The United States Should Welcome Regional Engagement with Afghanistan

The United States Should Welcome Regional Engagement with Afghanistan

Reducing the threat of extremism and terrorism, limiting the spread of narcotics, and expanding trade routes require cooperation between the United States and its partners in Central Asia.


Afghanistan's situation has worsened since the U.S.-led coalition withdrew from the country in 2021. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the country remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in 2023. Almost half of its population—23 million people—received assistance from the World Food Programme last year. Two-thirds of the country’s population is food insecure, including 875,000 children facing acute malnutrition. The security situation is not much better. According to a U.S. military assessment, Afghanistan has once again become a significant coordination site for radical militants. There has been a rise in terrorist groups such as ISIS-K and Al Qaeda, which threaten stability in Afghanistan and create concern that terrorist activity may soon spread beyond its borders.

Despite these threats, Afghanistan has largely disappeared from the media and is no longer considered a major priority for the United States and its allies. However, disengaging from the issue of Afghanistan would be a mistake. Instead, Washington and its allies in the West should cooperate with Central Asian countries to reintegrate Afghanistan into regional economic and security structures and ensure the country’s stability and development. In the medium to long term, this would support the interests of the United States. There are several reasons for this.


Firstly, stability in Afghanistan will reduce the spread of terrorism and extremism. The United States knows all too well the destruction that terrorist organizations can cause around the world and the financial burden of combatting their threat. Brown University’s Cost of War Project estimated that the United States spent over $8 trillion on the War on Terror. The global terrorism threat has largely subsided recently, particularly in Western countries, yet an unstable Afghanistan could lead to a resurgence of terrorist activity. Organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIL have yet to regenerate formidable external attack capabilities, but they have been growing in strength in some areas of Afghanistan. It is therefore paramount to stamp out this threat before it expands. The economic development of Afghanistan, which would create legitimate job opportunities and take millions out of poverty, would also stem the influence of terrorist organizations over the Afghan population.

Secondly, an economically secure and viable Afghanistan would facilitate the war on drugs in the country. This issue impacts the whole world as most of Afghanistan’s illicit drugs are exported abroad, with some reaching American shores. When the Taliban took over in 2021, Afghanistan produced 85 percent of the world’s opium. However, the de facto government has proved exceptionally successful in its own war on drugs. Afghan poppy production has plummeted by an estimated 80 percent in the last year.

This is welcome news. However, given the state of Afghanistan’s economy and the country’s humanitarian situation, a successful war on drugs could create new problems. The total value of Afghanistan's opium production in 2021 lay between $1.8 to $2.7 billion, up to 14 percent of the country's GDP. Unless the government can find other means of sustaining its economy, the temptation to restart drug production and trade will be high. In addition, unless the narcotics industry workforce can find alternative job opportunities, they will likely return to the illicit sector. This would harm every country where Afghan narcotics flow, including the United States. Furthermore, the Taliban’s ban on poppy farming could stimulate an outflow of refugees looking for work. Europe, which is already struggling to deal with a refugee crisis, would certainly be a viable destination. In the short term, humanitarian aid can prevent this situation. But in the long term, emphasis should be placed on rural development and growing an economy that can generate lawful jobs and opportunities.

Kazakhstan, the largest country in Central Asia, both geographically and economically, is ready to work with the United States to support Afghanistan’s development and regional integration. Most Central Asian countries have pursued a strategy based on the assumption that cooperation and engagement with Afghanistan, particularly in the economic sphere, will promote stability. That’s why Kazakhstan has provided humanitarian aid to the Afghan people and developed bilateral trade and economic links. Afghanistan and Kazakhstan achieved a trade turnover of nearly $1 billion over the past year, a two-fold increase compared to the year before. Kazakh exports to Afghanistan make up $978 million of that amount. We aim to reach $3 billion in mutual trade within several years.

Such progress in bilateral trade can contribute to increased regional connectivity, as well as the improvement of supply chains and energy routes. While the Central Asian region stands to gain the most from this, the United States and its allies would benefit as well. Last year, the Biden administration launched the Economic Resilience Initiative in Central Asia to catalyze economic growth across the region, expand alternative trade routes, increase shipping capacity and enhance infrastructure along Trans-Caspian trade routes. Afghanistan can play a key role here. A glance at the map shows that Afghanistan is a bridge connecting Central Asia, India, and the Persian Gulf, enabling access to Pakistan’s seaports of Karachi and Gwadar, then to India, the Middle East, and Africa.

That’s why Kazakhstan has supported the initiative to build the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar Railway, facilitating uninterrupted interregional cooperation between Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Just recently, Kazakhstan sent several trucks on a new trade route to Pakistan through Afghanistan, covering a distance of 4,000 kilometers. The United States has an interest in the creation of new supply chains and trade routes crisscrossing Eurasia. Integration of Afghanistan would significantly advance this process.

Importantly, the Taliban have confirmed Afghanistan’s readiness to act as a trade corridor and become a participant in international and regional business dealings. Their senior government representatives voiced this during the recent Kazakh-Afghan business forum in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital. The United States should make use of this window of opportunity.

During recent talks with the Taliban, Washington representatives confirmed that the United States is open to discussions on economic stability and continued dialogue on counternarcotics. This is a move in the right direction. We also welcome the fact that the United States raised the issue of women’s rights with the Taliban, as Kazakhstan supports the protection of the rights and freedoms of women in Afghanistan. The next step should be for the United States to work with Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries to reintegrate Afghanistan into the regional economic structures. This will reduce the threat of extremism and terrorism, limit the spread of narcotics, and expand alternative trade routes—objectives that are in the common interest of Central Asia and the United States.

Talgat Kaliyev is Ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan.

Image: Shutterstock.