Musharraf’s Taliban Recognition Theory

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf

Pakistan’s former president, Pervez Musharraf, in a September 10 interview with Amy Kellogg at FOX News (see video link), stated that one of the blunders that the international community committed was that it did not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. According to Musharraf:

When Mullah Omar and the Taliban controlled 90% of Afghanistan, we did not recognize the Taliban. I think had we recognized the Taliban, we could have managed them from inside. That was my strategy. …Maybe we could have saved the Buddha statue and maybe we could have put enough pressure on them to get rid of Osama bin Ladin.

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates did recognize the Taliban in the 90s but they were the only countries that did. International recognition of the Taliban would have allowed other states, including the US, to open up embassies in Kabul, which would have provided direct diplomatic access to the Taliban, and make Afghanistan eligible for international aid and other economic opportunities. Not recognizing the Taliban was really an act of sanctioning, which is designed to compel an unwilling state to do, or not to do, a particular action. Was Musharraf right about the wisdom in recognizing the Taliban? No.

International recognition may have made minimal gains in the long term but it is unlikely that recognizing the Taliban would have had an immediate impact on either expelling Osama bin Ladin from Afghanistan or preventing the September 11th attacks. Evidence for this conclusion is the Taliban’s repeated unwillingness to follow Pakistani consul to either moderate their radical religious policies or to strike deals with non-Pashtun rivals (i.e. to share power). The Taliban could not be “managed from the inside,” and its independence from Pakistani input was apparent as soon as the Taliban took Kandahar (the Taliban’s first strategically significant military conquest in terms of land taken) and despite the fact that the Taliban was desperately dependent on Pakistani aid.*

In fact, it could be argued that the Taliban’s obstinacy actually expanded with victory and did not contract when facing difficulty. In contrast, Musharraf’s recognition theory assumes the Taliban would heed outside opinion if the international community had legitimized the Taliban’s claim on Afghanistan –or given it another victory. Musharraf’s perspective is truly perplexing. It is as if he laments the Taliban’s failure as though the Taliban would have been good for Afghanistan if not but for a few rough edges. Surely Musharraf knows that given the proxy war nature of the Afghan crisis over the last 30 years, Afghan’s neighboring governments could not have accepted (and did not) a heavy-handed, extremist, Pashtun-infused Islamic theocracy that marginalized the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. The Taliban was never willing to accept a power-sharing government with the other ethnic groups.

History shows that the Taliban demonstrated an independence from Pakistan as early as 1994, or the year the movement began. While the Pakistani government expected a political return on its material investment in the Taliban, the Taliban quite naturally had its own agenda and that was to conquer Afghanistan and impose its version of Islamic Sharia law on all Afghans. The Taliban’s unwillingness to compromise on its agenda is dumbfounding especially when their stubbornness persisted when confronted with serious security threats that endangered their conquest of Afghanistan. In one pivotal moment in February 1996, just before the fall of Kabul, when then Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was making progress on setting up the framework for a new power-sharing government, the Taliban refused to come to the negotiating table (the other warlords agreed to this) despite a multi-pronged Pakistani lobbying effort.**

This 1931 photo of one of the giant Buddha statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, was taken by Maynard Owen Williams who worked for National Geographic. The Taliban, known for religious intolerance, destroyed it and another one similar in size in March 2001. Click twice to enlarge.

If the Taliban could not be persuaded under these circumstances by the proverbial “hand that fed them,” or Pakistan, how could embassies in Kabul have persuaded the Taliban to expel Osama bin Laden or to spare the two Buddha statues? Expelling bin Laden was near impossible under any circumstance because the Taliban agreed with him ideologically and the Pashtun ethnic code (Pashtunwali) prevented the Taliban from handing over bin Ladin since he was their guest.

Musharraf’s recognition theory sounds good and moderate in theory if removed from context, but it would not have enabled the West, or the West through Pakistan, to control such a radical movement no more than the West has been able to control the Iranian government, which is liberal relative to the Taliban. Like tempered steel the Taliban was single-minded and unnegotiable under any condition. Moreover, there are other examples of far more lenient regimes than the Taliban that have taken power by force and the international community has refused to recognize them, such as the current Fiji government, which took power in a bloodless coup in 2006. The international community did the right thing to not recognize the Taliban.

* Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Yale University Press: New Haven. 2001. P. 29. The specific clash referred to here was over commerce. See also pp. 40-41, 44, 50, and 52.
** Rashid, p. 44.