By Abdul Basit
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has decided to convene an extraordinary foreign ministerial session to discuss Afghanistan. The event will be hosted in Islamabad on Dec. 19, Pakistan announced this week.
This is an encouraging development. Land-locked Afghanistan is one of the founding members of the OIC. Now that the Taliban are back in power, and the unfolding humanitarian situation is fast developing into a catastrophe, Kabul is hardly in a position to get to grips with the obtaining crisis on its own.
Unlike the last time the Taliban came to power in 1996, not a single country has so far recognized the new Kabul government. Even Pakistan is reluctant to go ahead lest the de jure recognition draw international flak. In 1996, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only three countries that had recognized the Taliban government.
However, the world is not averse to engaging with the Taliban, and treat them as the Afghan government. Even long before the Taliban took over on 15 August this year, the US had signed an agreement with the group in February 2020 that, inter alia, bound the Taliban to not target foreign forces as they withdrew from Afghanistan. The US is now not only withholding formal recognition but has also frozen over $9 billion of funds/assets belonging to Afghanistan. The US contends that the Taliban have breached many of the stipulations of the bilateral agreement, including the ones pertaining to intra-Afghan reconciliation and the rights of women and minorities.
Given the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan, the OIC initiative is timely. It remains to be seen however, whether the organization will be able to come up with something concrete towards addressing the serious problems facing Afghanistan.
Ingeminating the well-known demands and setting preconditions for humanitarian and economic assistance would squander the very purpose of the initiative. The special OIC session must not be allowed to become an exercise in diplomatic futility. The second largest multilateral organization after the United Nations, the 57-member OIC must step up to the plate.
The Taliban, by forming an interim government, has kept the door open to ultimately establish a national government with adequate representation to all ethnic groups in Afghanistan. To expect them to accommodate political groups and individuals who are their sworn adversaries and would never subscribe to the fundamentals of their worldview was always unrealistic to say the least.
The Taliban government has still got a long way to go. It needs to consolidate the law and order situation and then also prepare grounds for a new constitution through a legitimate process as per the country’s political culture and traditions. No country can work by keeping its women illiterate and excluded from the public life. The Taliban must understand they will find little international traction should they refuse to be flexible on the issue of women’s rights.
It is here the OIC can be far more helpful than any other forum. The Islamabad conclave may consider taking a few decisions that may help facilitate the process of nudging the Kabul government towards bringing about normalcy and working with the international community to lift the country from the deep morass of poverty and uncertainty.
First, it would be useful if the Kabul government is also invited to attend the session. Although the United Nations has refused to accept the nomination of Mr. Suhail Shaheen as Afghanistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, that cannot be construed as a ruling against engaging with the Kabul government. The fact that the UN and the EU and several individual countries have been engaging with the Taliban government is an acknowledgement of the fact that the world has no option but to deal with them.
Their participation in the OIC session will be mutually beneficial. Whereas the Taliban will have an opportunity to clearly lay out their intentions and plans of action, they will also get to hear collectively from the Muslim world that their flexibility on some key issues is not only essential for sustained and effective humanitarian assistance but also for their international recognition as soon as possible.
Second, the OIC should establish a four-to-six-member contact group on Afghanistan with a clear mandate on working with the Kabul government on key issues.
Third, those OIC countries that had their embassies in Kabul pre-15 August may be encouraged to reopen their diplomatic missions. After all many countries including China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Qatar, UAE are maintaining their missions in Kabul and working smoothly without any security issue. The diplomatic presence of countries like Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan will be particularly helpful.
Fourth, the OIC member countries should allow Afghan embassies, wherever they exist, to resume their work at the working level. The process of nominating and accepting ambassadors can be initiated at a later stage when the OIC is ready to take a collective decision on recognition.
It must be stressed that the international community led by the US failed to establish a stable Afghanistan in the last two decades. It is the common people of Afghanistan who are suffering the most. Maintaining and building pressure on the Taliban government must not result in more miseries for the Afghan people. The OIC can lead the world to palatable and sustainable outcomes for all.
(Abdul Basit is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India. Twitter: @abasitpak1)