Comment: Taliban only pretending their barbaric days are over

Their actions in Kabul make it clear they’re promises are being made as leverage for international aid.

By Eli Lake / Bloomberg Opinion

The Taliban would like the world to know that they’re no longer the child-bride-marrying mass murderers that they used to be.

At a press conference Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said there would be no reprisals against Afghans who worked with the U.S. military. Women would be free to work and study, and the media free to broadcast what it wished, so long as both stayed “within our cultural frameworks.” How enlightened.

These promises are discredited by events on the ground. Those Afghans hanging from a U.S. military jet taking off from Kabul clearly do not take the Taliban at their word. Nor do the women who Taliban gunmen escorted from their jobs at a Kandahar bank and ordered not to return. Nor do the journalists who work at a radio station in Kabul who saw their station manager murdered earlier this month by Taliban gunmen.

But Mujahed is not trying to convince Afghans about the intentions of the Taliban. He is hoping his make-believe will persuade President Biden and his administration to keep subsidizing the Afghan government these jihadists just overthrew.

It’s easy to see why. Mujahed’s boss, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the likely interim president of Afghanistan, managed to sucker U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad into thinking the Taliban were interested in a political settlement to share power. It’s now apparent that the Taliban used those negotiations as a political weapon to demoralize the Afghan military, with no intention of ever reaching an agreement. The plan worked surprisingly well, as the rapid collapse of the Afghan army attests.

So now the Taliban are hoping to fool America twice. Until this weekend, the Biden administration had committed to at least $300 million in reconstruction assistance after the U.S. withdrawal to “demonstrate our enduring support for the Afghan people.” And the Afghan people certainly need it. According to a 2019 World Bank study, 75 percent of the Afghan government budget is funded by international donors, with the U.S. the largest by far.

The good news is that the Biden administration has begun to set out conditions for recognizing the Taliban. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday told CNN that the U.S. would recognize and work with a Taliban emirate in Afghanistan if it respected the rights of its citizens and didn’t harbor terrorists. More promising is news that the Treasury Department has frozen all Afghan government assets in U.S. banks.

But one never knows with the Biden administration. After all, it is still trying to negotiate the lifting of sanctions and return of frozen assets with another Islamic regime, in Iran, that shows as much respect for human rights — and as much hospitality to international terrorists — as the Taliban. When Afghanistan’s rapid collapse became apparent last week, Khalilzad dangled the prospect of U.S. aid for a Taliban-led government if it spared the U.S. embassy in its rout of Kabul.

Biden would be wise to reject proposals that try to leverage U.S. assistance to reform the Taliban. They are irredeemable. It was bad enough that Biden abandoned Afghanistan despite the warnings of his military leaders. Worse still was how the administration failed to plan for the rescue of American civilians and Afghan allies before the military withdrawal. To subsidize the barbaric regime that has now taken over would be a final, ignominious blow to America’s honor.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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