India and the EU need to speak up together about human rights in Afghanistan says the European Union’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Tomas Niklasson, who visited Delhi for consultations on the way forward.
In an interview to The Hindu, Mr. Niklasson said the Taliban’s increased restrictions on women and the ban on girl’s education is of particular concern for the EU, and may change its policy on engagement and assistance to the regime in Kabul, but that supporting armed opposition groups like the National Resistance Force (NRF) is not on the table at present.
How would you describe the situation in Afghanistan more than 18 months after the Taliban took over?
Afghanistan is going through a very difficult period. According to the U.N., about 28 million people are dependent on humanitarian assistance to survive, and 6 million are in danger of starvation. We see virtually no investment in the country, no assistance going to the Taliban or going into the state budget, as we saw before. The central bank has its reserves frozen abroad. And there is a de facto government in place that, to a large extent, lacks the experience of running a country. On top of the governance challenges, the Taliban are taking decisions that prevent Afghans from contributing to economic growth. They prevent women from working, they disinvest in the future of the country by not allowing girls to go to school or to study at university. It’s a grim picture and Afghanistan is overall at a worse place today than last winter.
Has the Taliban’s reversal on women’s education and rights changed the view of the international community towards engaging the regime?
We could have managed to build a more constructive relationship with Taliban, or helped stabilise the Afghan economy if we would have seen any progress being made towards development and upholding of human rights. If we had seen, for example, secondary schools opening for girls in March last year, or the Taliban taking positive steps towards opening a political dialogue on specific issues, taking a less harsh position on journalists and being more successful in implementing their so-called amnesty for officials from the previous government, if they had taken steps towards either recognising the Constitution in place, or proposing a new one, and implementing rule of law. But the fact is, they have not, and we cannot be seen as helping to prop up an increasingly repressive regime.
There will be a meeting of EU Foreign Ministers in Brussels on February 20, the first occasion when our Ministers will talk about Afghanistan substantially in this format since September 2021. I think the question about whether we should give any assistance beyond humanitarian will be on the table. I expect that some member states would also like to have a discussion on possible human rights sanctions. I think there may also be a discussion on the strengthening of what we call accountability mechanisms for human rights. Examples would be the mandate of UNAMA, which monitors the human rights situation and reports on it. Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett has a specific mandate to look into the human rights situation in Afghanistan, and the International Criminal Court is ready to also look into acts of human rights violations or suspected acts of human rights violations, primarily by the Taliban and ISIS-KP.
Where do you see India’s role today — where it has a technical mission in Kabul, and is talking to the Taliban?
India has all this investment, not just financially, but culturally, the goodwill that was there in Afghanistan, strong and positive emotions toward India, and what India did, in terms of development projects throughout the country. India was the biggest regional donor, Afghanistan was the biggest recipient of Indian development assistance. There’s a need to keep that up somehow. But doing so in the current context is becoming increasingly political challenging due to the actions taken by the Taliban and some decisions not taken.
India has taken a similar position as the EU, by establishing limited presence in Kabul and saying we don’t want to close doors on engaging the regime, while not recognising it, of course. And we don’t want to sit back in Brussels and Delhi and tell ourselves that we don’t want to close doors. We actually want to be there to have a dialogue with Afghan entrepreneurs, with journalists, with civil society, with Afghan women, with Taliban, as needed. Because if we are not there, others remain. And I don’t mean to portray this as a power game, or game of influence. There are security risks. And we have seen over the last six months, attacks against two diplomatic missions, attacks against Chinese citizens and attacks against two Ministries in Kabul in high-security zones. So, deciding to be present in Kabul is not only politically risky, but also challenging from a security point of view.
During your visit here, is there something you are asking India to do?
India and the EU share and uphold common principles and values such as human rights, including women’s rights, democracy, and inclusive government. The European Union is often quite outspoken in public diplomacy and making statements to explain our positions and our expectations. India takes a different approach, I think, when it comes to public diplomacy. But it is essential we work together to defend our shared principles and values.
India has also denied most visas for Afghans, including students and medical patients since August 2021. Are you discussing that?
I would like to understand better what the Indian position is, and I would like to get the facts right as well. I don’t come with an agenda. These are issues that people have mentioned to me before I was coming here. And these are issues that also some of our Indian counterparts have raised with me, but as I said, my first point would be to have a better overview of the situation.
When it comes to alternatives to Taliban, what is the EU’s position on supporting the political opposition, or armed groups like Ahmed Massoud-led NRF?
For the EU, supporting armed groups, or military interventions is simply not on the table. I think any power considering doing so should consider the many risks: Supporting the wrong people, or the armed resistance not succeeding, or tainting any attempted armed resistance by making them be seen as supported from abroad. And if one actor would extend financial or political support to any specific group, other countries would most likely support other groups, and we would risk seeing again a spiral of violence inside the country.
Currently among Afghans abroad, most groups presenting themselves publicly as political alternatives seem to consist mainly of former ministers, politicians, ambassadors, and in some cases also Afghans referred to as warlords. We see a number of groups, formulating positions, who have approached the EU to organise platform meeting points for them.
So far, we are very cautious for a number of reasons. First, the international community collectively has a bad track record when it comes to proposing future leaders of Afghanistan. Secondly, these Afghans outside the country have resources, skills and contacts, and they should have these conversations amongst themselves. We are happy to come to listen, we are happy to engage in a dialogue, as long as armed resistance is not on the table. But we also see the risk that if any group were to be seen as set up, facilitated, pushed by us, it would be counterproductive. The truth is that many Afghans feel betrayed by those who left the country, especially the regime. Many don’t trust them, consider them part of a largely corrupt setup, see them as having ran away, and that they benefited from something which most Afghans didn’t. And that creates this trust gap that they will have to overcome. But regardless of that, and first of all, I would say that in the medium to long-term change will have to come from within Afghanistan.
In the Doha agreement, the Taliban had committed to not allowing foreign terror groups in Afghanistan. Is that promise being kept at all?
First of all, we have less intelligence, less information as the [NATO/US] troops are no longer there. Journalists cannot work freely the way they could. And there are fewer journalists present in the country. Many countries have closed embassies. Last summer, the leader of al Qaeda was killed in a building owned or controlled by senior Taliban members. And that is a clear indication that the Taliban have not delivered on one of their commitments in the Doha agreement.
We see an increasing number of attacks claimed by ISIS-KP against diplomatic missions, and their numbers are rising too. Each neighbouring country has at least one group they are worried about — IMU for Uzbekistan, ETIM for China, TTP for Pakistan and LeT and JeM for India, and none of the neighbours seems convinced that the Taliban are fully capable or fully willing to guarantee their security. Perhaps even though they have issues with each other, neighbouring countries will seek collective solutions, at least in terms of intelligence sharing among themselves.