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Should Australia establish full diplomatic relations with the Taliban government in Afghanistan?

Published 17 Oct 2021

On 12 October, AIIA NSW hosted our interns’ debate on the proposition “that Australia should establish full diplomatic relations with the Taliban government in Afghanistan”.

The affirmative team comprised Alex Russell Brown (Politics, International Relations and Political Economy, Sydney University), Cameron Smith (History and International Relations, Wollongong University) and Niki Beri (Politics, International Relations and Music, Sydney University). The negative team were Isabel Freudenstein (Politics, International Relations and History, Sydney University), Luke Goldman (Government and International Relations, Sydney University) and Grace Bui (International Relations and Communications and Media Studies, Wollongong University).

Two months ago the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, twenty years after their overthrow. They hope to gain international legitimacy. Evidence so far indicates a return to the repression of women, minorities, journalists and political opponents.

This debate asked how Australia should respond to the new reality in Afghanistan. Would engaging with the Taliban government support Australia’s interests and help the people of Afghanistan? Australia recognises states, not governments, but “full diplomatic relations” implies resident diplomatic representative in both countries. (The Afghan ambassador appointed by the previous Afghan government currently remains in Canberra.)

The affirmative case centred on the advantage of full diplomatic relations in working for better conditions in Afghanistan and for Australian objectives, including providing humanitarian aid, assisting refugees and preventing of the use of Afghanistan as a base for terrorism. In the broadly comparable case of Sudan, the absence of full relations by mainstream countries had left the coast clear to Al-Qaeda, to an absence of on-the ground information about developments in Sudan, and to the undetected abuse of human rights.

As a pragmatic reality, the Taliban now hold power in the country. This may be a bitter pill for Australia and like-minded countries to swallow, but we could best achieve our common goals – including supporting the welfare of the Afghan people and ensuring a stable government contributing to regional security – by establishing our own diplomatic presence and thus developing our own expertise on the situation and our own contacts for facilitating the pursuit of Australian objectives. Without full diplomatic relations, we and other like-minded countries risked being left as outside observers of a chaotic Afghanistan which would be a haven for terrorists. We would be leaving the field to China, Russia and Pakistan. Australia already no longer classed the Taliban as a terrorist organisation.

Australian disengagement from the situation would not help to liberate the Afghan people: our only option for meaningful leverage was to maximize our contacts and influence. To claim that full diplomatic relations would somehow condone the Taliban was to misunderstand the nature of diplomacy.

The negative case was that a strong moral approach should be central to Australian policy. We would be able to deliver aid and process refugees without formal diplomatic relations; examples included our successful programs in refugee camps throughout the region. It would be defeatist to accept a situation in Afghanistan which denied the rights of women and minorities: there were unmistakable measures to establish a “gendered apartheid” in the country. Professor Theo Farrell had assessed in his address to us the previous week that there was only a minimal prospect of the Taliban becoming more moderate.

Establishing full diplomatic relations would give the Taliban the legitimacy it wanted but would not permit real enquiry into conditions in such an oppressed country. Better information could be obtained from Qatar-based independent Afghan political figures. Other countries in Afghanistan’s immediate region had not established diplomatic relations, revealing their reservations about the Taliban. Full diplomatic relations would imply support and approval, in a volatile situation, for an unacceptable regime and would not change the nature of the Taliban.

Any appearance of legitimising the Taliban would, in effect, give them immunity from international criticism. The United States had demonstrated in many situations internationally that direct pressure could be applied to rogue regimes without any need for formal diplomatic relations. No Australian strategic objectives would be served by establishing full diplomatic relations. It was important that we listen to the people: Afghan activists have clearly expressed the wish that we not validate the new regime.

Our adjudicator, international legal expert Kevin Boreham, considered that both sides had provided sound, well-presented arguments. The affirmative side had delivered a convincing case that dealing pragmatically with the government in effective power in Afghanistan would provide regular contact and information. The negative team’s argument that diplomatic relations were a moral matter and that we should not compromise positions of principle was also persuasive. Both sides had set out their arguments clearly and effectively, but the affirmative side’s line had perhaps been more consistent. By a slight margin, he awarded them victory.