Girls’ Education Has Become a Political Issue; Exclusive Interview with Tomas Niklasson

Tomas Niklasson, the European Union’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, visited the country in October 2022 and held meetings with various Taliban leaders. During this interview, we discussed a range of topics, with a particular focus on Niklasson’s trip to Afghanistan.

Hasht-e-Subh: Mr. Niklasson, we would like to thank you for this opportunity. You recently visited Afghanistan and met with civil society activists, women activists, and Taliban leaders. After your visit, you concluded that some changes were being made in Afghanistan. Could you tell us if you noticed any changes in the Taliban’s policies that could lead to a legitimate government in the country?

Tomas Niklasson: Thank you for having me. I travelled to Afghanistan in early October 2022 and I am currently speaking to you from Brussels, where I am staying. As you said, I met with a large number of civil society activists, traders, and many others during my trip. I was aware that the situation in Afghanistan varies from province to province. For example, the process of registering organizations and investing is better in some provinces. I also had the opportunity to meet the Taliban’s governors in some parts of Afghanistan, which I found to be a positive development. The people I spoke to seemed to accept this as well. During my visit, I observed the appointment of governors in some provinces and the appointment of a new acting minister of higher education. Our investigation into the Taliban’s new appointments is still ongoing, but it appears that the Taliban’s leadership in Kandahar is becoming more influential across the country. This has made me more pessimistic than I was last month and I am uncertain of what the changes will bring.

Hasht-e-Subh: The Taliban have made many promises to you and the international community during the Doha peace talks, but have not kept them. Instead, they have prohibited girls from attending secondary school, denied Afghan women the right to participate in society, and failed to create an inclusive government. Do you and the international community still trust the Taliban?

Tomas Niklasson: I agree that the Taliban have made many promises to Afghans and the international community, but have not kept them. To me, trust is based on honesty in speaking, loyalty in commitments, and being honest when we are unable to fulfill our obligations. When I think about the issue of Afghan girls attending secondary school, I have been told that it is part of the Taliban’s policy, but there are practical obstacles. This issue has been discussed in many conferences in different ways, with everyone emphasizing that girls should attend secondary schools. We have discussed the lack of female teachers and the lack of transportation to schools multiple times.

After meeting with the Taliban’s delegation in Tashkent and Kabul, I no longer heard anything about the Taliban’s interest in opening schools. During my visits with the Taliban’s delegation in May and March, they had insisted on certain issues being resolved before opening the secondary schools. However, I did not hear anything about that on my recent trip, which has decreased my trust and optimism towards the Taliban. This lack of confidence and ability to take action could be due to many issues, but I believe that part of it is because the people I spoke to are not in the loop and do not know what policies “Kandahar” is going to make. Therefore, I think those I talked to are being honest in not showing any commitment, which is what I am concerned about.

Hasht-e-Subh: The Taliban claim that the closure of secondary schools for Afghan girls is due to logistical issues that have already been mentioned. However, these schools were open to girls prior to the Taliban’s rule. Afghans believe that all girls should have access to secondary education, as it is a fundamental human right. Does the Taliban’s reasoning seem reasonable and logical; given that they are not allowing girls to attend secondary school?

Tomas Niklasson: I have not been convinced by the problems they are referring to, and I do not believe they are real. I believe this is more of a political issue. We were told in mid-March that the schools would be reopening the following week, and the Taliban even officially declared this, but failed to follow through. So, we are again being referred to meetings that had taken place in Kandahar, where some members of the Taliban’s leadership were still not convinced. The reason for this could be that they are against Afghan girls receiving higher education, as they do not understand the importance of it and do not want women to have a role in society like other Muslim women in different countries. Another possibility is that the Taliban are afraid of being dispersed due to Afghan girls’ education. Therefore, the primary disagreement among the Taliban is not about policy making, but rather about the fact that there is disagreement among the Taliban leadership.

I am not sure which of those two answers is genuine. Therefore, I believe that the issue has been politicized and the actual problem is not the separation of girls and boys in classes or logistics.

Hasht-e-Subh: What requirements must the Taliban meet in order to be officially recognized by the European Union? Does the European Union have any requirements for recognizing the Taliban? 

Tomas Niklasson: I do not believe that anything like this has ever been quantified. There is no list of three topics or a metric to reach. However, we have been dealing with this issue since last year when we began discussions with the Taliban. It is important to note that these talks have not been negotiations, as we have not yet reached the bargaining stage; we are simply trying to understand each other and have made our expectations clear. Our expectations and positions have been firm and unambiguous. I have plenty of reasons for this that the senior Taliban ministers are aware of, and, as I mentioned, they are also aware of these topics. We have discussed five key elements, including the safe passage of Afghans who wish to leave Afghanistan. Another point of discussion was the safe delivery of humanitarian aid to those in need, without interference from the Taliban.

