A year ago this month, the United States’ longest war ended, punctuated by the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Kabul. In the year since, U.S. policy on Afghanistan has focused on evacuating remaining U.S. citizens and partners in the country and addressing the country’s deteriorating humanitarian and economic crises. U.S. engagement with the Taliban has been limited and Washington has premised normalizing relations on the Taliban upholding counterterrorism commitments, respecting human rights and establishing an inclusive political system. There has been little indication that the Taliban are interested in following through on the latter two issues and the recent killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul demonstrates that the regime has not met its pledge to cut ties with transnational terrorist groups.

Taliban officials declare victory at the Kabul airport on Aug. 31, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Taliban officials declare victory at the Kabul airport on Aug. 31, 2021. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

USIP’s Kate Bateman explains how U.S. engagement with the Taliban has evolved over the last year, how the killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul could impact U.S. policy in Afghanistan and how Washington can advance its interests in Afghanistan over the long haul.

What interests does the United States still have in Afghanistan and what tools does it have to pursue those interests?

U.S. interests in Afghanistan remain largely the same as they were before the August 15, 2021 Taliban takeover: to prevent terrorist groups in Afghanistan from threatening the United States or our allies; to maintain regional stability; to encourage inclusive governance and the protection of human rights, particularly the rights of women, girls and minorities; and to address the humanitarian crisis — which deteriorated sharply after the takeover due to the cutoff of foreign aid — and promote economic recovery.

Taliban control of Afghanistan makes securing U.S. interests in the country even more difficult than before — because the Taliban’s ideology and many of its policies are inimical to U.S. goals, and because the United States has limited leverage vis-à-vis the repressive regime. This dilemma, however, did not emerge in a vacuum. The United States bears some responsibility for the current situation. Over the course of two decades, U.S. policies created an extraordinarily aid-dependent Afghan state. And the United States failed to seriously pursue peace negotiations until it was too late, when the Taliban had the battlefield advantage and perceived Washington’s eagerness to withdrawal troops, and thus had little incentive to compromise politically.

Today, the United States’ main sources of leverage with the Taliban government comprise of: diplomatic recognition (which no country has yet granted) and a seat at the U.N., bilateral and multilateral diplomatic engagement, sanctions relief, unfreezing Afghan Central Bank assets held in New York, development aid and military action (against the Taliban themselves, or terrorists inside Afghanistan).

All these levers are politically and logistically difficult to employ. The strongest lever is diplomatic recognition, and its power relies on the international community — particularly the United States, Russia, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan’s other neighbors — maintaining consensus on denying or granting recognition. It is an inflexible, single-use tool. Further, aid is unlikely to induce changes in Taliban behavior or governance. Nevertheless, development aid can help restore livelihoods and support delivery of health care and education. Like other donors, the United States seeks to put in place measures to ensure as little aid as possible reaches the Taliban.

How has U.S. engagement with the Taliban regime evolved since the Taliban took power?

U.S. policy attention on Afghanistan for the past year has been dominated by two issues: the evacuation of remaining U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who wished to depart, alongside the relocation and resettlement of tens of thousands of Afghans and dual citizens in the United States; and the spiraling humanitarian and economic crises that put roughly 20 million Afghans at risk of starvation. Efforts on both these fronts necessitated some pragmatic cooperation with the Taliban.

Broadly characterized, the U.S. approach to the Taliban has been cautious engagement, while refusing to grant recognition, unfreeze assets or lift sanctions. It is worth noting that no new sanctions were imposed, nor attacks leveled, against the Taliban. The U.S. message — in concert with other Western countries, Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional powers — has been that normalization of relations depends on the Taliban upholding its counterterrorism commitments; demonstrating respect for human rights, particularly those of women and girls; and establishing an inclusive and representative political system.

But in all these areas, the Taliban have proven resistant to international expectations, pursuing a narrow, repressive vision of governance. In late March, the Taliban reneged on a pledge to reopen secondary schools for girls — setting back U.S. and other donors’ willingness to provide non-humanitarian aid. A comprehensive U.N. report on the Taliban’s first 10 months in power documented allegations of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, torture and the clampdown on free speech, peaceful protest, and women’s and girls’ access to education, work and mobility. The Taliban’s failure to meet Western expectations of governance intensifies the risk that foreign aid enables an oppressive, authoritarian regime, greatly complicating donor efforts to address the humanitarian and economic crises.

How does the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri change the trajectory of U.S. policy on Afghanistan in coming months?

There was always significant skepticism within U.S. policy circles about Taliban willingness to uphold their counterterrorism commitments in the 2020 “Doha Agreement” with the United States. But the revelation that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaida, had been living in a Kabul safe house affiliated with the Taliban interior minister when he was killed on July 31 by a U.S. drone strike laid bare the Taliban’s lie that they were keeping their promises on counterterrorism. The U.S. government judged al-Zawahiri’s presence a clear violation of the Doha Agreement.

Days before the targeting of al-Zawahiri, senior U.S. officials had attended an international conference on Afghanistan in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where Taliban acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi urged other countries to recognize his government. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West reiterated grave U.S. concerns about human rights violations and the lack of any inclusive political process. Yet West and senior Treasury Department officials also met that week with Taliban representatives to discuss “ongoing efforts to enable the $3.5 billion in licensed Afghan central bank reserves to be used for the benefit of the Afghan people” — an example of engagement with the regime that risks further legitimizing it, in exchange for making headway on addressing the economic crisis.

The al-Zawahiri strike now crystallizes a similar dilemma in the counterterrorism space: Should the United States continue pragmatic engagement with the Taliban on humanitarian and economic issues, despite its flagrant violation of counterterrorism promises? The past year of intermittent U.S.-Taliban meetings — combined with the sense that isolating or actively opposing the Taliban regime is not likely to produce a better outcome — suggest that after a cooling-off period, the U.S. government will probably continue its cautious talks with the Taliban.

Nevertheless, the strike has been touted by advocates as proving the effectiveness of an over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy. At the same time, al-Zawahiri’s presence alone suggests that the terrorism threat emanating from Taliban-run Afghanistan is more serious than previously thought — and the successful targeting of al-Zawahiri is not proof that drone strikes would be able to check a metastasizing threat in Afghanistan. U.S. policymakers and analysts must revisit their assessments of the terrorist threat in Afghanistan.

What does an effective U.S. strategy look like for advancing U.S. interests in Afghanistan in the longer term?

Two primary interests should guide U.S. policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan, as a RAND report has argued: 1) the safety of the American people (i.e., counterterrorism), and 2) the “moral and reputational interest” to not abandon those Afghans who are endangered because of their support for previous U.S. efforts, nor the Afghan people who are suffering near-famine conditions.

As U.S. policymakers pursue those interests, they should be clear-eyed about the ground realities in Afghanistan and the limitations of U.S. leverage. The Taliban have further consolidated their hold on power and are unlikely to face any serious national-scale challenge in the near to medium term. The Taliban are also unlikely to break their historical ties to al-Qaida or reform their style of governance. U.S. levers to induce changes in Taliban behavior are very limited. Yet, preventing an even greater humanitarian catastrophe requires talking to the Taliban about aid and economic issues, as well as accepting the inevitability that some amount of aid will fall into Taliban hands.

In short, the al-Zawahiri strike demonstrates the need for stepped-up U.S. vigilance regarding the terrorist threat from Afghan soil, and strengthens the U.S. argument for denying the Taliban the diplomatic recognition or sanctions relief it desires. But with regard to other U.S. interests in the country, it does not change much. U.S. strategy on Afghanistan will need to expand investments in obtaining intelligence on the terrorist threat; policymakers should consider closer cooperation with regional states to counter that threat. In parallel, the U.S. government should continue to deliver aid for humanitarian and basic human needs, and work to establish a mechanism, in consultation with the Taliban, for using the $3.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets for macroeconomic management to stabilize the economy. U.S. officials should keep human rights — especially those of women, girls and minorities — at the top of the agenda, in coordination with our allies. Finally, maintaining international consensus on non-recognition of the Taliban government and sanctions on Taliban individuals will be important to maximize U.S. and international leverage.

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