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Afghanistan: To Engage or not to Engage?
Things are getting worse, but the Taliban stands to benefit from solutions
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It’s been nearly two years since the fall of Kabul, and since then the Taliban has been unambiguous in its approach to governance. Any hopes people had of a kinder, gentler Taliban in its second go around have long been dashed.
The Taliban is as hardline, oppressive, intolerant, and ruthless as they were when they governed from 1996-2001, if not more so. Early rhetoric that women would fare better today than during Taliban 1.0 was nothing more than talk.
Since taking over, the Taliban has undone all that the international community did in 20 years to advance the rights, status, and opportunities for women in Afghanistan.
Here’s the state of play in Afghanistan today based on information from the U.S. Institute of Peace and the United Nations.
Women are banned from: attending universities; working for international non-governmental organizations; working for the United Nations; working in certain professions, such as serving as flight attendants; obtaining a driver’s license; running bakeries in Kabul.
Furthermore, women working in the media or medical sector must cover their faces. They are required to have an escort to travel long distances in Afghanistan or to leave the country. Some provinces have even more restrictions preventing women from going to restaurants or health centers.
The overall humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate.
According to mid-year UNICEF reporting posted in July, the number of Afghans in need of humanitarian assistance increased to 29.2 million in May compared to 28.3 million in January. And there has been a 31 percent increase in the number of children suffering from severe wasting in the first half of 2023 compared to the same period last year.
There are regular reports of the Taliban committing human rights abuses and executions. Former members of the Afghan security forces and others who cooperated with the international community are targeted and in danger.
Any hope of an internal resistance movement rising up and taking on the Taliban is gone. The only significant challenge to the Taliban is from ISIS-K—or ISIL-K as the United Nations calls the Afghanistan-based faction of the terrorist group. And the terrorism picture in Afghanistan is not good, according to the June 1, 2023 Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team report to the UN Security Council.
There are indications that al-Qaida is rebuilding operational capability, that [the Pakistani Taliban] TTP is launching attacks into Pakistan with support from the Taliban, that groups of foreign terrorist fighters are projecting threat across Afghanistan’s borders and that the operations of ISIL-K are becoming more sophisticated and lethal (if not more numerous).
The report estimates there are 30 to 60 core al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and some 400 fighters. ISIS-K has 4,000 to 6,000 fighters, including family members, and that includes Afghans and people from Azerbaijan, Iran, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Turkey, Central Asian countries, and a small number of Syrians.
The report continued:
While the Taliban publicly insists there are no foreign terrorist groups in Afghanistan other than ISIL-K, Member States reported approximately 20 groups operating in the country, enjoying freedom of movement under the Taliban’s protection and the General Directorate of Intelligence’s oversight. Member States assessed these groups as a serious threat to the region.
Of course, the Taliban was not in compliance with the 2020 deal it signed with the Trump administration regarding its obligations that it “will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
President Biden had every right under the flimsy agreement to declare the Taliban was not in compliance, and therefore the United States did not have to withdraw its troops as stipulated under the agreement. But there’s no point relitigating that now.
Bottom line, terrorists are in Afghanistan, some with the knowledge, consent, and support of the Taliban. The so-called “over-the-horizon” approach to counterterrorism has not been successful in keeping terrorists out of Afghanistan or seeing it as a haven from which to operate.
So, to sum up we have a brutal regime that resembles U.S. ally Saudi Arabia—oops, quiet part out loud—a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, and a growing terrorism problem.
What’s the solution?
There is no shortage of opinions and arguments coming from the international affairs community. The point of paralysis basically comes down to the concern that measures to support the Afghan people—providing more humanitarian and economic assistance and unfreezing Afghan assets—and counterterrorism cooperation would reward and enrich the Taliban, confer legitimacy on a despicable regime, and potentially benefit some terrorist groups.
Because of that quandary, the United States has continued with a Cuba-style approach—sanctions and a hard line against the regime that demands significant political reforms/concessions before there is any relief. Of course, that policy—largely driven by a small community of Cuban exiles in the United States—has accomplished little more than to transfer pain onto the Cuban people.
And in the last two years, the Taliban has only become more hardline and abusive toward the Afghan population, and it has allowed the terrorism problem to grow despite international sanctions and the refusal of most of the world to recognize the regime. So, the current approach doesn’t seem to be achieving objectives.
In the meantime, the international community has struggled to meet the aid demands in Afghanistan and avoid enriching the Taliban at the same time. Unfortunately, as is the case in Syria and other humanitarian crises, it’s impossible to deliver large amounts of aid without some of it being siphoned off or otherwise taxed by members of the regime that’s causing the humanitarian crisis, hence some of the resistance to pump more aid into Afghanistan.
Many in the humanitarian community argue the solution is to deal with the regime in the interests of saving lives and alleviating suffering of the nearly 30 million people—75 percent of the population—in need of assistance.
The International Crisis Group’s Graeme Smith (a friend from my time in Afghanistan) and Delaney Simon voiced the moral argument in Foreign Affairs back in December.
