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:
President Joe Biden is not to blame for all of America’s blunders in Afghanistan, but he could help decide whether we learn from them. We may not discover the conclusions of Congress’ independent Afghanistan War Commission until 2025, but we have an overabundance of damning revelations by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), not to mention accusations of intelligence failures, interagency finger-pointing and distrust, and policy inertia within America’s national security institutions, to sort through. By taking charge of such an autopsy, the Biden administration can deftly redirect criticism from how America’s war in Afghanistan ended to what really matters: how the United States squandered twenty years, $2.31 trillion, and nearly 2,500 American lives on what General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ultimately dubbed a “strategic defeat.”
Such a wide-reaching post-mortem will be difficult, but it is long overdue. In fact, as part of its efforts to support human rights and rectify U.S. wrongs, the Biden administration should boldly examine contentious matters like the U.S. military’s record of errant airstrikes on civilians across the Middle East—which a New York Times investigation found was “marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children”—and rampant problems with the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program. Both are moral stains on America, and the Biden administration should act swiftly to protect civilians and reduce delays in the SIV’s application process, clear its applicant backlog, and help the Afghans who are under threat for supporting the U.S. war effort.
While pursuing accountability in America, Biden must also course correct his policy toward Afghanistan. For the past year, the Biden administration has been holding $7 billion of the Afghan central bank’s reserves hostage in an attempt to coerce the Taliban into liberalizing. Yet this U.S. effort to change the group’s behavior has failed. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ acting secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan assessed that, over the past year, the Afghan economy has contracted by 30-40 percent and unemployment has nearly tripled. 97 percent of Afghans could be living in poverty by the end of the year. The Afghan people—many of whom came to support the Taliban after two decades of war—must not be made to suffer for the Taliban’s crimes.
The Taliban is no friend to the United States, but Afghanistan could be run by more dangerous leaders. Indeed, we should remember that while the Taliban was upholding its promise to not attack withdrawing U.S. troops, Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) killed thirteen American service members in August 2021. At the time, Biden said of ISIS-K, “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” Biden’s ire is well warranted. According to a July 20 report from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, ISIS-K was responsible for “the majority” of the 2,106 civilian casualties that the mission recorded between August 2021 and mid-June 2022. Likewise, U.S. defense officials warned in March 2022 that ISIS-K could develop the capability to attack the United States and its allies within “twelve to eighteen months, but possibly sooner if the group experiences unanticipated gains.”
In contrast to ISIS-K, the Taliban is an entity the United States can tolerate. This is true even after the CIA tracked down and assassinated Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a Taliban safehouse in Kabul. After the United States located and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, Obama administration officials chose to sustain their partnership with Islamabad despite acknowledging that U.S.-Pakistani ties were “complicated.” The same can be true of U.S. relations with the Taliban. The precision strike on Zawahiri was exceptional—not only for the fact that no civilians were harmed but also in that the Al Qaeda leader was so oblivious to the threat to his life. Al Qaeda’s next leader will be less likely to unwind alone on his balcony.
The Zawahiri strike showed that Biden’s “over the horizon” counterterror strategy can work in practice, but it is evident that it will not always go so smoothly. U.S. intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan took a hit after the U.S. withdrawal, and the CIA’s highly-targeted hunt for terrorist leaders is unlikely to be replicated against the extremist rank-and-file who are dangerous but less notorious. The United States will need the Taliban’s assistance to manage the extremists in its midst. There are incentives and a track record for such cooperation. President Biden himself noted in August 2021 that the Taliban had been “useful to work with” during Washington’s exit; General Milley later affirmed that the United States and the Taliban could cooperate against ISIS-K: “In war, you do what you must in order to reduce risk.”
If the Biden administration leans on the Taliban in the fight against international terror, it will not be alone in doing so. Indeed, Afghanistan will remain a more urgent concern for its neighbors than for the United States. Many of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including China, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia, among others, share the Taliban’s enmity for ISIS-K and have pressed Kabul to crack down on international terrorists. The United States would be better served by trying to influence the Taliban from within, rather than from without, and could leverage its close relationship with countries like Turkey and Qatar—who maintain diplomatic relations with Kabul and have urged Western engagement with the Taliban—to manage tensions and make incremental gains. Washington’s Afghanistan policy should promote regional security and integration, as any upheaval within the war-torn country will not remain contained for long.
Adam Lammon is Executive Editor at the National Interest and Fellow in Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. He tweets @AdamLammon.