The third issue discussed was human rights, including women’s rights. The fourth issue was the rights of minorities and freedom of the press, all of which are essential for a functioning government. I reiterate my previous statement about the Taliban’s commitment to fighting terrorism, which should provide assurance that Afghanistan will not be a threat to its neighboring countries. These issues are not part of the U.S-Taliban agreement in Doha, but are instead based on the charter of the United Nations and international laws.

Generally, the Taliban have been functioning weakly. In some cases, the situation has improved; for example, some progress has been made in terms of allowing people to safely leave Afghanistan, but there are still many issues, such as the high demand for passports. Generally, most Afghans who wanted to leave the country have been able to do so safely. Regarding access to humanitarian aid, it was going well until the start of this year and is still going well. The Taliban have attempted to interfere, but humanitarian organizations have resisted them. This opposition from these organizations is very important.

Regarding human rights and inclusiveness, there has been no progress made by the Taliban. According to the report of Richard Bennett, the special rapporteur on human rights to the United Nations Security Council, there have been some positive changes, but the overall human rights situation in Afghanistan is still very poor. There has been the least progress in terms of women’s and other political groups’ participation in the Taliban’s government.

Regarding the fight against terrorism, it appears that a two-pronged approach is being taken. The presence of the Al-Qaeda leader in Kabul until July is indicative of the Taliban’s lack of commitment to the cause. It is likely that they will make efforts to start a war against ISIS or take repressive actions, which have been successful to some extent in some places. However, ISIS still remains a threat within Afghanistan. Additionally, the neighboring countries have expressed their concerns about the threats posed by several terrorist organizations from within Afghanistan, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the danger these groups pose to Afghanistan’s neighboring countries.

Therefore, we are far from taking any steps that would lead to the recognition of the Taliban. Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the Taliban would not be invited to the Moscow meeting due to their lack of ability to form an inclusive government. This may be one of the reasons for the heightened concern of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, including Russia, with whom we have significant political differences.

Hasht-e-Subh: You mentioned that there are reports of international terrorists gathering in many parts of Afghanistan, including ETIM, Tajik fighters, and TTP. You also said that the Taliban are claiming to be fighting against these groups, but there are reliable reports that the Taliban have provided shelter, identity cards, and Afghan passports to some of them. Given this, how concerned are you and the European Union about the future stability and security of Afghanistan and the surrounding region?

Tomas Niklasson: We need to acknowledge that we don’t have much information about what is happening right now. Even intelligence and media reports are not as detailed as they used to be, and this has us worried. Our worries are not about the security of the European Union, its citizens, or its member countries, but rather about the security of Afghans. We have seen ISIS and other terrorist organizations attacking mosques, schools, and other religious places, which is a major cause for concern and should be taken seriously by the Taliban as well. Although Afghan men feel safer travelling around the country due to the improved security of roads, the number of suicide attacks against civilians casts doubt on the Taliban’s claim that they have brought peace and security to the country. 

The second point of concern is the reaction of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, which is also my concern. We have seen direct reactions from some of these countries, such as Pakistan, in response to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Unfortunately, this reaction had disastrous consequences for civilians, even though the civilian casualties in this incident were thought to be supporters of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. It is clear that the security and stability of Afghanistan is linked to the security and stability of the entire region. The best and most effective way to ensure the security and stability of Afghanistan, including the Taliban, is for Afghanistan’s neighbors to feel safe and be able to sleep peacefully at night.

The Taliban must provide assurances to Afghanistan’s neighbors that terrorist groups will not threaten or attack them, as this is a legitimate concern. If this issue is not addressed, it could have a negative impact on Afghanistan’s future security and stability. We hope to see an Afghanistan where people’s rights are respected and they can live in peace. To achieve this, the Taliban must take decisive action against terrorist groups, sever ties with them, deny them access to resources, and take strong measures against them, particularly ISIS.

Hasht-e-Subh: Have you spoken to any of the newly formed groups, such as the National Resistance Front, which are opposing the Taliban? Some opposition parties have accused the European Union of only engaging with the Taliban without taking notice of them.

