EU agrees to Taliban outreach plan — with conditions

The EU has agreed on a common approach to working with the Taliban, the EU’s top diplomat said Friday — putting human rights and security conditions on engaging the Afghanistan militant group.

The announcements arrived during an informal meeting of foreign ministers in Slovenia and partly reflected proposals put forward by France and Germany in two joint documents seen by POLITICO. Josep Borrell, the bloc’s senior diplomat, listed five benchmarks to “engage” with the Taliban. But, he stressed, it “does not mean recognition” of the Taliban as the legitimate Afghanistan government.

Still, the approach raises questions about whether the plan will essentially lead to a de facto recognition of the Taliban, several weeks after the group seized control of Afghanistan. With western forces now gone from the country, the EU needs to liaise with the Taliban on critical issues, such as remaining Europeans and Afghans seeking to leave the country and the possibility of resurgent terrorist cells.

“It is an engagement with the Taliban themselves, the international community is pressing for it,” Borrell said.

The decision comes as EU rivals China and Russia have begun friendly overtures to the Taliban, forcing the issue for EU officials who also want to try and influence the group.

On Monday, the U.N Security Council agreed on a resolution for working with the Taliban that focused on counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance. Beijing and Moscow abstained, allowing the resolution to go through. The abstention raised faint hopes among diplomats that western allies could work with China and Russia on the subject.

On Friday, the EU fleshed out its own approach.

The five benchmarks Borrell listed focused on security and human rights. The Taliban cannot let Afghanistan serve as a base for terrorism and basic human rights must be respected. Any Taliban government must be inclusive and allow access to humanitarian aid. And finally, they must let both foreigners and Afghans leave the country.

Engagement “will increase depending on the behavior of this government,” Borrell stressed. And, he noted, it could eventually include “a joint European Union presence in Kabul,” but only “if the security conditions are met” — a big “if.” Currently, the EU’s diplomatic staff is not in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, having left during the final days of the military operation.

It’s unclear whether EU countries with Kabul embassies have formally begun closing their outposts. One official said countries have not started the closure process. Still, Borrell stressed that any future EU presence “is not a first step towards recognition at all.”

EU foreign ministers on Friday also agreed on a strategy to coordinate engagement with the countries surrounding Afghanistan, where it’s expected most Afghan refugees will initially head. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, more than two million Afghan refugees are already registered in Pakistan and Iran, the result of the 20-year war back home.

Borrell said his department, the European External Action Service “will initiate a regional political platform of cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbors.”

The decisions largely resemble two documents, marked as “restricted,” that France and Germany circulated before the meeting.

The first document outlined the strategy for engaging with the Taliban.

“The recognition of the political legitimacy of the new authorities can be used as leverage,” the two EU powerhouses wrote. “Countries could condition recognition of the political authority and legitimacy of the Taliban to the commitments they would be ready to take following clear expectations.”

The second document discusses the plan to work with Afghanistan’s neighbors on migration.

Under this plan, the document said, “the EU would take the lead in initiating a regional political platform of cooperation.” In addition to Pakistan and Iran, it listed other potential partners as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and India. The document indicated a “regional conference” could be held soon on the issue. But a second official said not everyone had embraced the proposal, and the conference idea didn’t come up in Friday’s discussions.

The next step, two diplomats said, is for EU countries to draft a common text that can be discussed at a formal meeting of EU foreign ministers next month.



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