With winter and starvation looming in Afghanistan, and uncertainty over terrorist threats there growing, it is time for the Biden administration to lead an international effort to cut a deal with the Taliban. We should insist on at least minimal standards for women and minority rights, as well as some travel and press freedoms, in exchange for diplomatic recognition and some limited degree of economic assistance. There must also be dialogue and information sharing on the terrorist threat from Afghanistan, even if the Taliban will not actively collaborate with us against extremists.
The politics of this idea may be unappealing to a Biden administration still reeling from the August debacle, captured by television for all the world to see, in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan. But this is a manageable risk. After all, whether rightly or not, most Americans agreed with President Joe Biden’s decision to pull out U.S. (and, therefore, all NATO/foreign) forces this year.
Moreover, there has been an important benefit to the rapidity of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan—relatively little violence, compared with past years as well as the expectations of many for an intensifying civil war. Yet any such silver lining is at dire risk due to the humanitarian situation. With the UN World Food Program and Food and Agricultural Organization both estimating that some 20 million Afghans are in serious danger of food shortages, it is entirely possible that hundreds of thousands of Afghans could die of starvation or famine-related disease this upcoming winter. Such losses would dwarf the rates of violence from the civil war.
We cannot and will not get all we want from the Taliban government. Already, it has refused to broaden its leadership ranks to create the inclusive regime it promised. Some revenge killings have occurred. Women have been removed from all higher ranks of government offices, denied access to higher education and to workspaces; restrictions have been placed on their apparel. Many fear to move about freely. Media have been curtailed, as has travel in and out of the country.
Although NATO and its democratic Afghan allies were defeated in the war, not all is lost. We have considerable leverage if we will use it correctly. So far, the Taliban has not gained access to diplomatic recognition, or to the international bank coffers of the Afghanistan government. The Biden administration has recently agreed to provide more humanitarian assistance through UN agencies, increasing total U.S. assistance to almost one-half billion dollars this year. But even with this aid, health clinics are shutting down while Covid-19 continues to ravage the country, money supplies are inadequate, and food stocks are low after a serious drought and bad harvest in much of the land. The Taliban know all this; they know they need help. They also do not seem anxious to pick a military fight with the United States again, as their imperfect but still considerable collaboration with us in permitting a massive evacuation effort from the country in August attests.
As such, the basic outlines of a deal can be imagined:
-Food and healthcare must be made available to all without prejudice based on gender, religion, or politics.
-Girls and women must have basic educational and legal rights, as must minorities—including access to higher education and to employment opportunities.
-If there is to be some version of Sharia law, it should be instituted only in consultation with other conservative Sunni countries where such legal codes and punishment systems have been moderated over the years.
-There must be no active collaboration between the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the Taliban must accept that if they cannot control ISIS-K on their territory, the United States may take direct action against it ourselves at times.
-In exchange, the international community will recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, allow access to some fraction of the country’s foreign holdings each year, and provide considerable humanitarian assistance for years to come as needed (even if substantially less than the aid amounts previously provided).
To make all this work verifiably, the Taliban must accept an international observation force on the ground to monitor these promises. It must also be empowered to investigate any acts of violence that could violate the Taliban’s promises of amnesty to former enemies, and to monitor courts and prisons. While incidents of revenge killings since the Taliban took over do not appear systematic or widespread to date, it is hard to be sure. An international peacekeeping operation under UN auspices, composed mainly of troops from Muslim-majority countries (not to include Afghanistan’s neighbors), could provide the necessary degree of independent confirmation that the basic elements of this package are being adhered to. Such missions are inexpensive and abide by the three doctrinal rules of peacekeeping: consent, impartiality, and the use of force only in self-defense. They have a good track record around the world of holding parties to ceasefires or peace agreements accountable through transparency, cajoling, and where necessary the withholding of financial aid. They help deter fresh rounds of civil war as well.
This kind of agreement needs to happen soon if the worst of the winter tragedy is to be mitigated. Such a deal would not turn Afghanistan into a foreign policy success for the United States and broader global community. But it could help preserve what appears to be the one major and underappreciated benefits of the rapid Taliban takeover to date: a reduction in the rates of unnecessary and preventable death in the land of the Hindu Kush.
Lise Howard, author of Power in Peacekeeping, is professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, and president of Academic Council on the United Nations System.
Michael O’Hanlon, author of The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint, holds the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution.