US engagement with Afghanistan isn’t over — and we need a new policy

Associated Press/Ebrahim Noroozi
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, acting deputy prime minister of the Afghan Taliban’s caretaker government, center, and other Taliban officials attend a ceremony marking the 9th anniversary of the death of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Taliban, in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 24, 2022.

America still has a few tools to support its interests in Afghanistan but using them requires a focus beyond humanitarian relief and politically wishing the issue would disappear. Our interests are easily described: preventing attacks on the U.S. and its allies; supplying food and medical care to Afghans; supporting human rights, especially for women and girls; and facilitating the departure of American citizens and Afghans who worked with our government or directly supported the rights and principles we spent so much to advance.

Significantly, the collapse of the Taliban government would not be in our interest. There is no one to replace them. The old government is gone, its army shattered and its leaders disgraced. The little flares of resistance are unproven militarily and cannot attract support across ethnic lines. A Taliban collapse would lead to chaos and civil war, provide more room for terrorist expansion, cause more human suffering, and greatly complicate the departure of remaining Americans and Afghan allies.     

Yet, a Taliban collapse in the next few years is very possible, brought on by their own failures.  The Taliban cannot pay its civil servants. Its clinics are running out of medicine. Its teachers are unpaid. Its restrictions on women are increasingly resented, and instead of becoming more ethnically and tribally inclusive, it has become more narrowly Pashtun and restrictive. Its relations with its neighbors are bad, even with Pakistan, and internal splits within the movement, while still limited, are beginning to show. These are precisely the conditions that led to the collapse of previous Afghan governments.  

Charting a way forward to U.S. policy is difficult. The Taliban demands assistance and recognition but refuses to cooperate on counterterrorism, or to include significant numbers of non-Taliban or representatives of other non-Pashtun ethnic groups in the government. The Taliban has rejected calls to separate supervision of the banking system from Taliban control (although such separation would allow private money to restart the commercial sector), or to permit girls’ education above sixth grade and female employment without humiliating restrictions. 

There is little indication the Taliban feels under pressure to reverse its decisions. They have ignored unanimous international calls for a more inclusive government and for opening girls’ schools. As humanitarian conditions have worsened, the Taliban has directed resources to its own supporters. Even though formal recognition has been withheld almost universally, Taliban diplomats now travel to Moscow, Beijing, Doha and Islamabad and delegations crisscross the world to meetings and conferences. The U.S. has continued the limited engagement with the Taliban in Doha, begun years ago, but debates how far to broaden its contacts with the Islamic Emirate. Meanwhile, other countries are reopening their embassies in Kabul, muddying the water on what engagement means.

So, what should the U.S. do?

Fundamentally, we must find ways to bring our actions and words into greater alignment. After a lifetime of governments that posture much and explain little, Afghanistan has become used to looking to actions, rather than words, to deduce motive.  

First, if there is no cooperation in counterterrorism, the U.S. should not hesitate to strike where appropriate against al Qaeda or ISIS. 

Second, we should reimpose the travel ban on the Taliban until they reopen girls’ schools. All the protests about rights for girls and women are meaningless without action. Cutting food aid to Afghan civilians is morally unacceptable.

But there is one meaningful action that is within our reach: end the sanctions waiver granted by the United Nations Security Council, which allows the Taliban to travel. It will lapse automatically on June 20 if it is not extended. If progress is made on girls’ education, the Security Council can restore the waiver more easily than complex sanctions can be lifted.      

Third, the U.S. needs a new diplomatic strategy. We must engage more directly with the real Taliban leadership so there are no misunderstandings about what we expect. While we should be grateful to our allies in Doha and elsewhere for their assistance, there is absolutely no substitute for direct, candid talks between Americans and Taliban leaders. If they want us to send a delegation to Kabul, the U.S. should insist on meeting with the Taliban leadership in Kandahar, since it is in doubt whether the ministers in Kabul speak authoritatively for the Taliban’s religious leadership. 

Finally, we should consider how to reopen our diplomatic functions in Kabul without undercutting our other interests or leading the Taliban to believe we will improve relations no matter what they do. The U.S. can do so without recognizing the Taliban, just as it did for years in Cuba, where a U.S. interest section functioned under Swiss “protection.” Most urgently, this would enable the U.S. to provide more effective help to U.S. and Afghan citizens entitled to visas, passports and consular services. It would enable the U.S. to monitor the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It would enable us to have a clearer picture of what is really taking place in Afghanistan.   

But moving to reopen our diplomatic function in Afghanistan without gaining something in return would risk having the Taliban miscalculate American intentions. Reopening a presence should be balanced with more forceful steps such as reimposing the travel ban so that our actions are not misunderstood. 

Anne Patterson, a former assistant secretary for Near Eastern and North African affairs at the Department of State, was U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Colombia, Pakistan and Egypt.

Ronald E. Neumann, a former deputy assistant secretary of State, was U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan. He is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Tags Afghanistan Negotiations between the Taliban and the United States Taliban Treatment of women by the Taliban

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