“If the Taliban claim to want international legitimacy, these actions are not going to get them the legitimacy they seek,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Aug. 6 in a statement that felt fairly toothless at the time and even more so a little over a week later when the Taliban overran Kabul. All the same, the Taliban’s initial pledges that it will not seek to punish those who worked for the U.S.-backed regime and wants to include women in its government are probably aimed at seeking the approval—or at least the toleration—of outside powers.
The last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 to 2001, it was an international pariah. Under heavy international sanction for its support for terrorism, abuses of human rights, and involvement in drug trafficking, it was officially recognized by just three other countries—Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Even those few allies backed away from the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks.
Little is known about how the group now plans to govern the country it once again rules—and any statement it has made this week should be taken with many grains of salt. The optimistic view in the lead-up to the U.S. withdrawal was that the Taliban did not want to repeat the experience of the 1990s and would therefore somewhat moderate its behavior in order to win some kind of acceptance from the international community. At least, we’d better hope that’s the case. At this point, “international legitimacy” is about the only point of leverage the outside world has over the Taliban’s behavior.
In some sense, the U.S. already conferred “legitimacy” with the Taliban by negotiating with it over the withdrawal of U.S. troops, but this is not the same thing as official diplomatic recognition. In fact, the original agreement negotiated by the Trump administration in 2020 was awkwardly titled “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America.”
In theory, the U.S. policy is to recognize the de facto rulers of any given country as being the government of that country. In practice, the U.S. has often refused to recognize leaders it finds particularly objectionable: Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro is the most recent notable example. So even if the Taliban are the de facto rulers of Afghanistan, and even if some level of communication continues between the two sides as the evacuation of Kabul continues, don’t expect the U.S. to formally recognize them. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the conditions under which this would change.) Other Western powers, Canada for instance, have been even more explicit in refusing to recognize the Taliban.
What about other countries? The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both of whom maintained relations with the Taliban in the 1990s, have responded cautiously to events in Afghanistan. A statement from the Saudi foreign ministry said vaguely that the kingdom “stands with the choices that the Afghan people make without any interference.”
Pakistan is a more complicated case. Afghanistan’s neighbor has given support to the Taliban and provided its fighters with safe haven—one major factor behind the failure of counterinsurgency over the past 20 years—but now the Pakistan’s military and intelligence commanders are a bit like the dog that caught the car: The Taliban insurgency, they believe, served their interests. A Taliban victory, which could result in a full-scale civil war across their border, new refugee outflows, and new life for Pakistan’s own domestic insurgents, is a different story. For whatever it’s worth, Pakistan has signed on to an international statement stating its opposition to the reestablishment of an Islamic Emirate by the Taliban.
“Pakistan is being quite careful about its stance,” says Madiha Afzal, an expert on Pakistani foreign policy at Brookings. “Pakistan will not be the first to recognize the Taliban given the kind of negative status that gave them in the ’96–2001 time frame. It’s not going to stick its neck out.” She feels it’s more likely Pakistan will “follow the international community” in deciding whether to give the Taliban its formal favor.
The main country that could shift that balance is Pakistan’s neighbor China. Some media reports have suggested Beijing may be considering formalizing its relations with the Taliban. If this happened, numerous others countries would likely follow suit, and all the high-minded talk from the White House briefing room about isolation and illegitimacy would start to look pretty irrelevant. Despite numerous overtures over the years, China has few major economic investments in Afghanistan compared with other parts of Central Asia where it has made major inroads via its Belt and Road Initiative. Leaders in Beijing would love to see a pliant and stable Afghanistan but are probably in no hurry to do anything official, according to Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center. Recognition is “possible but not very probable at this point,” she says. “It depends on whether the Taliban is going to have a ‘clean’ ending to the civil war. If it is not, that means that the Taliban’s legitimacy is being questioned domestically.” Chinese officials have condemned the “hurried” U.S. withdrawals and expressed concerns about links between the Taliban and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Uyghur militant group that Beijing has combated via a massive security crackdown in Xinjiang—a campaign the U.S. and other governments have denounced as a genocide.
Another country to watch for possible overtures to Afghanistan’s new rulers is Russia—which is somewhat ironic given the Soviet military’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Taliban’s forebears in the 1980s, a formative political experience for the generation currently ruling in Moscow. Mark Galeotti, a U.K.-based Russia analyst, says chaotic U.S. withdrawal has been viewed with some schadenfreude but also concern: Russians, he says, “have no positive interest in Afghanistan—it’s just a potential source of bad stuff from terrorism to opium—and they’re just trying to manage the situation.” That management has included direct outreach to the Taliban, despite the fact that it is formally considered a terrorist group in Russia, on both official and clandestine levels. But the Russians, too, may be in no hurry to make anything official. “They’re not opposed to the idea [of recognition] in general terms. But what they don’t want to do is give the impression either to the Taliban or the international community that they are rolling over too easily.”
All the same, divisions between the world’s major powers’ views of the Taliban and that of Western powers were already evident in a U.N. Security Council meeting about the crisis on Monday, says Richard Gowan, U.N. analyst at Crisis Group. China and Russia “both indicated a significant degree of willingness to take the Taliban seriously. The Chinese talked about the importance of the Taliban living up to their commitments,” he says.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said during Monday’s session that there’s “no point in panicking” about the Taliban takeover.
One potential area of conflict may come over control of Afghanistan’s seat at the United Nations. For the moment, Ambassador Ghulam M. Isaczai, appointed in July, continues to represent Afghanistan and gave an impassioned statement on Monday on behalf of millions of people whose fate, he said, “hangs in the balance.” But the Taliban may soon try to claw that seat back. Typically, when a country has rival governments, whichever one controls the country’s territory—or at least its capital—also represents it at the U.N., but there have been cases, mainly involving military coups, in which the U.N. General Assembly’s credentials committee has accredited rival governments that are not in territorial control of the country. Afghanistan itself was a textbook case: During the last period of Taliban rule, representatives of ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani continued to represent Afghanistan at the U.N. despite the Taliban’s best efforts to take over the seat. The issue could potentially come to a head when the credentials committee meets during the U.N. General Assembly in September: The committee is already being closely watched thanks to another dispute involving Myanmar’s seat following a military coup earlier this year.
Even if it’s true that the Taliban has changed since 2001, so has the world. The U.S. doesn’t have the unchecked influence it once did, and there are other potential sources to confer legitimacy on Afghanistan’s new rulers, whatever Washington thinks about it. A number of countries would likely be willing to establish relations with the Taliban but also don’t necessarily want to be the first to do so. Whether or not one of them takes that leap is contingent on a number of factors including whether the Taliban can actually show it is in control of Afghanistan—conquering a country isn’t the same thing as ruling it—whether it continues to support international terrorist groups, and whether it can refrain from the sort of atrocities that might make even China and Russia reluctant to extend a hand. Right now, from Washington to Beijing, to Moscow, to Islamabad, everyone is waiting to see what comes next.
For more on what went wrong for the American effort in Afghanistan, listen to this episode of What Next.