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Unrecognized Taliban Aims to Boost Legitimacy by Wresting Control of Afghan Diplomatic Missions

More than 18 months after toppling the internationally recognized Afghan government and forcibly seizing power, the Taliban remains unrecognized by any country.

The militant group’s human rights abuses and links to extremist groups have once again made it a pariah. The international community has blacklisted Taliban leaders and cut off the group from the global financial system.

But the Taliban has tried to boost its legitimacy by wresting control of Afghan diplomatic missions abroad, many of which are still run by diplomats appointed by the previous government.

The hard-line Islamist group claims that it has a diplomatic presence in 14 countries, including in all neighboring countries barring Tajikistan. The group is also believed to have gained control of missions in Russia, China, Turkey, and Indonesia.

Analysts said concerns over terrorism and migration have prompted some neighboring countries to establish diplomatic relations with the Taliban government. Other countries where the Taliban has sent diplomats, including Pakistan and Iran, have longtime ties with the militant group.

“Control of diplomatic missions paves the way for the Taliban to lobby for formal recognition in those countries,” said an Afghan ambassador based in Europe, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. “The Taliban are hoping that these countries will relent over time.”

The Taliban has not gained control of any Afghan missions in the West. Afghan embassies and consulates in Europe and North America still fly the black-red-and-green tricolor flag. They generate revenue by providing consular services for Afghans abroad and foreigners seeking to travel to Afghanistan. Some missions have been abandoned due to a lack of funds. Others have relocated or downsized to cut costs.

Western nations have tied recognition to the Taliban establishing an inclusive government, ensuring women’s rights, and breaking ties with Al-Qaeda. But the militants have refused to share power, severely eroded women’s freedoms, and maintained links with terrorist groups, according to observers.

“The Taliban and the international community are on completely different wavelengths,” said another Afghan ambassador based in Europe, who also spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.

‘Transactional’ Relationships

In recent months, the Taliban has ramped up its efforts to wrestle control of Afghanistan’s 65 foreign posts.

Last month, the Taliban took over the Afghan Embassy in Turkmenistan and a consulate in the United Arab Emirates. In February, the Taliban gained control of the Afghan Embassy in Tehran.

The Taliban’s next target appears to be Tajikistan, the only neighboring country to publicly oppose the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Dushanbe has hosted some of the leaders of the National Resistance Front (NRF), an anti-Taliban resistance group that is largely made up of ethnic Tajiks from Afghanistan.

Last month, the Taliban claimed that its officials visited the Afghan consulate in the eastern city of Khorog. Tajik officials have not commented.

Mohammad Zahir Aghbar, the Afghan ambassador in Dushanbe, said he was skeptical. “The Taliban have not backed their claims by publishing photos of their visit or meetings,” he told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service.

But a former Afghan diplomat based in Europe who is affiliated with the NRF said the Taliban was engaged in secret talks with the Tajik government.

“After a year, the resistance has not achieved much,” the diplomat said, referring to how the Taliban has largely crushed the NRF’s armed opposition. “The Tajik government is looking to balance how they can keep the officials in Afghanistan happy and the resistance [leaders] in Tajikistan happy.”

In the 1990s, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance successfully prevented the Taliban regime from seizing control of the entire country. Based in northeastern Afghanistan, the opposition had bases in Tajikistan and received assistance from countries in the region.

This time, a handful of small armed groups have opposed Taliban rule in different regions of the country. But they remain weak, divided, and have no sanctuary or outside help, experts said.

“This removes the possibility of alternatives to the Taliban regime for the foreseeable future,” said Hameed Hakimi, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank. “Which in turn ensures that the Taliban can have amicable, or at least sort of transactional, relationships with countries in the region.”

Hakimi said the threat posed by extremist groups based in Afghanistan, including the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Jamaat Ansarullah, has also prompted Afghanistan’s neighbors to establish diplomatic relations with the Taliban.

IS-K militants have carried out deadly attacks against the Taliban, religious minorities, and foreign missions in Kabul.

“Keeping the Taliban on good terms is to the advantage of regional and neighboring countries that hope the Taliban will be useful against the threat of terrorism,” said Hakimi.

Source: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty