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The Taliban and the West need each other

A Taliban fighter walks past a beauty salon with images of women defaced using spray paint
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CIA Director William Burns’s visit to Kabul last weekend likely targeted not only completion of the evacuation but also future relations between the U.S. and the Taliban. It represents both a candid and pragmatic recognition of the Taliban victory and an urgent statement of the need, on both sides, for the turning of a page and a reset of relations.

Burns went to Kabul to offer the Taliban not a ransom but the terms of a new relationship. White House press secretary Jen Psaki and others insist we cannot trust the Taliban, but the truth is we can. They have kept to their side of the bargain struck with former President Trump, and there is little reason to imagine that they will not keep their word in the future.

In one sense, the barbaric attack on the Kabul airport by ISIS-K may have contributed here too. ISIS-K is an enemy of the Taliban, not just of the West, and the attack was a challenge to their dominance. On the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, the Taliban and the West need each other. We may not know for some time what goodies Director Burns packed in his carry-on bag last weekend, but some of them can be deduced without much difficulty.

The Taliban have now agreed with the U.S. and 97 other countries to allow anyone who wants to leave to do so. That is a direct reversal of what they were saying as recently as a week ago, when they were asking (polite word) their fellow citizens, even or especially those whose skills had been used for the benefit of the foreign occupiers, to stay at home and help to rebuild the new Afghanistan. Now they are saying that anyone who wishes may leave. 

What did Burns offer in return? At the top of the list is access to the $9 billion-plus in Afghan deposits held in foreign banks, mainly in the U.S. Afghanistan needs that money both to buy food and other imports and, more generally, to keep her economy ticking over. The U.S. also controls the World Bank and other international financial institutions. Now more than ever, Afghanistan needs distributions and loans from these sources. A word from Washington and that money will be available.

Next on the list is foreign aid. Western counties are not going to queue up to continue giving the Taliban aid that went formerly to the Ghani regime. But they certainly wish to maintain humanitarian and developmental aid of all sorts, especially anything connected to health and the real possibility of hunger in the country.

The need here is acute on both sides. The Taliban need the help, and western countries know that they cannot stand by and allow the entire Afghan population to suffer. How this happens and whether foreign aid workers will be permitted to operate, among other questions, will call for detailed discussions. But we may be sure that Burns’s visit last weekend initiated those discussions.

Thirdly, the CIA director’s visit offered the Taliban a measure of international acceptance, instead of the near-universal denial of recognition and rejection of the last few weeks. The Taliban need, and also want, such recognition. The Taliban of 2021 are not those of a generation ago. Consistency marks their ideological position today as in the past. But that consistency goes along with a high degree of pragmatism. Now that they have won the war, they can afford to be realistic about how they govern. 

What did Burns get in return for his offer? The U.S., like other countries, is concerned for the future. That future includes ways of dealing with ISIS-K, a task for which the Taliban must be necessary allies. It includes the West’s rivals Russia and China and their burgeoning interest in Afghanistan. They have watched the U.S. collapse with barely concealed delight, and anything the U.S. can do now to restore even a smidgeon of its old position will be reckoned as a success with those competitors in mind.  

The future also includes development of Afghanistan’s vast natural reserves. As we know from the time of the U.S. invasion, that country has a trillion dollars’ worth of rare earth metals and other resources. In all these areas, the Taliban can work with the West.

Burns certainly did not raise these concerns with the Taliban last weekend. He did not need to. His primary need was to resolve the issue of the evacuees and to avoid letting them become hostages. The Taliban for their part did not want to have any major unresolved issues, about possible evacuees or hostages, clouding the beginning of their rule. It suited everyone to sort this issue out quickly and easily. The Taliban also know that they have an interest in better relations with the West. 

Prognostication about Afghanistan is a dangerous game. It is too easy to get it wrong. Most who have tried it have worn the scars ever after. But as Viscount Palmerston pointed out in the 19th century, and Henry Kissinger repeated in the 20th, states do not have permanent friends, they have permanent interests. In flying to Kabul a week ago, Burns certainly had that maxim in mind.

David J. Wasserstein is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University. His most recent book is “Black Banners of ISIS: The Roots of the New Caliphate” (Yale, 2017).

Tags Afghan peace process Afghan Taliban Afghanistan Afghanistan conflict Al-Qaeda Donald Trump ISIS-K Jen Psaki Kabul Taliban offensive War in Afghanistan William Burns

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