Engaging with Afghanistan Is in America’s Interests

July 28, 2023 Topic: Afghanistan Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: Silk Road Rivalries Tags: AfghanistanTalibanChinaPakistanIndiaIran

Engaging with Afghanistan Is in America’s Interests

Only through engagement can the United States contribute to a more prosperous and secure Afghanistan while safeguarding its interests.

The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan almost two years ago, in August 2021. Contrary to what some may have hoped, resistance to the Taliban regime remains sporadic at best, and the strongest opposition group is now likely the terrorists of the Islamic State. The Taliban have proven their ability to maintain stable governance over Afghanistan. Since there is no clear alternative to Taliban rule and no will in the United States for another military intervention, working with the new regime to further American interests appears to be the least-worst option.

The Taliban Can Help Against Rivals

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. Every People’s Liberation Army soldier guarding the Afghan border is a soldier unavailable for a military invasion of Taiwan. Conversely, if Washington lets Beijing’s influence dominate Afghanistan, it will help China secure its western borders. A China-aligned Afghanistan will allow Chinese planners to focus on projecting power outward instead of border security.  

Cooperating with the Taliban will also harm China in a more indirect way. Pakistan is a close partner of Beijing, and the two have hostile relations with India. But in recent years, New Delhi has become a key U.S. partner for containing China in the Indo-Pacific region. Meanwhile, U.S.-Pakistan relations worsened significantly since the 2010s. Hence, by pressuring India, Pakistan is a hindrance for Washington. The more Islamabad is free to focus its energy against New Delhi, the less New Delhi can focus on pushing back Beijing.   

Although Pakistan has armed and funded the Afghan Taliban since its creation in 1994, the two have had a falling out since the takeover of Kabul. Border disputes along the Durand Line poison the bilateral relationship, leading to deadly skirmishes. Furthermore, Islamabad resents the new regime’s lack of help in fighting the Pakistani Taliban.

This brewing conflict opens a historic opportunity for the United States. 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. That would be a win for the United States, as the Indians would have more forces available to counterbalance China.

As seen through recent deadly border clashes, Iran-Taliban relations are similarly contentious. The Taliban follows a fundamentalist, Sunni interpretation of Islam, while Iran is predominantly Shia. During the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan from 1996–2001, Tehran opposed the treatment of the Shia minority and supported the Northern Alliance, an opposition group to the Taliban. The Iranians also probably fear that Kabul will partner with the Gulf powers, thus threatening their rear. 

Engaging Afghanistan can help Washington further its objectives regarding Iran, both for negotiation and containment purposes. 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. Iran’s domestic political and economic situation is already difficult, and it is increasingly wary of its northern neighbors. Turkey now occupies parts of northern Iraq and Syria, and the Iranians have a growing antagonism with Azerbaijan; they do not want a strong, hostile Afghanistan rising on their eastern border. Hence, if entente with Iran appears impossible, Kabul would become a valuable partner to counterbalance Iranian power throughout the Middle East. 

Now that the United States has withdrawn from Central Asia, Kabul has little to fear from Washington. The Taliban fully understand that American planners are overwhelmingly focused on great power competitors like China and Russia and have no bandwidth left to attack their regime. Meanwhile, Kabul has to contend in its immediate neighborhood with hostile Iran and Pakistan, a rising China, and a lurking Russia. Distant America is thus a partner of choice for this weak state surrounded by actual or potential threats.

Fighting Trafficking and Terrorism

Other benefits would come from working with the Taliban: it is the most straightforward and efficient way to fight terrorism in Afghanistan. The Taliban themselves never participated in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. They are now the only sizable force present on the ground and have proven their ability to contain terrorism. Since they seized power, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their consorts have been unable to reestablish sanctuaries.

For instance, in July 2020, before the fall of the Ghani government, the United Nations reported that Al Qaeda had between 400 and 600 fighters in the country. In June 2023, the UN assessed that Al Qaeda had fewer than 400 fighters and 60 senior officials in Afghanistan, and the U.S. intelligence community believes this figure to be overinflated. Contrary to what some feared, no resurgence of Al Qaeda occurred under the Taliban regime.

Indeed, some discreet cooperation against terrorism between Kabul and Washington is already ongoing. A journalist  reported for Foreign Policy that “U.S. and Afghan security and diplomatic sources say the United States relies on intelligence provided by the Taliban.” While the Taliban are capable of holding their own against terrorist groups, other, far more worrying nests of terrorism exist in the failed states throughout the Middle East and Africa.

The Taliban government can also help fight disruptive drug trafficking. The West has long worried about Afghanistan’s role as a leading producer of opioids, fueling the use of illicit drugs. In 2022, Kabul banned the cultivation of poppy from which opium is extracted. The ban was highly effective, and production collapsed. Other opium-producing countries may ultimately replace the loss, but it is still a step in the right direction. Since the ban will likely destabilize the already troubled Afghan economy, establishing normal economic relations with Kabul will encourage the Taliban to remain on track.

What Should the United States Do?

Concerns about engaging with the Taliban regime are understandable, given its history of violence and repressive rule. Critics may argue that America should not legitimize or endorse the regime. However, one must distinguish engagement from endorsement. By engaging with the Taliban government, the United States can gain economic and diplomatic leverage to hold them accountable in case of mischief and push for meaningful reforms. Over the long run, engaging Kabul may even urge respect for human rights and foster a more inclusive Afghan society. Isolation and sanctions only marginalize pro-Western voices and embolden extremist elements. On the other hand, engagement would allow the United States to make gains regionally and globally at little cost.

Washington should prioritize three courses of action. First, it must help stabilize the Afghan economy to strengthen the country over the long run. A costless policy is to give Afghanistan back its billions of dollars of financial assets held in the United States and elsewhere. Ending the sanctions is also crucial, as they did little to shake the Taliban’s rule and only harmed the Afghan people.

Second, even small-scale military assistance would significantly bolster Afghanistan. The Taliban’s military maintains large quantities of U.S.-provided weaponry, sometimes even using them in skirmishes against Iran. As time passes and wear and tear do their work, Kabul will find it harder to keep this equipment operational. Washington should thus allow U.S. defense companies to sustain American weaponry there and furnish new ones if necessary. Furthermore, encouraging the Afghans to use U.S. equipment will create a path dependency for the Taliban, offer additional leverage, and keep them away from Chinese and Russian defense industries. 

Third, establishing normal diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime would further U.S. interests. Exchanging embassies would promote trade and investment in Afghanistan and persuade likeminded international partners to do the same. It would also facilitate cooperation to fight terrorism and crime. 

Only through engagement can the United States contribute to a more prosperous and secure Afghanistan while safeguarding its interests.

Dylan Motin is a Ph.D. candidate majoring in political science at Kangwon National University. He was previously a Marcellus Policy Fellow at the John Quincy Adams Society and a visiting research fellow at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies. His research focuses on balance-of-power theory, great power competition, and Asian affairs.

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