a role, as the United States and others often framed certain actions they supported as the types of behavior that would be expected of a regime warranting recognition as Afghanistan’s government. For its part, however, the Taliban generally seemed unable or unwilling to move away from their extremely conservative and sectarian mode of governance to align to international standards. The result was an effective stalemate, with recognition remaining on the table without ever being seriously contemplated or acted upon.
Ultimately, however, the Taliban’s ties to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda—which the group allowed to operate on its territory and even collaborated with on a number of fronts—proved fatal to this effort. Following al-Qaeda’s bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the United States and its allies lobbied the Taliban to turn Osama bin Laden over to U.S. custody. When this effort failed, the United States launched missile attacks on suspected al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Then, in 1999, the United States worked with the U.N. Security Council to impose an aggressive set of bilateral and multilateral sanctions on the Taliban, dramatically deepening their international isolation. The Clinton administration continued to meet with Taliban officials sporadically to leverage sanctions relief for progress on terrorism, human rights, and other issues of concern, but with limited success.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks only amplified these dynamics further. Within days, President George W. Bush responded by making several unilateral demands of the Taliban, including that they hand over bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s other leadership. The Taliban declined, offering instead to try bin Laden before their own courts using whatever evidence the United States could produce. The United States and its allies viewed this as unsatisfactory and invaded, treating al-Qaeda and the Taliban as co-belligerents in the ensuing armed conflict. By the end of the year, the United States and its allies—with help from Rabbani and his supporters in the Northern Alliance—had removed the Taliban from power.
In December 2001, the United States reopened its long-abandoned embassy compound in Kabul and made it the headquarters for a new liaison office. The State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser later explained that the United States “viewed [this] as the restaffing of a continuing diplomatic mission to the state of Afghanistan and viewed the mission as enjoying the rights and privileges of a diplomatic mission under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations based on Afghanistan’s continuing as a party to that treaty.” Meanwhile, in discussing the establishment of the liaison office, a State Department official reiterated what by this point had been U.S. recognition policy toward Afghanistan for almost two decades, stating, “The United States has continued to maintain diplomatic relations with the state of Afghanistan, even though we have not for some time recognized that the Taliban or anyone else is capable of speaking for Afghanistan internationally.” In other words, while the United States had not recognized the Taliban or its predecessors as Afghanistan’s government, it had nonetheless continued to recognize Afghanistan as a state bound by those international legal obligations undertaken by its prior governments, including the opening of diplomatic relations.
Later that month, the United States’ non-recognition policy finally changed. On Dec. 22, 2001, both the United States and much of the international community recognized a new interim Afghan authority as the temporary new government in Kabul, on the understanding that it would govern while representatives from various Afghan factions participated in a process to craft a new national constitution. In 2004, this interim authority transitioned into the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which served as the nearly universally recognized government of Afghanistan for almost 20 years. But that government is the same one that seemingly collapsed earlier this month, initiating what looks likely to be another challenging chapter in Afghan-U.S. relations.
What Comes Next?
In many ways, Afghanistan is beginning to look very much like it did before the United States intervened. Whether this means the United States and others in the international community will return to their old habits remains less clear. Many things have changed in the past 20 years, including how the United States sees its national interests and the role that Afghanistan plays in them. But much of the logic behind the U.S. approach throughout the last period of Taliban ascendancy arguably still applies and may yet inform what the United States and others do next.
As a legal matter, there is ample reason to doubt whether the Taliban currently meet the effective control standard for de facto recognition. To be certain, the Taliban appear to be in military control of most of the country, including Kabul. But this has only been the case for slightly more than a week. The Taliban is also comprised of an array of internal factions, raising questions about the extent to which the group’s central leadership will be able to maintain control or govern effectively—factors that bear on both the “permanence” of the new Taliban regime and its ability to “discharge its internal duties” under the effective control standard. Moreover, it is not yet clear what degree of “acquiescence” the Taliban will secure from the Afghan public, as underscored by recent popular protests. If representatives from former President Ghani’s government do indeed enter into some sort of transitional or power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban, as some have suggested is possible, this may provide them some popular legitimacy and add credibility to the Taliban’s claims of effective control. But if the Taliban cling to their authority through the threat of violence, this could weigh in the other direction.
