EU sets terms for diplomatic return to Kabul as rivals vie for influence

European countries aim for alliances to manage migration and security threats

Afghan women take part in a protest march for their rights under Taliban rule in  downtown  Kabul on September 3rd. Photograph: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty

Afghan women take part in a protest march for their rights under Taliban rule in downtown Kabul on September 3rd. Photograph: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty

 

The European Union will re-establish a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan to engage with the Taliban if the security situation allows it, its foreign affairs chief announced as global powers jostle for influence in the region.

As the Taliban readied to announce a new government, chief EU diplomat Josep Borrell said that the planned engagement would not constitute recognition of the Taliban, but was based on pursuing European goals like facilitating humanitarian aid and the evacuation of citizens and allies.

“In order to support the Afghan population, we will have to engage with the new government in Afghanistan, which does not mean recognition, it is an operational engagement. And this operational engagement will increase depending on the behaviour of this government,” Borrell said.

“We are not going to reopen a delegation with a head of delegation as if nothing had happened,” he added. The ministers agreed “to co-ordinate our contacts with the Taliban, including through a joint European Union’s presence in Kabul, co-ordinated by the European External Action Service – if the security conditions are met.”

His comments followed a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers in Slovenia, at which they grappled with the strategic implications of the chaotic withdrawal of the United States alliance from Afghanistan after a 20-year war.

They agreed to seek deals with Afghanistan’s neighbours in a bid to manage the wider fallout.

Ministers agreed “to enter into an alliance with neighbouring countries that deals with many issues: with migration issues, with security issues, issues of combating terrorism”, said German foreign minister Heiko Maas following the meeting.

“We will continue to coordinate closely on this, especially with the United States, but also with Turkey and countries like Qatar, which play a particularly important role in this phase. We also want to explore with the Taliban what our expectations are.”

The EU has announced an increase in humanitarian aid to the country but suspended development aid, which is paid to governments rather than being provided directly to citizens, and therefore requires co-operation with a regime.

The Taliban are facing a dire cashflow problem as their lack of international recognition means they are cut off from accessing the financial reserves and loans needed to run the state. 

Western powers hope to use the leverage of financial resources and recognition to pressure the Taliban to continue the education of women, respect human rights, form an inclusive government, prevent the country becoming a seedbed for terrorism, and allow safe passage for humanitarian workers and people who wish to leave.

But they are wary of losing influence to rival powers that retain a presence in the country and are already engaging with the Taliban as they prepare to form a government. 

Some embassies open

EU and US embassies in Kabul were closed as the Taliban swept to power, unlike those of China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Qatar, whose diplomats remain on the ground.  

China held talks with the Taliban this week, and has offered large-scale investment through its strategic “Belt and Road” initiative to build infrastructure through central Asia.

A statement released by the Chinese foreign ministry following a phone call between assistant foreign minister Wu Jianghao and Taliban representative Abdul Salam Hanafi on Thursday said the Taliban saw China as “a trustworthy friend of Afghanistan”.

“The friendship between China and Afghanistan has stayed true for thousands of years, and China has always respected the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and has pursued a friendly policy toward all the Afghan people,” the statement read.

“The Afghan Taliban is willing to further engage in developing friendly relations with China and will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to threaten China’s interests.”