The United Nations deputy secretary-general said Monday that the organization plans to arrange a conference in the coming days to discuss granting recognition to Afghanistan's Taliban, stressing the need for engagement with the fundamentalist authorities.
Amina Mohammed's remarks come as the reclusive Taliban chief, Hibatullah Akhundzada, renewed his resolve Tuesday to achieve his goal of "the religious and moral reform of the [Afghan] society" through the vigorous implementation of Islamic law, or Shariah.
Mohammed told an audience at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs that the international meeting would bring envoys for Afghanistan from around the world to the table, among others.
"What we are hoping is that we'll gather them now in another two weeks in the region, and they will have that first meeting of envoys across the board — the region and internationally — with the secretary-general for the first time," she said.
"And out of that, we hope that we'll find those baby steps to put us back on the pathway to recognition [of the Taliban], a principled recognition," Mohammed said. "Is it possible? I don't know. [But] that discussion has to happen. The Taliban clearly want recognition, and that's the leverage we have."
The top U.N. official visited Afghanistan in January and discussed with Taliban leaders the sweeping curbs the fundamentalist authorities have imposed on women's freedom of work and movement since taking control of the strife-torn nation.
The restrictions have effectively blocked women and girls' access to work and education beyond 6th grade across the country. Afghan female staff have been banned from working for the U.N. and nongovernmental aid groups.
Mohammed said the Taliban maintain they have enacted several laws to deter gender-based violence and to give more inheritance rights to women, among others, besides eliminating corruption in Afghanistan.
"But I don't have any engagement that the international community will allow me to have to know whether they are implementing it or not," she said.
Mohammed said engagement with the Taliban would help to hold them accountable for their actions. "We cannot allow that they continue to get worse, which is what happens when you don't engage," she said.
She noted that the Taliban are becoming stronger because neighboring countries are engaging with them economically to ensure Afghanistan does not plunge into chaos and implode from within.
"There are trade surpluses with Afghanistan today. There's the banking system that's put in place for Afghanistan today, and we still say there are sanctions. So, we either engage and pull them to the right side, or we don't and see where it drifts. We must dine with the devil with [a] long spoon," she said.
Mohammed said the U.N. told its Afghan female staff to work from home while it negotiates with the Taliban for the removal of the ban on women. She added that female employees could work from home and earn a salary.
"Please treat the Taliban like COVID. We don't know what they're going to do or how they're going to react. … But I know three or four [women] are picked up, and maybe I wouldn't see them again. I am not going to risk any one Afghan woman to people we know are unpredictable," she said.
Mohammed did not share further details about the date or venue of the proposed envoys’ conference.
Former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted Tuesday that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will host the meeting in Doha, Qatar, on May 1.
Khalilzad wrote that Guterres and the envoys "should have a session with the Taliban during their deliberations" to develop a "roadmap" that must address the issue of Afghan women’s education and employment.
The Taliban waged a deadly insurgency for almost two decades. They reclaimed power in August 2021 from the then-internationally backed Afghan government as the United States and NATO troops withdrew.
The international community has refused to give the Taliban legitimacy, citing human rights concerns, particularly the restrictions on women.
In his statement Tuesday in connection with the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival later this week, Akhundzada lauded "reforms" in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.
"Significant reform measures have been taken in culture, education, economy, media and other fields, and the bad intellectual and moral effects of the 20-year occupation are about to finish,” he said.
The Taliban chief referred to the U.S.-led Western military intervention in Afghanistan and its former Afghan allied government in Kabul. Akhundzada has rejected calls for lifting bans on women, saying it is an internal Afghan matter and should be respected by all sides.
The Taliban takeover prompted Washington and other Western nations to suspend economic aid to Afghanistan, impose financial and banking sector sanctions, and strictly enforce long-running curbs on the Taliban to press them to ease restrictions on women and combat terrorism.
Billions of dollars in Afghan central bank foreign reserves have also been blocked. However international humanitarian aid has continued to flow into the country.
The international restrictions have pushed the Afghan economy to the brink and exacerbated humanitarian conditions in a country where the U.N. estimates that more than 28 million people — two-thirds of the population — require urgent aid.
A study released Tuesday by the U.N. Development Program warned that the Taliban edicts restricting the rights of women and girls would worsen Afghanistan’s economy and may also affect the level of aid inflows.
“The development of Afghanistan is the responsibility of Afghans. We should not rely on others. Rather, with courage and enthusiasm, we should build this country and provide all possible conveniences to the people," Akhundzada said in his Eid message.