The most significant factor in this analysis may well be the recent emergence of a resistance movement led by two prominent Afghans: Ahmad Massoud, a prominent tribal leader and head of the recently declared National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, and Amrullah Saleh, who was first vice president under Ghani. Both have reportedly taken refuge in the same northeastern Panjshir Valley that sheltered the Rabbani regime in the 1990s and are actively seeking external support for resisting the Taliban or to at least compelling them into accepting some power-sharing arrangement. Saleh further claims to be the country’s lawful “caretaker” president following Ghani’s resignation--a legal argument that seems like a credible reading of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s constitution and may well lead him to make his own attempts at representing the country internationally. Only time will tell whether their effort will present the Taliban with any serious resistance. Even if it does, a limited insurgency is not necessarily incompatible with a finding of effective control. But the parallels to Rabbani’s own assertions of authority and resistance to Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 are unmistakable and suggest that these efforts might similarly complicate relevant recognition determinations. Moreover, if the United States or other states grow too frustrated with the Taliban, they could in theory embrace Saleh’s claims as grounds for recognizing him and his supporters as the proper government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in exile. This would not only be a major blow to the Taliban’s legitimacy but might pose a threat to its control as well, as recognition of Saleh’s regime could arguably provide a basis for providing him foreign assistance or even intervening on his behalf. Such a possibility, however remote it may seem at the moment, no doubt weighs heavily on the Taliban and may explain the urgency with which they appear to be addressing the threat that the group poses.
Other considerations weigh on whether the United States or others in the international community will exercise their discretion to extend formal, or de jure, recognition to the Taliban regime. The Biden administration and the European Union have already tied the possibility of formally recognizing the Taliban to respect for human rights and the humane treatment of women and girls, among other long-standing concerns with Taliban rule. They’ve also suggested that recognition is more likely to take place if whatever Taliban-dominated regime emerges is the product of a power-sharing or transitional arrangement that includes other Afghan factions, a possibility that has been discussed but has not yet manifested. And the United States will no doubt insist that the Taliban confirm their commitment to not allow Afghanistan to once again become a haven for international terrorists in the 2020 Doha Agreement. Moreover, given the Taliban’s past history on these issues, simple assurances are unlikely to be seen as adequate. Instead, the United States and other members of the international community have already suggested that they will insist on credible signs of progress before taking the Taliban’s words at face value.
The common thread across all of these considerations is the need for more time, both to allow conditions on the ground in Afghanistan to stabilize and to evaluate the Taliban’s intent and capabilities. Such patience is arguably built into relevant international law and practice, as the effective control standard is specifically designed to require a more stable state of affairs and demonstrated patterns of conduct to be satisfied. That said, delay also provides a strategic advantage, as it allows members of the international community to put off what may prove to be a difficult and controversial decision and provides additional time in which they can attempt to use formal recognition as leverage. Given this, there seem to be few reasons for the United States or its allies to rush and make a decision on recognition in the near term.
The more difficult question, however, is what might move the United States and the rest of the international community off of this equilibrium in the future. If the Taliban is able to secure its authority over Afghanistan in a manner that credibly satisfies the effective control test, much of the international community will likely feel compelled to at least tacitly acknowledge that the Taliban regime operates as the country’s de facto government. But many of the conditions that the United States and others have put on de jure recognition are inimical to the values with which the Taliban has traditionally governed, raising serious questions about their willingness or ability to comply. Nor is it clear what exact conditions the Taliban are expected to satisfy, providing ample opportunity to raise the bar. Perhaps the Taliban will one day undertake unprecedented reforms and be welcomed into the international community with open arms. Or maybe it will make policy concessions so valuable that the United States will set aside or lower the bar for the other conditions they have already publicly put on formal recognition. Absent such developments, however, the current logic seems likely to push the parties to an outcome similar to what persisted through much of the 1990s: a scenario where formal recognition is left on the table as an incentive for the Taliban to change their behavior but neither side is willing to adjust their preferences enough to make it happen, leaving Afghanistan without a recognized government.
Of course, one factor that might change this calculus would be if a major competitor were to formally recognize the Taliban as part of an effort to build ties at the United States’ or other parties’ expense. For this reason, it’s notable that both China and Russia have cultivated relationships with the Taliban in recent months, though neither seems clearly poised to rush towards recognition. That said, even if one or both of these states were to move quickly toward formal recognition, the United States and its allies would be well advised to carefully weigh their relative interests and capabilities before doing the same. Simply put, with the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from the country, Afghanistan has a much more direct bearing on Chinese and Russian interests than those of the United States and its allies. Nor do those states have the baggage of a 20-year war or comparable human rights-related concerns hindering their ability to engage the Taliban. Attempting to match their level of engagement with the Taliban may simply not be possible, and the leverage to be gained by maintaining real conditions on recognition may ultimately better serve their interests.
