U.S. Weighs Waiving Taliban Travel Ban (Again)

Western engagement with the militant group appears to be on its last legs.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , the social media editor at Foreign Policy.
Afghan Ambassador Nasir Andisha attends a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Afghanistan in Geneva on Aug. 24, 2021.
Afghan Ambassador Nasir Andisha attends a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Afghanistan in Geneva on Aug. 24, 2021.
Afghan Ambassador Nasir Andisha attends a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Afghanistan in Geneva on Aug. 24, 2021. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is locked in a fierce internal debate over whether to extend a Trump-era waiver that would allow select Taliban officials to travel abroad as they grapple with how to pressure the regime on Afghanistan’s deteriorating human rights situation.

The United Nations Security Council has a long-standing international travel ban on Taliban leaders, but that ban has been waived to allow for foreign powers to engage in peace and stability talks with the hard-line regime, which is cementing its grip on power in Afghanistan despite having no international recognition as the legitimate Afghan government. The Taliban government is made up largely of wanted terrorists.

The waiver on that ban expires on June 20, putting Washington and other Western powers in a diplomatic bind. They could extend the travel ban waiver to continue engaging with the Taliban—and possibly be seen as rewarding the Taliban despite their repressive political crackdowns and reversal of basic human rights—and risk losing what little engagement and leverage it may have left with the militant group.

The Biden administration is locked in a fierce internal debate over whether to extend a Trump-era waiver that would allow select Taliban officials to travel abroad as they grapple with how to pressure the regime on Afghanistan’s deteriorating human rights situation.

The United Nations Security Council has a long-standing international travel ban on Taliban leaders, but that ban has been waived to allow for foreign powers to engage in peace and stability talks with the hard-line regime, which is cementing its grip on power in Afghanistan despite having no international recognition as the legitimate Afghan government. The Taliban government is made up largely of wanted terrorists.

The waiver on that ban expires on June 20, putting Washington and other Western powers in a diplomatic bind. They could extend the travel ban waiver to continue engaging with the Taliban—and possibly be seen as rewarding the Taliban despite their repressive political crackdowns and reversal of basic human rights—and risk losing what little engagement and leverage it may have left with the militant group.

So far, the Biden administration hasn’t decided whether to support extending the travel ban waiver, first passed by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019, or let it lapse. “Negotiations remain ongoing, and no official decisions have been made,” a U.S. National Security Council spokesperson said.

U.S. President Joe Biden is facing mounting political pressure to not be seen as soft on the Taliban.

Human rights groups are pressuring Washington to reimpose the travel ban while key U.S. allies at the United Nations are signaling they would support extending the waiver. “[T]he travel ban exemption is first and foremost a tool to facilitate contact with the de facto authorities. In our opinion, this continues to be crucial if we want to influence the trajectory of the future of Afghanistan,” Henrik Thune, deputy foreign minister of Norway, said in a statement. Norway holds a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and this year, it hosted talks with the Taliban in Oslo, Norway’s capital, to press the group on human rights concerns.

The Taliban are taking full advantage of the waiver on their travel ban. In recent weeks, Taliban officials have traveled to Qatar to meet with the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Thomas West—who pressed them on respecting women’s rights—and attended a glitzy international economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia. In the past, the U.N. Security Council has extended the waiver on the travel ban in 90-day increments.

Within the U.S. State Department and National Security Council, there are officials who feel Washington should shut off international travel for the Taliban, feeling fed up with the lack of any real progress in talks to ease up their repression on women and girls or uphold any promises they made when they took power to respect human rights and form an inclusive government. On the other side are officials who say extending the travel ban waiver is the only way to keep any dialogue going with the Taliban, and reimposing the ban will only empower hard-liners within the Taliban power structure who want to spurn engagement with the West entirely.

At home, U.S. President Joe Biden is facing mounting political pressure to not be seen as soft on the Taliban, particularly from his critics in the Republican Party after his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country in August 2021 led to a chaotic and deadly collapse of the Afghan government and a Taliban victory.

“Afghanistan has turned out to be very bad for the Biden administration. And the last thing they want is to give the Republicans an opportunity to, come November in the midterm [elections], be seen as appeasing the Taliban or engaging with the Taliban,” said Kamran Bokhari, a scholar at the New Lines Institute, a think tank.

Human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and former U.S. officials are also pushing Biden’s administration to cut off the Taliban from international travel in response to their increasingly repressive rule.

“If we ignore the Taliban’s increasingly repressive policies toward women and girls and they feel no consequences for these actions, that will only empower the hard-liners to press ahead with their agenda,” said Lisa Curtis, a scholar at the Center for a New American Security and former U.S. National Security Council senior director for South and Central Asia during the Trump administration. “If you don’t use the leverage [of the travel ban], then what do you have it for?”

Less than a year into power, the Taliban have kept girls out of school and dictated what they can wear; in today’s Afghanistan, as in the 1990s, a woman requires a male chaperone to leave the house.

“We talk about a travel ban for the Taliban, well, the real travel ban is on Afghan women who are barely allowed to go outside their homes,” said Asila Wardak, an Afghan women’s rights activist and former Afghan diplomat now at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “But still, the Taliban has all the travel benefits it wants despite that.”

Wardak, who escaped Afghanistan after the Taliban took power, currently doesn’t have the proper visas to travel outside the United States. She highlighted the irony that she can’t go to international conferences to advocate for Afghan women’s rights while the Taliban officials responsible for suppressing those rights have no such problem.

Other diplomats and experts question whether the threat of a U.N. travel ban is really much leverage over the Taliban at all, as the international community is running out of both “carrots and sticks” to offer the Taliban to change their course.

“I don’t think the travel ban will really affect [them] because despite some ‘carrots’ that have been given to the Taliban, they are well on their way to imposing their vision of their theocratic state, which they had promised,” said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Other diplomats believe that any semblance of engagement with the Taliban has run its course. “Over the past 10 months, the international community is using every possible means to engage with the Taliban, but unfortunately, it appears that all efforts are approaching a dead end, a cul-de-sac filled with broken promises and deep disappointments,” said Nasir Andisha, the current Afghan envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, at a recent U.N. human rights meeting.

Andisha represents the former internationally recognized Afghan government that the Taliban ousted; the U.N. has yet to allow Taliban representatives to take seats for the Afghan government at its international forums as no country currently recognizes the Taliban government.

The militant group had spent the last 20 years mobilizing a violent insurgency and promising to reimpose an extreme interpretation of Islamic rule. Now, fresh on the heels of victory, it has the capacity of an entire government—built up over two decades and with billions of dollars of international aid—at its disposal. Ultimately, that’s a dangerous combination.

“What theyre doing is theyre just so intoxicated by the power of the state, the power of complete authoritarian control, having an army and all the things they never had before,” Murtazashvili said. “To me, thats the key difference, not whether theyre extreme or moderate but their belief in the state and their belief in state capacity.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk

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