A State Department spokesman on Thursday rejected claims of differences between the West and the Emirati, stressing that the Taliban would face consequences. In the latest deliberations, “Tom and Rina have been of the same mind” and “advocate for the same accountability mechanism in the same camp.” Spokesmen, however, would not describe the mechanisms being discussed or how far each official wants to go.

Nearly 18 months after US troops left and the Taliban came to power, the escalating plight of Afghanistan is a growing blot on President Joe Biden’s human rights record. It’s a topic Republicans, who are taking control of the House, are likely to focus on when they launch an investigation into the administration’s handling of Afghanistan.

But while Biden has long said that human rights are at the heart of his foreign policy, he has defended his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan after a 20-year war effort. In the past, Biden has said that the US does not bear responsibility for the fate of Afghan women and girls. He has largely avoided talking about the country in recent months, fueling a sense of helplessness among administration staffers grappling with how to respond to the growing crisis.

“We knew this was coming, but were afraid of it and couldn’t stop it,” said the current official, who, like a State Department spokeswoman and others, declined anonymity to describe sensitive internal administration conversations. the requested.

The White House said it would comment on Biden’s position, but had not provided one as of publication time.

The latest decrees from the Taliban leadership, issued last month, bar women from working for universities and many non-governmental organizations – prompting many humanitarian groups to suspend operations in Afghanistan, where millions are at risk of starvation. And others face insecurities.

Months ago, top leaders of the militant group barred girls from attending secondary schools, and they have also issued other decrees that ban women and girls from certain public places and jobs. There are fears that they will eventually bar girls from primary school.

The current administration official said inter-agency meetings are scheduled this week to discuss the US response, but a decision could not come until next week.

“We are working with our allies across government and also with like-minded partners around the world to develop an appropriate set of consequences that register our condemnation of this outrageous order on the part of the Taliban. do, while also protecting our position as the world’s leading humanitarian provider to the people of Afghanistan,” Ned Price, the State Department’s chief spokesman, told reporters during a Wednesday press briefing.

Washington has some influence on the Taliban, both diplomatically and financially. The Taliban have sought international recognition as a government, and they also seek foreign investment. The United States has invested more than billions of dollars in Afghan funds that could help stabilize the country’s economy, and US sanctions have ripple effects that deter foreign investment.

But the Taliban also have advantages, including the freedom granted to terrorist groups operating from Afghan soil. Former Al Qaeda chief and 9/11 plotter Osama bin Laden used Afghanistan as a base. Last year, his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed by a US drone strike in Kabul. The Islamic State terrorist group, meanwhile, is a Taliban rival and US foe that has carried out several attacks in Afghanistan over the past year and a half.

Cooperation in countering terrorism is one of many factors that US officials, including the West and Emiri – neither of whom responded to requests for comment – will have to consider as they how to respond to the Taliban’s human rights abuses.

The differences between the West and the Emirati are not in scale and more a matter of degree – both want to hold the Taliban accountable. The current administration official said their stance also reflects their specific jobs. “It is generally true that Tom wants to find some way to continue working with the Taliban. I think he thinks it is his mandate from the president,” the official said. -The principled approach is – do what we must and let the chips fall where they may.”

To complicate things, the Taliban’s top leaders are highly conservative Islamists who appear personally immune to most US economic sanctions and travel restrictions; They are unlikely to have many financial assets outside Afghanistan and do not travel much. They are said to be located in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

If the United States decides to cut or alter humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as part of its punishment, it is unlikely to be serious, the current official said.

Former US officials in contact with the administration said US officials have had little – if any – contact with these top Taliban leaders, including the group’s No. 1 leader or “emir,” Haibatullah Akhundzada. Instead, US officials deal with the more public faces of the Taliban in third-party countries such as Kabul and Qatar, but those with less power.

Former officials and analysts said even if US officials set aside diplomatic sensitivities and are ready to engage publicly with Akhundzada, they are unlikely to agree to meet with the secretive Taliban leader.

Not all Taliban members support Akhundzada’s deeply conservative approach to the rights of women and girls. In fact, a prominent Taliban figure, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is believed to support educating girls and women, said a second current US official familiar with the Afghan file. The Haqqani network is one of the most violent Taliban factions.

Still, the Taliban has a strong central structure, so even more progressive elements avoid the conservative leadership, the US official said. This makes it difficult for the United States to split the group.

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban official, insisted via a WhatsApp message to POLITICO that the education restrictions were only temporary. He referred questions about the ban on the NGO’s work to another Taliban official, who could not be reached for comment.

Afghan officials are “working in full swing” to ensure a “favorable environment” for women’s education, Shaheen wrote. “No one is against women’s education, but they want women’s [to] Get education in an environment in line with our values ​​and rules,” he said, referring to strict Islamic law.

But the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, previously claimed such restrictions were only temporary to keep schools for girls from closing.

Lisa Curtis, who oversaw Afghanistan on the National Security Council in the Trump administration, argued that Biden allies should use sanctions as well as other means to pressure the Taliban. For example, the administration could engage more publicly with Afghan opposition leaders or reopen the Afghan embassy in Washington, but under the control of non-Taliban figures, he said.

“It’s been almost 18 months. The Taliban has not changed,” she said. “At some point there has to be consequences.”

However, others outside the Biden team said it would be a mistake to further isolate the extremist movement. In the long run, engagement is critical for the well-being of all Afghans, said a former US official familiar with the issue.

“We need to accept the fact that our policy of harshly criticizing him every five minutes is not working,” the former official said.

A former US diplomat familiar with the Afghan file also argued that one approach is for the United States to lower its profile and empower institutions such as the United Nations to apply pressure on militant rulers.

The current strategy is not working, the former diplomat said, and in the meantime, “this country has so gravely eroded the basic rights of half its citizens.”

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