Editor’s note: In August, The National Interest organized a symposium on Afghanistan one year after the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban takeover of Kabul. We asked a variety of experts the following question: “How should the Biden administration approach Afghanistan and the Taliban government?” The following article is one of their responses:
The recent killing of Al Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri in a Taliban-Haqqani safehouse in Kabul should give American leaders and allies of the Afghan people a reason to reassess their current policy. If the clear links between the Taliban-Haqqani leadership and Al Qaeda are not enough, policymakers should quickly scan the reports about the deadly and misogynistic system that has been installed by the terror regime in Kabul. The Taliban are not going to change their thinking based on current diplomatic approaches, as this statement from Minister of Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani at the beginning of August made clear.
Fears are baseless and we have established peace in the country and ensured that everyone in Afghanistan is safe and secure… [as] for women’s education people can come to Afghanistan and see themselves that the Islamic Emirate has bestowed on women their rights which were due.
Independent research has assessed that Afghanistan is unsafe for anyone that does not subscribe to the extremist ideology of the regime. Every day, Afghans whom the regime defines as their opposition are murdered without trial, often after enduring brutal torture. Women, girls, former members of the Afghan National Security Forces, and religious or ancestral minorities are at extreme risk. Women and girls are simply objects to the terror regime, stolen and sold or gifted into arranged marriages. The majority are now denied education and economic opportunities.
Along with the increase in terrorist activities in the country, Afghanistan’s economic collapse has led to child malnutrition, organ selling, the collapse of the free press, a cholera outbreak, a growing narco-state, and an increase in suicides. Schools that are open are being converted into Haqqani-style terrorist indoctrination centers to fill the ranks of the terror militias they are forming under the guise of an army and police force. Afghanistan has gone from an economically vibrant and optimistic young democracy to hell on earth.
I was blunt to Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence generals at United States Central Command as the Doha Agreement was being readied for signature in late February 2020. I publicly warned them of the costs of continuing to side with their Taliban-Haqqani puppets and other terrorist groups. They quietly admitted they had lost control of many active and former pro-Islamist-terrorism actors in the Pakistan security sector. They said publicly they would rather partner with China than the United States because China was not barking about human rights. The worst of all outcomes has occurred. Pakistan, a nuclear state, now seems powerless in the face of growing South Asian terrorism and beholden to Chinese financial donors.
As the nuclear arsenals of Pakistan, India, and China continue to increase, the collapse of regional security and the growth of terrorism should not be allowed to continue. There are many techniques that nations, non-governmental organizations, humanitarian groups, intergovernmental organizations, and especially diplomats and intelligence leaders need to rethink now before things get worse. There is a national interest in stopping the meltdown in South Asia using all of the tools in our national security toolbox.
Near-Term Policy Actions
America can start by formally withdrawing from the Doha Agreement due to the broken promises of the Taliban-Haqqani terror regime. They have not lived up to the agreement and there is no reason the United States should abide by any of its constraints. America upheld its promises to the letter and in return, got nothing. Ending this charade of a deal is the penalty that the terror regime has earned. President Donald Trump’s administration refused to withdraw from the Doha deal when the Taliban failed to keep their word. President Joe Biden’s team refused to end the farce when they saw how out of compliance the Taliban were—they just used it as a permission slip to leave, hoping to pass the buck backward onto Trump’s legacy. Two administrations have failed to use diplomacy wisely; Biden cannot pass this madness on to a third.
Next, close the Doha outpost used by the Taliban-Haqqani terrorists as an embassy. Move all international diplomatic activity for Afghanistan either back to Kabul with massive security structures or to Muscat, Oman, Abu Dhabi, or Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Qatar should be removed from the diplomatic efforts entirely since they have utterly failed to aid the Afghan people and have a questionable history with the Taliban terrorists and other regional terrorists and Islamists. It is also very difficult for Westerners to travel in and out of Doha.
It is time to designate the Taliban leaders, that make up half of the current Taliban-Haqqani regime in Kabul, as terrorists. Sanction all members of both terrorist groups and put them all on a travel-ban list. Governments should formally request all of the terrorists in these groups be turned over to face trial for terrorism and war crimes in Europe. Capture or kill orders should be given to the most senior of these terrorists. They should all be worried about facing the same fate that Zawahiri recently did. That, of course, means no nation should be conferring any legitimacy or recognition on the current terror regime.
Nations should identify and sanction key Taliban-Haqqani supporters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These sanctions should cover citizens in both nations and Pakistani government officials. Many have profited from decades of involvement with this terrorist collaboration and will continue to gain from smuggling drugs and Afghanistan’s natural resources if they are not targeted. With the regime fully sanctioned, nations and organizations should increase their humanitarian and development funding towards non-Taliban Afghan civil society, business, and nonprofit efforts that are saving lives. Current humanitarian efforts are not enough to stop the collapse.
The State Department must speed up the evacuation and resettlement of special immigrant visas (SIVs) and at-risk Afghans who are in the pipeline, as well as the tens of thousands the United States left behind in Afghanistan. If security improves in the future these educated Afghans and their families can help America create better relationships with Afghanistan, and many will want to return home. Currently, the volunteers that are doing most of the work to help Afghan refugees are exhausted and need the Biden administration to pick up the load. That means there also needs to be an increase in mental health and financial assistance to Afghan refugees and the volunteers, many of them veterans, that have been saving and sustaining Afghan lives at a heavy cost.
Diplomats should realign their approach to dealing with Afghans to ensure they are listening to a variety of young Afghan voices from inside the country and in the diaspora. They should stop meeting publicly with the Taliban-Haqqani regime and giving the terrorists undeserved legitimacy. Now might be the right time to consolidate all diplomatic efforts behind one envoy that can speak for the large coalition of nations that seek a peaceful and stable Afghanistan with human rights for all. This can decrease the mistakes being made by various diplomatic leaders. It should be someone trusted by the Afghans who are seeking full human rights for all Afghans. The United Nations (UN) and other entities should be pushing to get full access to travel everywhere inside the country and document the massive human rights violations of this regime, especially against women and minority groups frequently targeted by Islamist terrorism.
Diplomats and NGOs should help Afghans prepare for their next government. There is a large cohort of young educated Afghans who spent twenty years living in a democracy and want a better government. They believe the Taliban-Haqqani regime will fail and fall. I wrote earlier this month about what Afghans are doing, and not doing, to prepare for the post-Taliban era, and was immediately contacted by Afghans who were way ahead of me. This is the right moment for diplomats and NGOs to help Afghans coalesce and craft a better vision for their future government that will reduce the corruption and the animosity between Afghanistan and Pakistan that helped to doom their last government.
Diplomats should not continue to engage with the disgraced former senior leaders of the last previous Afghan government. Each country should designate an envoy to the future Afghan government to help them create something better than what the Bonn 2001 efforts did. Soon, there could be a democratic government-in-exile for everyone to interact with—nations should prepare for that opportunity. I urge all involved in this process to ensure women are at the forefront of the creation of the next government. They have shown bravery over the last year that Afghan men and Western elected leaders cannot match.
Long-Term Policy Actions
It is time to rally the UN to declare a humanitarian intervention to save Afghan lives. Based on the rapid collapse of the country’s economic, medical, and justice systems, many believe that Afghans have not reached the bottom of this dark pit yet. If need be, the UN can activate a peacekeeping force to secure key facilities so that critical governance and humanitarian activity can be ramped up. It should consist of Muslim-majority nations’ militaries to decrease any pushback. If this doesn’t happen soon, mass starvation and refugee surges will result.