In part, this reflects the fact that the Taliban has genuine reason to seek international recognition, beyond simply the legitimacy it provides. For months, Taliban leaders based in Doha have engaged in a careful messaging campaign intended to assuage the international community’s concerns around issues like human rights and the treatment of women. While events on the ground do not always live up to this rhetoric, the fact that Taliban leaders are making the effort suggests that they have an understanding of what engagement with the broader international community will require and are willing to make at least some effort in that direction. Nor is this necessarily surprising, as Afghanistan itself is not as isolated as it was the last time the Taliban came to power and has substantial financial assets, diplomatic missions, and other interests scattered overseas that the Taliban will likely need broadly based recognition to reliably access. Perhaps most importantly, broadly based recognition would also signify a degree of international acceptance that is difficult to reverse, providing the Taliban enhanced durability in the event that other factions attempt to assert control over Afghanistan as well as a degree of legitimacy if they were to seek and receive support from outside states in their struggle against any such usurpers. In short, the current Taliban leadership seems to recognize that formal recognition by the broader international community promises real advantages and may be willing to play a long-game to try and secure it.
Regardless, as negotiations over formal recognition drag on, the United States and the broader international community are likely to engage the Taliban on other issues that are of more immediate relevance to their shared relationships, none of which directly hinge on recognition. Foreign aid and humanitarian assistance are likely to be early points of discussion, as both the Taliban and the international community have a shared interest in alleviating some of the humanitarian suffering that is now facing Afghan civilians. This may go hand in hand with some degree of sanctions relief, as current sanctions programs are likely to pose obstacles to assistance efforts. The United States and other states that have substantial Afghan state assets within their jurisdictions may also choose to allow the Taliban regime to access at least some of these so that they may provide their own forms of relief and continue to pay civil servants to provide basic services. All of these issues—as well as further-off issues like development assistance and renewed economic relationships—are likely to be subject to much of the same conditionality as recognition. But as they do not present the same sort of single, binary choice as recognition, the international community is likely to find them to be better ways to present the Taliban with targeted incentives—and less permanent grounds on which to make concessions to a regime that will no doubt continue to engage in troubling behavior.
The most immediate question the United States and some other states are likely to face, however, is a more fundamental one: whether to stay in the country at all. A Taliban-controlled Kabul presents a very different operating environment for foreign diplomats, and security concerns are likely to set real limits on what they can accomplish. Yet recent engagements with the Taliban leadership over the evacuation effort being operated out of Kabul international airport have shown that negotiation with them can help to advance matters of U.S. interest. For this reason, no one should be surprised that the Biden administration, among others, has left open the possibility of maintaining a limited diplomatic presence there. As the U.S. experience from 1978 to 1989 demonstrates, the United States does not view this as requiring any recognition of the Taliban. More than that, the United States has previously put forward a legal argument as to why, in spite of not recognizing an Afghan government, its presence in Afghanistan is entitled to diplomatic privileges and immunities—international legal obligations the Taliban may feel compelled to observe if they wish to show the world that they deserve to be recognized. While it would certainly not be without risk, a diplomatic presence in Kabul could prove valuable in maintaining lines of communication with Taliban leaders and monitoring the Taliban’s compliance with their commitments. And so long as the Taliban remain the dominant power in the country, engaging with them diplomatically--even without formally recognizing them--may be the only practical means of securing the limited but real interests the United States still has there.
For better or worse, the past 40 years of Afghan-U.S. relations suggest that there is no easy route for incorporating the Taliban into the international community. While the Taliban would undoubtedly like to be formally recognized as Afghanistan’s new government, it has historically been unable or unwilling to modify its governance to comport with international standards. The international community, meanwhile, may wish to keep the possibility of formal recognition on the table as an incentive, but has few reasons to relax the conditions it has already placed on any formal recognition, at least absent other major policy capitulations by the Taliban. Hence, the most likely scenario for the coming months and years seems likely to be a return to what was once Afghanistan’s norm: a Taliban regime that may well be in effective control of the country but for whom formal recognition by the majority of the international community remains perpetually over the horizon.
But this does not mean an end to diplomacy. Even absent formal recognition, the United States and others in the international community remain capable of engaging and influencing the Taliban through the use of sanctions and sanctions relief, foreign and humanitarian assistance and potentially even persistent engagement through an in-country diplomatic presence. Moreover, these foreign policy tools are far more amenable to calibration than the largely binary decision of formal recognition, allowing members of the international community to craft the targeted incentives and make the narrow capitulations that are likely to be necessary in engaging the Taliban moving forward. These are the issues through which the international community’s relationship with the new Taliban regime are likely to be forged in the months to come. Formal recognition, meanwhile, is unlikely to do more than serve as a distant waypoint as the parties navigate their new relationship.
Note: The author has previously served as an expert witness on recognition issues for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.