The reset in the US strategy on engaging the Taliban may work

A recent meeting in Doha shows that a major barrier to cooperation between the US and the Taliban may have been surmounted.

Taliban delegation
A few members of the Taliban delegation head to the opening session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha on September 12, 2020 [File: AP/Hussein Sayed]

Since the Taliban took over Kabul in 2021, the United States has struggled to make progress in talks with the group.

A common complaint among Afghanistan observers against the office of the US State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan has been that it often does the right thing at the wrong time.

Over the past two years, the US would often appear to increase its efforts to reach out exactly as the Taliban announce yet another decree restricting the human rights of Afghans. This supposedly has to do with the sluggishness of the State Department’s machinery, which takes quite a lot of time to execute a decision to engage and disengage.

But a recent meeting held in Doha seems to have broken this pattern of mismatched priorities and bad timing. On July 31, representatives of the Taliban and US officials met officially for the first time since August 2021 to discuss the way forward for their relations and steps towards the recognition of the Taliban government and unfreezing of Afghan state assets.

The two-day talks indicate that a major barrier to cooperation may have been surmounted. Over the past two years, the issue of human rights violations by the Taliban stood in the way of engagement. The international community, including the US, demanded concessions on human rights issues before any other discussions could take place.

This was based on the logic of the low-hanging fruit. The assumption was that the human rights issues, including the bans on women and girls’ education and work, were the easiest to solve, and the Taliban would have to concede as a show of good faith. But the group never did and as a result, little progress was made on engagement.

But the July 31 meeting seems to suggest that this precondition has been reconsidered. Of note was the presence of US Special Envoy for Afghan Women, Girls, and Human Rights Rina Amiri, who had previously refused to meet with the Taliban over their violations of women’s rights.

Amiri justified her presence in those meetings by saying that she had consulted with Afghans and human rights defenders who had advised her to join the US delegation.

The State Department’s logic behind this renewed effort for engagement seems to be that better relations between the US and the Taliban would create incentives for the latter to form an inclusive government and draft a constitution that can limit the more conservative voices within the movement. This would lead to internal consensus on repealing the bans on girls and women’s education and work and tackling other human rights issues.

The idea is that it is important to win on the fronts that can be won now and lay the ground for the Taliban’s horrendous social policies to be addressed internally in the longer run.

This reset in strategy is a positive development and there are already indications that it may work.

First, the Taliban issued a statement about the meeting in Doha which somewhat aligned with the one released by the US State Department. This is significant as, usually, communiques issued after formal and informal meetings between the Taliban and foreign delegations would read as if they were referring to two different engagements. The coherent message issued by the two sides in Doha reflected the constructive dialogue that had taken place.

Second, confidence-building measures were discussed which had been absent from the one-off encounters held in the past. These measures are a chance to find noncontroversial avenues of cooperation and agree on monitoring mechanisms that help build trust between the two parties. These can include climate change, narcotics and others.

Third, the meeting set the foundation for more frequent engagements to take place in the near future. The UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan has already announced a meeting for the end of the year which could see a continuation of these efforts to engage the Taliban.

Future meetings can benefit from the appointment of joint commissions that do the groundwork beforehand and reach an agreement on frameworks of discussion. This would ensure that the limited time the officials spend together is optimised and more ground is covered.

Future iterations of these talks could also be a good chance to push the Taliban to include in these discussions prominent Afghan voices from outside their group. This could encourage the Taliban leadership to start a national dialogue and start thinking about a more inclusive government makeup.

The stakes for both sides are quite high, which should motivate them to keep up the momentum. For the Taliban, this could lead to the international recognition it needs in order to join the international community and receive much-needed foreign assistance that can help rebuild the devastated Afghan economy and alleviate the humanitarian crisis. For the US, this could be a chance to redeem itself, at least partially, for its devastating failures in Afghanistan since 2001.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.