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:
On August 15, 2021, the Taliban returned to power after two decades of fighting the United States, NATO, and Afghan National Security Forces. As the United States began withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban touted their hard-won victory and replaced a newly installed democratic system with a totalitarian, extreme, and hard-core religious ideology. These actions have changed the country drastically and failed to address the fragile security issues that existed and continue to worsen.
The first year of Taliban rule has been repressive, defined by humanitarian and economic crises, curtailed individual rights, and plundered women’s rights. The implementation of new rules has further silenced progressive Afghans in an attempt to create a closed society. As Afghanistan falls further into poverty, radicalization, and severe human rights abuses, the emerging insurgency and reorganization of terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, pose serious security threats to the region and the West. There are rising concerns that these insurgent groups may soon carry out large-scale attacks if the existing crises are not taken seriously.
The Taliban’s track record, internal factions, and close ties with transnational terrorist groups have given pause to other countries. Until now, no country has recognized the Taliban government. This lack of validation has left two strong messages in its wake. First, the Taliban are inept at creating a government that can address the Afghan people’s basic needs, rights, and dignity. Second, the Taliban’s rule has emboldened transnational terrorist organizations. These factors highlight the foreign policy implications that need to be prioritized by the U.S. government.
The Taliban takeover has emboldened terrorist groups and provided a safe haven for their reorganization. Prominent terrorist groups include Al Qaeda, which poses a direct threat to U.S. security and has close ties with the Taliban; Tehrek-Taliban Pakistan, an alliance of militant networks with historically close ties to Al Qaeda; Jamaat Ansarullah, an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization in Tajikistan; and the Haqqani Network, which has ties to Al Qaeda and is one of the most lethal and sophisticated insurgent groups. According to a recent United Nations (UN) report, since the Taliban’s takeover, Al Qaeda has consolidated power in Afghanistan and has been actively operating inside the country. The report highlighted that the increased comfort and communication of senior leaders of Al Qaeda coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. The primary concern is that providing a safe haven could increase opportunities for terrorists to mobilize internally and externally.
The U.S. counterterrorism operation that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul last month was a huge success for U.S. intelligence. As a senior leader, Zawahiri provided strategic guidance and cohesion to the Al Qaeda network and played a significant role in the radicalization of jihadists. However, his presence in Afghanistan confirms the UN report’s claims regarding Al Qaeda’s reorganization under Taliban rule and the close ties between the two groups. It also indicates that the terrorism threat is extremely urgent.
Hosting and providing a safe space to Zawahiri is a clear violation of the Doha Agreement, signed in February 2020 by U.S. and Taliban representatives. By breaching the agreement, the Taliban have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to engage in counterterrorism cooperation. The United States should also not assume that terrorist threats have been eliminated with the death of Zawahiri. The former Al Qaeda leader leaves behind a strong network that has the potential to promote terrorism and jihadism in Afghanistan. Under Taliban rule, Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups have the potential to become sources of political instability and emerging insurgencies. As they continue to grow and increase their capacity to organize, insecurity will not be confined to Afghanistan. Establishing a monitoring and enforcement body to track the safe havens of such groups and individuals could prevent them from expanding.
The Taliban’s primary goal is to impose their interpretation of Sharia law and hinder Afghan society’s ability to think critically. During the first few months of Taliban rule, they silenced progressives, detained journalists and women protestors, and imposed restrictions on women’s participation in the workforce, politics, and travel. This has instilled fear, limited people’s freedom, dignity, rights, and political participation, and threatened the growth and development of Afghan society. The Taliban’s totalitarian and ideologically-driven institutions will galvanize the radical elements of society to strengthen and organize themselves while creating a movement against inclusion, diversity, freedom, and women’s emancipation. Such forces within a society can boost hatred against all “others” who are ideologically different or stand in opposition. Under these conditions, individuals risk being radicalized by jihadist ideologies—backed by terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda—and resorting to violent extremism.
Meanwhile, the Taliban’s Pashtun-led militancy continues to exclude other ethnic groups from government leadership positions. This can strengthen resistance and personalized grievances ranging from ethnic bias and ideological differences to anti-authority sentiment. Rising resistance, increased security threats, and the spillover of violence could cause regional countries to finally intervene by financing or providing weaponry to support resistance movements. The different factions within the Taliban seem to reflect their strong ties with the groups and countries backing them. The foreign elements that provide direction to the Taliban and the strategic interests of different regional countries supersede Afghanistan’s national interests.
The Political Process
The Taliban’s rise to power through the use of force rather than a political process has left the majority of the population without representation. Ethnic groups and religious communities not aligned with the Taliban’s ideology have been sidelined. The Taliban’s extremely restrictive policies against women’s rights and freedoms have deprived half of the population of political participation. Preventing meaningful female representation in politics and institution-building is both repressive and dictatorial, and the structures and processes currently in place cannot provide people with their rights or basic needs. This current political structure needs to be replaced through processes and conditions that allow people to see their identity and dreams realized in the country of their citizenship and enable progressive and critical ideas to emerge and be nurtured.
To address these issues and replace the Taliban-installed ideology and institutions, there needs to be a new political process to facilitate dialogue between different parties and community representatives. This process should include women, progressive classes of people, technocrats, business communities, rights-based communities, and political parties. Exploring alternatives, settling differences, and finding a way to political settlement and reconciliation must be front and center. Despite the failure of similar efforts, there is less appetite for such a process to be initiated by the West, the UN, and regional countries. However, without a political process, the deep-rooted causes of the current political instability and security crisis may never be addressed.
The United States needs to consider these factors related to human rights abuses, terrorism, radicalization, and nation-building and develop a policy of conditional engagement with the Taliban. If the United States continues to engage with the Taliban without asking for anything in return, it will empower the current totalitarian system and strengthen the basis for Taliban dictatorship. Such a dictatorship would be hard to dismantle, especially in the case of direct or dire threats. De-escalation is needed and requires the following swift actions:
First, the United States should focus on identifying, disrupting, and dismantling terrorist threats by strengthening a monitoring and enforcement body. This would allow the United States to closely monitor the Taliban’s strategic and financial ties and communications with transnational terrorist organizations currently based in Afghanistan. The United States can also expand its intelligence apparatus in Afghanistan to track the safe havens of such groups and individuals and prevent them from expanding.
Second, the United States should not support the extension of a travel ban exemption. The Taliban are not a recognized government, and despite their commitment to international platforms, the Taliban’s track record on human rights abuses and women’s rights violations has not changed or softened. Their blatant actions and retaliation against girls’ secondary education, women’s right to work, and inclusive political participation mean they should not be provided international platforms until they fulfill their promises. As indicated by an expert closely following the travel ban exemption, “allowing the Taliban to travel outside Afghanistan … represents the creeping normalization of international relations with a regime.” A travel ban would show that there are consequences for not fulfilling their obligations.
Third, the United States should continue to support and address the humanitarian and economic crisis without strengthening or legitimizing the Taliban. To accomplish this, the United States should support the implementation of a monitoring mechanism in coordination with donor countries, UN agencies, and local humanitarian organizations that are actively engaged on the ground. This will ensure that ongoing humanitarian assistance is people-centered and supports the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan.