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Biden State Department Punts on Crucial Taliban Question

The United Nations logo is affixed to a window on a window in the United Nations headquarters in New York, September 21, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

On the menu today: A senior State Department official punts on the question of whether the United Nations should recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan; the director of the National Counterterrorism Center warns that ISIS and al-Qaeda may “take advantage” of “reduced counterterrorism pressure and a relatively more permissive operating environment” in Afghanistan to “rebuild their capacity to carry out attacks against Western targets”; and wondering about a particularly ominous warning from January 6, 2020.

State Department Official: We Have No Opinion on U.N. Recognition of the Taliban

Yesterday, a senior State Department official punted on the question of whether the United Nations should recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and what, if anything, the U.S. was doing to influence the U.N.’s decision while sitting on the international organization’s Credentials Committee.

On Tuesday the State Department organized a briefing featuring an unnamed “senior State Department official” who wished to remain unidentified, discussing what the U.S. hoped to accomplish at this week’s meetings at the United Nations. The transcript for the briefing refers to this senior state Department official as a “she” and the official made a reference to the “Quad” nations (United States, India, Japan, and Australia) having a meeting “at my level” today, leaving just a handful of possibilities.

Michele Kelemen of NPR asked, “The Taliban have written to the U.N. asking for credentials. They want to speak at this General Assembly. I understand the U.S. is on the Credentials Committee, so I wonder if you think that’s a good idea.”

The State Department official responded: “With regard to the Afghan request for credentials, as you said, Michele, there is a credentials committee. We are on it. It will take some time to deliberate, and so you will — we will obviously follow this issue closely and deliberate along with other members of the credentials committee.”

Later in the call, this official elaborated, “The credentials committee generally has taken some time. I’m not going to predict how long it’s going to take this time. I would note that the broader General Assembly goes on for some three months. High-Level Week, obviously, is just this week, and I don’t expect this issue to be resolved within High-Level Week. But — so watch this space.”

At no point in any of her answers did the State Department official offer an objection to the Taliban’s being recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan or offer any reasons as to why the Taliban should not be recognized.

On September 15 the current non-Taliban Afghan ambassador to the United Nations, Ghulam Isaczai, contacted U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres with the list of Afghanistan’s delegation for the assembly’s 76th annual session. On September 20 Guterres received another communication from the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” signed by “Ameer Khan Muttaqi” as “Minister of Foreign Affairs,” declaring that Isaczai no longer represented Afghanistan.

In the letter, the Taliban said they were nominating a new U.N. permanent representative, Mohammad Suhail Shaheen. Suhail Shaheen edited an English-language newspaper during the Taliban’s first reign and became their spokesman during the negotiations in Doha. He has a Twitter account.

As of September 2020, the members of the Credentials Committee are Cameroon, China, Iceland, Papua New Guinea, the Russian Federation, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Republic of Tanzania, the U.S., and Uruguay. At some point in the coming weeks, the nine-member panel will decide whether to keep Ghulam Isaczai, the representative appointed by the old regime, or accept Suhail Shaheen as a replacement.

While China and Russia are unlikely to be cooperative, the U.S. could exert considerable diplomatic pressure upon the other members to refuse to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. They seized power through violence, are executing a campaign of violent retribution against members of the previous government, and in the words of Amnesty International, are “wasting no time in stamping out human rights.” They have broken every promise they have made before and after taking power. The United Nations never recognized the Islamic State, and the Taliban is not morally distinguishable from that mob of terrorism-promoting, misogynistic brutes.

As recently as August 16, representatives at the U.N. warned that how the Taliban conducted themselves will matter “a great deal” in how willing the international community will be to support a new Afghan government in which the Taliban participate. Recognition of the Taliban would prove the cynics correct that the threat was empty and that the U.N. will work with whichever faction has the most guns.

Back on September 1 Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European Union, told the New York Times that, “The Taliban will be judged on their actions — how they respect the international commitments made by the country, how they respect basic rules of democracy and rule of law. The biggest red line is respect for human rights and the rights of women, especially.”

On August 30 Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged that, “Every step we take will be based not on what a Taliban-led government says, but what it does to live up to its commitments.” Despite the assertion of U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne that the Taliban are “cooperative,” “flexible,” and “businesslike and professional,” the Taliban have broken all of their promises and are not “doing anything at all” in terms of controlling terrorist groups, in the assessment of General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command.

Christine Abizaid, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, submitted written testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs yesterday:

ISIS and al-Qa’ida both have branches and affiliates in Afghanistan that will require [counterterrorism] vigilance, especially in light of recent developments there. Both groups are intent on attacking U.S. interests both in the region and overseas, although years of sustained [counterterrorism]  pressure has degraded their capabilities to project a major external threat to the West. Since the U.S. withdrawal, we have continued to closely monitor for any signs of terrorist plotting that targets the U.S. or our interests abroad. Over the longer term, we suspect these groups could try to take advantage of reduced counterterrorism pressure and a relatively more permissive operating environment to rebuild their capacity to carry out attacks against Western targets. ISIS-Khorasan maintains a steady operational tempo in Afghanistan and retains the ability to execute attacks in cities like Kabul — as we saw tragically on 26 August. While focused against the Taliban, the group’s external intentions bear monitoring. Similarly, we continue to closely watch the activities of alQa’ida elements in the region because of the group’s close ties to the Taliban and its propaganda against the West. After the withdrawal, the group released an official statement congratulating the Taliban for what it called a defeat of the United States. On September 11 this year, al-Qa’ida released a video of group leader Ayman al-Zawahiri praising the Pensacola attacker and claiming that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan proved that the U.S. was defeated.

All of this is further reason why the U.S. should never assent to the recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate government. And yet, if the U.S. government objects to U.N. recognition of the Taliban, the administration is being awfully quiet about it.

Yesterday, speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, President Joe Biden insisted that his vision of “relentless diplomacy” could solve problems that military force could not:

We’ve ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan. And as we close this period of relentless war, we’re opening a new era of relentless diplomacy; of using the power of our development aid to invest in new ways of lifting people up around the world; of renewing and defending democracy; of proving that no matter how challenging or how complex the problems we’re going to face, government by and for the people is still the best way to deliver for all of our people.

Acquiescing to the recognition of the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan would not just be one more betrayal of our Afghan allies; it would be a big step toward legitimizing them on the world stage. The Taliban would no longer be merely a bunch of bloodthirsty thugs and religious fanatics; they would be a legitimate and internationally recognized government, one that everyone would have to work with to do anything in Afghanistan — including help that country’s suffering people.

Assenting to the international recognition of the Taliban would represent the U.S. signing off on the Taliban’s spectacularly implausible claims to have reformed and modernized. It would make us complicit in a lie that has life-and-death consequences.

If the U.S. has no objection to the United Nations’ recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, it is simply a matter of time before the U.S. government itself recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

Finally, because it needs to be said, more than three weeks after the last U.S. soldier departed Afghanistan, an unknown number of American citizens, an unknown but considerable number of U.S. green-card holders, and more than 100,000 Afghan allies who qualified for Special Immigrant Visas remain trapped in Afghanistan, despite the president’s promise that, “If there’s American citizens left, we’re gonna stay to get them all out.”

ADDENDUM: I think highly of former CDC director Robert Redfield and think he did just about the best he could in extremely difficult circumstances in 2020. But if you had had a phone call with the director of the Chinese CDC on January 6, 2020, and during that phone call, the Chinese CDC director had started crying and warning that it might be too late to stop a larger pandemic . . . wouldn’t that have freak you out? Isn’t that the sort of thing that happens about 20 minutes into a zombie movie?

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