America Must Understand the Taliban to Change It
By increasing its knowledge of the Taliban’s internal dynamics, the United States will be better positioned to influence Taliban policy.
The Tashkent Conference
With support from non-Western allies like Turkey, Russia, and China, Uzbekistan hosted the Tashkent Conference in July 2022 to address Afghanistan’s security and economic development. With over thirty countries and 125 delegates in attendance, Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev said, “The international isolation of Afghanistan shall inevitably lead to further deterioration of the humanitarian situation. It is important not to allow this since the fate of millions is at stake.” Mirziyoyev’s economic deputy outlined several ongoing bilateral projects, including a proposed trans-Afghan railway and a power transmission line from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan.
The globally-thinking Taliban factions have strong support from the Kandahar Shura to build infrastructure projects with Central Asian, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian private and public investment. Hanif and Badri were instructed to connect Afghanistan with Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, and India, which will inevitably transform markets, open trade opportunities, and fuel investment in the agriculture and energy sectors, thereby radically diversifying the economy. Hanif, Badri, and Baradar are taking the lead in driving Chinese interest in expanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan and developing Afghanistan’s $3 trillion mineral industry. Additionally, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi pledged humanitarian aid and technical and financial support for Afghan farmers at the Tashkent Conference.
U.S. envoys Tom West and Rina Amiri attended the Tashkent Conference and pressed for girls’ education, the return of women to work, and the peace and security of Afghanistan. However, both the Oslo and Tashkent meetings illustrate how over thirty countries are moving ahead in identifying specific economic, security, and infrastructure projects to expand their influence while the United States continues to lag behind in engaging with the Emirate. One and a half years after the U.S. withdrawal, Washington still lacks the appetite for strategic engagement with the Emirate. Without a functioning embassy in Kabul, America has an incohesive “don’t ask” approach to Afghanistan and has yet to define a meaningful diplomatic relationship with leading Taliban officials. Regrettably, this limits opportunities for the United States to demonstrate strong leadership.
Washington must realize that religious-political actors like the Taliban are acutely aware of their value in regional politics; they understand that local governments and global coalitions are seeking them out to counterbalance the weight of violent extremism and build multilateral ties for stability and economic benefits. The key question is whether the Taliban can transform from militia-minded fighters to nation-building technocrats and deliver for Afghanistan.
Engaging With the Emirate
Going forward, the United States can leverage its diplomatic relationship with the Emirate by rapidly increasing its expertise in religion and foreign affairs. For example, in 2012, Secretary of State John Kerry established the Office of Religion and Global Affairs (RGA), which supported American diplomats in understanding the complex, fluid dynamics of religious communities and institutions. Kerry recognized that diplomats needed to factor in these important stakeholders to foster long-term political relationships and security. The office of thirty-eight foreign service and religion experts supported National Security Council directors, the secretary of state’s office, and regional bureaus and other functional areas at the State Department. As a result, the State Department had diverse expertise in the Sunni Islam of Afghanistan and South Asia, the Shia Islam of Iraq and Iran, Buddhism in Myanmar, African traditional religions, various dharma traditions, and the orthodox churches in Ukraine and Russia. Since the de facto termination of the RGA office by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the State Department has lacked the expertise and strategists needed to counsel senior leadership and simultaneously work with religious leaders in the context of fluctuating internal religious, political, and social dynamics.
Instead, under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the State Department shifted its focus to promoting international religious freedom, thereby losing religion experts who knew intricate details of trans-regional networks and understood how complex internal divisions of religious thought have contributed to factionalism or sustained economic interests. RGA’s experts moved beyond trite categories of “moderate,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and “traditional” religious actors, which are meaningless because they do not supply detailed information to help diplomats navigate the complicated landscape of religion, especially in Afghanistan.
Currently, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain—the head of the Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF)—has a team of twenty-five, with only three experts on religion and international affairs. Moreover, IRF staff members mainly do programming activities and plan for the ambassador’s speaking engagements, which prevents them from directly engaging with religious stakeholders to advance U.S. policy priorities. Within the State Department, the IRF office is viewed as the home of “all things religious.” If an American embassy needs a detailed strategic engagement policy for Deobandis in Central and South Asia, they are directed to the IRF office. If an American diplomat in Cairo needs to understand why the local Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church is not aligning with the Russian orthodox demands to isolate Ukrainian churches, they need to go to IRF. The absurdity of eviscerating expertise in religion and global affairs at a time when it is desperately needed exemplifies how American diplomats, policymakers, and strategists are out of step with current foreign policy needs. Melissa Rodgers, the White House’s senior advisor on faith affairs, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are keenly aware of this problematic expertise gap, but they haven’t moved forward in rectifying it.
With respect to Afghanistan, the rise of a religious scholar and Deobandi leader like Mawlawi Akhundzada to a prominent public role highlights the crucial nexus between faith and political actors. The United States needs to define a specific diplomatic strategy to work with leaders like Akhundzada and Yaqoob. Indeed, Washington is lagging behind regional players like Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and China. If the United States is interested in truly diminishing the global threats of Al Qaeda and ISIS-K, it’s far wiser to invest in a well-defined partnership with the Emirate. This will also make the Emirate more likely to make progress in promoting common values such as pluralism, women’s rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and the rights of minorities. The combination of disengagement and a lack of religious experts is handicapping American diplomacy and political leverage in Afghanistan and beyond.
The State Department is crippled without religion and foreign affairs experts to provide judicious policy guidance on religious-political activism and insights into how the Taliban maneuver within social hierarchies. Reinstating experts who can offer analysis on divergent interpretations of Sunni Hanafi Islam within Taliban power structures will improve the State Department’s analysis, especially regarding how the Emirate thinks of governance, finance, law enforcement, global engagement, and policymaking dynamics.
Qamar-ul Huda, Ph.D. is the Michael E. Paul Distinguished Visiting Professor of International Relations at the United States Naval Academy (USNA) and formerly served as a senior policy advisor for the U.S. State Department Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs.