It’s been nearly two months since the Biden administration’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, and while the unceremonious U.S. exit from America’s “longest war” has largely receded from public view, behind the scenes officials in Washington are still struggling with what, precisely, to do about the country and its new rulers.
Last month, the United States quietly engaged the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, to begin discussions on an array of issues, ranging from the resumption of badly-needed humanitarian aid to the country to the need for the Taliban to refrain from allowing terrorists from reestablishing a foothold in the country, as they had in the past. The United States, of course, reiterated demands that the Taliban respect human rights, especially women’s rights, in the country. And while Administration officials were quick to reassure observers that the talks were “not about granting recognition or conferring legitimacy,” the issue remains an elephant in the room. Yet, as this unstable, adversarial relationship plays out, the United States is liable to find that it has less leverage than it needs to compel the Taliban to change course.
There is an inherent tension between two primary goals of the Taliban. On the one hand, the group hopes to gain international recognition and legitimacy, so that its second attempt at governance doesn’t look like its first, during the 1990s, when it was treated as a pariah by the global community. On the other hand, the Taliban remains committed to building its Islamic Emirate in accordance with its religious ideals, which it sees as having been instrumental to its battlefield and political successes.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen this tension play out in the Taliban’s request to speak at the UN General Assembly, which went ignored. Much of the world, especially the United States and the West, have made it clear: unless the Taliban revise their view on human rights, there will be no such recognition. And without that recognition, the chances of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan gaining economic prosperity and surviving long into the future diminish drastically.
But the Taliban show little interest in compromising on their vision. Since the group took power in Kabul, we have seen women banned anew from Afghan schools, universities, and city governments. Executions have also resumed, as the Taliban once again imposes its draconian version of Islamic law on the country’s population. And all this comes in spite of America’s extensive leverage over the group, including control over $9.5 billion of Afghanistan’s gold and foreign currency reserves, as well as a biting sanctions regime—leverage Washington has attempted to use to get the Taliban to moderate its position or face international isolation.
The Taliban’s intransigence isn’t merely ideological, however. It reflects a savvy recognition by the group that it now has more bargaining power on the world stage than it did in the past.
China is a key reason why. Much has already been made about the burgeoning relationship between the Chinese and the Taliban. There were reports of secret talks in 2018, and this past summer China hosted a delegation of Taliban leaders in Beijing in an early sign that the People’s Republic of China wasn’t prepared to follow the West’s lead in seeking the group’s isolation.
Indeed, such a partnership makes sound strategic sense for Beijing. China is eager to partner with Islamic regimes willing to overlook the systematic genocide of its Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. What’s more, the Chinese government—now engaged in a global expansion via its signature Belt & Road Initiative—would love nothing more than to extract the more than $1 trillion of rare earth metals discovered in Afghanistan by the Navy and the U.S. Geological Survey in the late 2000s and early 2010s. These resources would dramatically increase China’s already significant control of the global supply of key components for high tech equipment needed for the twenty-first-century economy.
Extracting those elements would require significant investments in Afghan infrastructure, which the Taliban are likely to welcome. By leaning on China, the Taliban would be able to pursue international recognition and economic prosperity without sacrificing its core religious values, as twisted as they are.
Nor is China the Taliban’s only potential suitor. The Central Asian states, now focused on boosting regional integration, are eager to establish greater cooperation with Kabul—even if it is under Taliban control. In recent months, Central Asia has seen a slew of high-level summits geared toward increasing trade and collaboration among the countries of the region. Afghanistan has the potential to be an integral part of those discussions, something neither the Central Asian states nor the Taliban are likely to have missed.
The Taliban, then, has long-term options for survival that do not include the United States. Washington, meanwhile, has less leverage over the group’s behavior than it would like to think—especially if it wants to remain a player in regional geopolitics, and avert a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan in the process.
Albert Barro is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.