More sanctions will not change the minds of Taliban leaders, who for decades endured not only financial restrictions but also bombardment and night raids. In fact, sanctions give the most conservative Taliban leaders what they want: freedom from the foreign influences they fear are sources of corruption and moral decay.
He called for greater economic engagement with Afghanistan and investment in development, in particular completing infrastructure projects that the international community sank billions into during the conflict.
Donor countries do not need to normalize relations with the Taliban or refrain from criticizing their governance or human rights record, but they will need to set aside their reluctance to deal with a Taliban-controlled state. The rich countries that sent armed forces to Afghanistan in pursuit of their own security interests should feel a sense of duty about helping repair the country—and recognize that it is in their interest to do so, not least to contain security threats.
In a recent article in the National Interest, Dylan Motin (who I do not know), proposed a realist foreign policy argument.
Engaging with Kabul could improve America’s position against its rivals, primarily China. A U.S.-sympathetic Afghanistan will encourage China to bolster its defenses in the areas bordering Afghanistan. This additional military burden would be relatively light for Beijing, but it is a low-hanging fruit and an inexpensive win for Washington.
If Washington can help build a strong and stable Afghanistan, Pakistan will have to maintain significant forces to defend its western border. Islamabad will have fewer capabilities to challenge India in its east.
If the United States wants to reach an agreement with Iran to freeze its nuclear and missile programs and scale down its regional ambitions, a friendly Afghanistan would become a bargaining chip and additional leverage to pressure Tehran.
While those points are rational, I think two of his three recommendations are beyond reason and are non-starters. Unfreezing Afghanistan’s assets in the interests of boosting the economy is consistent with what many experts have been advocating, but his calls to provide military assistance to the Taliban and establish normal diplomatic relations? Not going to happen.
There’s not a lot of appetite for softening U.S. policy toward the Taliban among powerful people on the Hill, as demonstrated in a July 21 letter from Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Since taking power, the Taliban have only worsened their behavior despite U.S. engagement. Today, the Taliban continues to take Americans hostage, disrupt humanitarian assistance efforts, appoint al-Qaeda officials to government positions, and enforce increasingly draconian rules on women and girls, such as barring them from receiving an education above the sixth grade. The U.S. must lead the international community in demanding reforms, not normalizing the Taliban’s regime.
And authors (including a former deputy chief of mission in Kabul) of a recent op-ed in The Hill also advocated a continued hard line.
We must do everything possible to keep and strengthen the biggest international policy tool we have: targeted, worldwide, U.N.-administered sanctions against Taliban leaders, imposed on the grounds that their actions are a threat to international peace and security.
Again, sanctions haven’t accomplished anything positive in Afghanistan, just as sanctions against Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Russia haven’t changed the behaviors of those regimes. The Taliban hasn’t reached a point where it needs sanctions relief to the point it’s willing to make concessions.
So, it’s likely going to be a while before there is consensus on how to move forward with Afghanistan. That means muddling along with the humanitarian response, which has only grown more complicated with the ban on women working for international organizations and the war in Ukraine, which is competing for resources and driving up food prices.
In terms of counterterrorism, options are limited.
Seth Jones with the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in April 2022 one of the few rational, actionable strategies I have seen for how to address the terrorism threat in Afghanistan.
He rules out partnering with the Taliban on fighting ISIS-K—even though we know there has been some cooperation on that front—because it would involve providing more arms and capabilities to the Taliban that it would then share with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups the Taliban supports.
The current “over-the-horizon” approach has been inadequate. Other than the strike against al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, the strategy hasn’t stopped the flow of terrorists into Afghanistan and the overall growing problem.
Jones argues for having the CIA partner with local forces/groups in Afghanistan as it has in the past to gather intel. Second, he calls for negotiating with countries in the region to provide bases for U.S. assets. This has been one of the challenges of over-the-horizon operations is the fact that the current U.S. bases in the broader region are too far to facilitate regular overflight of Afghanistan and quick and frequent operations.
Third, Jones calls for more investment in over-the-horizon assets like the MQ-9B drone to conduct more robust counterterrorism operations.
Essentially, what Jones is calling for is a scaled-down version of U.S. counterterrorism approaches in some African and other Middle Eastern states. Unfortunately, the track record on those operations is mixed with terrorism continuing to grow in many places, and U.S. partner forces using weapons and training to carry out coups like the one taking place in Niger.
However, Jones isn’t advocating for training and equipping forces in Afghanistan, which would be a dangerous move.
So, here we are. Almost two years after the fall of Kabul and there are no good options for Afghanistan. This is why I expect in the coming weeks there will be much written that is backward looking—articles criticizing policy decisions in Afghanistan and partisan blame games about who failed. Republicans will blame Biden for a disastrous withdrawal. Democrats will blame Trump for signing a terrible withdrawal agreement.
It's easy to cast shade on 20 years of failed policies and operations. It’s a lot harder to solve a major humanitarian and security crisis. I think an incremental approach that combines Jones’s counterterrorism recommendations with Smith and Simon’s humanitarian proposals is the best that can be hoped for right now.