Tomas Niklasson: Our relations with Afghans are not limited to just the Taliban’s acting ministers. We also communicate with civil society, journalists, businessmen, and human rights defenders. I am speaking to you today from Brussels, where we held a meeting with Afghan women from all over the European Union, North America, and other parts of the world. We heard their perspectives on the situation in Afghanistan. I have spoken to Mr. Ahmad Massoud on several occasions and reminded him that the European Union does not support armed resistance politically or practically. I also shared some of my conversations with Ahmad Massoud with the Taliban to make sure our position is clear.

There are other political groups in addition to the Taliban. In recent weeks and months, former prominent political leaders have launched new initiatives in different parts of the world. I support these initiatives because I believe there needs to be a comprehensive dialogue. Some of these groups may be alternatives to the Taliban, and some may be promising and effective in the future of Afghanistan. However, the European Union should not take the initiative, lead, choose between these groups, or decide or organize anything. We do not want to interfere in what Afghans think is suitable for the future leaders of Afghanistan. This has been attempted before, but was not successful. We are willing to meet with them, talk, and listen to them, but we are not supposed to hold a large conference and introduce an alternative government for Afghanistan.

I have faith in the Afghans, their capabilities, and all that they possess. I am confident that they know who to put their trust in. They are also aware of the needs of their nation. I believe that our role should be to listen rather than taking a stance and backing a particular group of people.

Hasht-e-Subh: Are you saying that there is no chance of a conference similar to the 2001 Bonn International Conference on Afghanistan, happening in the future, even if the European Union or the United Nations were to take the lead?

Tomas Niklasson: I don’t currently see any positive action in this regard. We both know the views on the Bonn Conference, which I was not involved in at the time, but looking back, one thing it lacked was the invitation of the Taliban, who had just been defeated, to the conference. This cannot be the only reason for the Taliban’s return to power, but it could be one of them. Therefore, the selection should be made by Afghans. Is it possible to hold a large international conference? It might be possible! We are currently seeing the formation of several political groups, which we welcome. It will take some time for them to clarify the issues, resolve their differences, and agree on a series of basic principles. I think they should apply to hold such a conference instead of us inviting them from outside.

Hasht-e-Subh: Do the European Union have their own independent policy regarding Afghanistan that is separate from the United States’ policy over the past twenty years? If so, what are the components of this policy?

Tomas Niklasson: The European Union has a well-defined policy towards Afghanistan, which was announced by the EU’s foreign ministers in September of last year. This policy is what we are basing our actions on. It consists of several components, including a long-term commitment to the Afghan people, both politically and financially, as well as humanitarian aid. This aid currently amounts to around 300-350 million euros, a considerable sum. Our policy also involves not isolating Afghanistan, even the Taliban, which means that we are engaging with Afghanistan and not just the Taliban, and that we do not officially recognize the Taliban. Our aid is provided through United Nations agencies, rather than through the current rulers of Afghanistan.

This policy includes cooperation with regional countries and partners such as the United States. It has independent elements that are determined by the foreign ministers of the European Union. Our goals are focused on creating a secure and stable Afghanistan, where peace and reconciliation are achieved, human rights are respected, and an inclusive government is established. These issues and principles are shared by the European Union, the United States, and even Russia and China to some extent.

Our goals are not dictated by the U.S. or any other ally; we work together with them. We have some particular worries, such as immigration, as if the economic and security situation in Afghanistan worsens, there could be a large number of people leaving the country. This would have a greater impact on the European Union than any other country, including the U.S. We may have different approaches, but the U.S. has taken action by freezing a large portion of Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves and imposing sanctions. The U.S. has different methods than the European Union, but we collaborate well together. We both have clear policies too.

Hasht-e-Subh: Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador. Our final question is regarding your stance against armed resistance in Afghanistan. If armed resistance against the Taliban begins to spread, what will be the policy of the European Union in response?

Tomas Niklasson: I said that the European Union did not support armed resistance in Afghanistan. Ultimately, the decision is up to the Afghan people to decide how they want to shape the future of their country and what methods they choose. I do not believe that armed resistance is the only option available to them, nor do I think it will be successful in the short term. We are aware of the consequences of armed resistance, which will be borne by the Afghans. Additionally, I am concerned that if different groups take up arms, it could lead to outside intervention or support from other countries, even those in the region. Armed conflict will only lead to further expansion of the conflict, resulting in internal and regional instability. Ultimately, this is not a moral or individual choice, as the consequences will cause suffering and problems, which I consider to be very dangerous for the security and stability of the region. As I mentioned before, stability in the region and Afghanistan is one of the main goals of our policy.