Sweeping conquests test U.S. hopes of more moderate Taliban

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Sweeping Taliban conquests in Afghanistan this week are challenging the Biden administration’s hopes that a desire for international respect — and for international aid and cash — will moderate the fundamentalist militia’s worst behaviors when the U.S. ends its war there.

Taliban commanders seized three more provincial capitals in Afghanistan and an army headquarters, officials said Wednesday, in a blitz that leaves up to two-thirds of the nation in their control as the U.S. finishes its withdrawal after two decades of war. The day before, President Joe Biden called on Afghans to “fight for themselves, fight for their nation.”

While some Taliban commanders have behaved with restraint in newly captured territory, rights groups say others have acted much like the brutal Taliban the U.S. overthrew in 2001. That includes allegedly killing detainees en masse and demanding, in an allegation denied by a Taliban spokesman, that communities provide them with females above age 15 to marry.

Biden administration officials have kept up the hopeful claim that a desire for international approval might influence Taliban actions. They reject criticism by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who opposes the withdrawal and dismisses what he calls “diplomatic carrots.″

“If the Taliban claim to want international legitimacy these actions are not going to get them the legitimacy they seek,’’ White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, in one of many such administration warnings.

U.S. envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad traveled to Qatar on Tuesday to make that point to Taliban officials directly, telling Voice of America that if the Taliban took over Afghanistan by force “they will become a pariah state.”

Regardless of whether the Taliban heeds that warning, Biden shows no sign of slowing or reversing a decision to withdraw from the war.

The United States is ending its nearly 20-year combat mission in Afghanistan on Aug. 31 under a deal that President Donald Trump signed with the Taliban in 2020. The U.S. invasion beginning in October 2001 broke up the Afghanistan-based al-Qaida that had plotted the Sept. 11 attacks. It overthrew, with Afghan allies, the Taliban government that had refused to surrender Osama bin Laden.

Only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognized the old Taliban government. The inward-looking rulers enforced the strictest interpretation of Islamic law. They banned singing, kite-flying and watching TV, and staged public hangings at Kabul's main sports stadium.

Then-Taliban ruler Mullah Mohammed Omar made a gesture to the international community before 9/11 by ending cultivation of heroin poppies, something U.N. officials verified. But Omar told his ruling council he thought there was nothing his government could to do end international condemnation.

Omar’s Taliban council members at the time acknowledged the financial pain sanctions were causing.

For today's Taliban, U.S. talk of things like international inclusion, aid and reconstruction money might have mattered more had it come even a few years ago, said Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The Taliban today have been emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal. Hopes of grabbing all or much of Afghanistan, with all the border import fees and other revenues a country offers, make international support less essential.

In talks in Qatar, “Taliban political representatives did express genuine interest in international legitimacy and all the benefits that come with it,” Watkins said. But “what the Taliban never did was indicate a willingness to compromise” their behavior enough to lock down any such global recognition or financial support, he said.

Trump and Biden officials have hoped the prospect of ending its old outcast status would moderate the ethnic Pashtun fundamentalist group's behavior in a range of ways: negotiating its place in Afghanistan's power structure rather than grabbing it, treating Afghanistan's minority groups humanely and barring Islamic extremist groups from using the country as a base to attack regionally or globally.

Yet the Taliban’s political and military wings often seem at odds with the Taliban representatives in Qatar, who negotiate while the Taliban field commanders roll over territory at home.

As the political leaders talk compromise and power-sharing, Pakistani officials who are familiar with private discussions with the insurgent movement say they want complete power.

They also envision a strict religious government, accepting girls going to school and women working, but only within their Islamic injunctions. The Pakistani officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Some European diplomats are more skeptical than Americans that international opinion can sway the Taliban. So is Afghanistan's president.

“Yes, they have changed, but negatively,” Ashraf Ghani, who rushed to Balkh province, already surrounded by Taliban-held territory, to seek help in pushing back the insurgents, told his Cabinet this month.

The Taliban have become “more cruel, more oppressive,” and would only share power if forced to on the battlefield, Ghani said.

Scenes of black-turbaned Taliban officials signing the U.S. withdrawal deal with Trump officials itself granted the Taliban new legitimacy. So did Trump's praise of America's Taliban battlefield enemies as “very tough, very smart.”

Eager to maintain trade and economic ties regionally if not globally, Taliban officials have been calling on Central Asian governments and diplomats in Russia and China, assuring the Taliban would be good neighbors.

The Taliban largely have honored at least one part of their deal with Trump, holding off from attacks on withdrawing U.S. forces.

The deal's core requirement for Americans says the Taliban can't again allow al-Qaida or anyone else to use Afghanistan to threaten the United States or its allies.

But an April Pentagon report said the Taliban maintained “mutually beneficial” relations with al-Qaida-related groups, and called it unlikely the militia would take substantive action against them.

Overall, “I don’t think the U.S. is going to get what it hoped for,” said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Afghanistan researcher and former U.S. development official in Central Asia.

The Taliban ”don't really have an incentive,” unless their plans for any governing have changed, and it's not clear that they have, she said. “I think there was a lot of wishful thinking that the Taliban had changed, you know, in the fundamental sense.”

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