Since the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the United States has found itself in a vexing dilemma — wanting to condemn and hold accountable the Taliban regime for persecuting women and girls, harboring terrorists and failing to govern inclusively, but also wanting Afghanistan to avoid famine and civil war, and achieve some economic and political stability. U.S. policymakers have thus tried to balance principle and pragmatism. To exert pressure on the Taliban, the United States has withheld diplomatic recognition and traditional development aid, frozen Afghan Central Bank assets and maintained sanctions on Taliban leaders. Yet it has also been the largest donor of humanitarian assistance, has not supported armed opposition to the Taliban and has effectively loosened sanctions to enable aid delivery and encourage economic activity.

The Taliban’s acting minister of refugees, Khalil Haqqani, speaks in Kabul on Aug. 20, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)
The Taliban’s acting minister of refugees, Khalil Haqqani, speaks in Kabul on Aug. 20, 2021. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

This U.S. policy approach holds internal contradictions. Humanitarian aid is saving lives, while punitive policies simultaneously hamstring the Afghan economy and perpetuate poverty. Such inconsistencies in policy are unsurprising for a superpower with complex interests, and have featured in U.S. foreign policy for decades. But as the Taliban’s consolidation of power — and the limits of international leverage — become painfully clear, the United States and its partners appear to be moving toward a policy of more engagement with the regime.

A shift toward more engagement is the least bad policy option; it affords more opportunities for progress over time, especially on the economy and livelihoods, than does disengagement or isolation. The international community can seek cooperation from the Taliban on issues of mutual interest, while keeping up pressure and withholding recognition until key demands on rights, governance and security are met.

Outside actors should remain clear-eyed that expanded engagement — just like isolation — might not succeed in changing the Taliban’s reprehensible social policies. There are no easy or right answers here. Nevertheless, a coherent, longer-term strategy for engagement with the de facto Taliban authorities can help mitigate harm to the Afghan people and enable the United States to better address its security, humanitarian and rights interests in Afghanistan.

What Does ‘Engagement’ Mean, and What Is Driving Calls for More?

The word “engagement” is used frequently and loosely in discussions on Afghanistan, muddying the debate around policy choices. It can be defined as not only official meetings and communication, but also the concrete forms of collaboration that such dialogue facilitates, for instance on humanitarian and development aid, macroeconomic management, security, rights and governance, and regional and climate issues. To this author and as others have stressed, engagement does not mean diplomatic recognition of or fully normalized relations with the Taliban regime, but it does connote a relationship that maintains a two-way channel for communication and negotiation.

Despite the Taliban’s worsening record on human rights, especially those of women and girls, several factors are pushing the United States and its allies toward more engagement with the Taliban: 1) the depth of ongoing humanitarian need and Afghans’ depletion of safety nets; 2) the 2023 funding gap for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, and growing interest in resuming development assistance; 3) the Taliban’s steady consolidation of political power; 4) the international community’s failure thus far to pressure the Taliban to reverse its policies of gender persecution; 5) regional states’ increasingly active diplomacy with the Taliban; and 6) the Taliban’s continued willingness to engage with the West, alongside some evidence that they have cooperated on certain issues.

As of August, the 2023 Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan had received only 26.8 percent of the overall $3.2 billion required (an amount that was itself revised down in June from the initial request of $4.6 billion). For the past year, amid other global needs, donors’ generosity has been giving way to an urgency to not create dependency on humanitarian aid, to improve efficiency and to focus more on livelihoods and the underlying economic crisis. Thus far, the Taliban’s human rights violations have been the main obstacle to such a move. Donor capitals have very limited, if any, political space to provide traditional development aid to a pariah regime.

But two years in, there is an increasing sense that Taliban rule is the reality that international actors must deal with — like it or not. Punitive tools, such as sanctions and suspending dialogue in response to egregious policies being announced, have not worked to moderate or reverse restrictions against women and girls. Further, regional states are intensifying their engagement with the Taliban, even signaling that they might break the consensus on nonrecognition that has held thus far. This puts pressure on the West to remain engaged in order to preserve what degree of influence it has. A more dire Afghan economic collapse could intensify existing cross-border threats — a concern deeply felt by the region. But Russia and China are not willing or able to commit the level of resources that the West can bring to bear. Without access to Western financial markets and resources, Afghanistan will likely remain mired in deep poverty, buffeted by climate-related crises and a source of insecurity.

Finally, not lost on policymakers is the perhaps surprising fact that the Taliban are a willing interlocutor. The Taliban are reportedly wary of falling prey to China’s model of foreign investment, and want a relationship with the West. That very desire, even if it exists unevenly among Taliban leadership, suggests that the United States and its allies do have leverage. This leverage is only exercised, however, through engagement. Further, the Taliban are not a monolith; internal differences have been on public display. While Kabul-based officials are not driving decision-making in Kandahar, they and others in the provinces influence policy implementation. Last spring, senior Taliban officials who publicly criticized the emirate’s policies and are known to support girls’ education chose loyalty to the emir over resignation from their posts. But these intra-Taliban debates suggest that at some point moderation of policies might be possible. On security issues, in periodic meetings between U.S. and Taliban officials, by all appearances the two sides are discussing counterterrorism and detainee issues.

This window of opportunity for engagement may not be open forever. Policymakers should seek to avoid going down a path that mirrors North Korea, Iran or Cuba. Decades of punitive policies and withheld engagement have failed to incentivize those regimes to change their behavior, and meanwhile have unintentionally perpetuated the poverty and suffering of these populations.

Arguments for and Against Engagement

All this adds up to an argument for more consistent engagement with the Taliban. The logic is that by pursuing regular dialogue and confidence-building measures on multiple tracks, the United States and its partners can better help the Afghan people and protect their own security interests. This logic holds that some form of relationship with the Taliban might achieve incremental wins on mutual interests, while conversely, isolation (or the status quo of limited, drifting engagement) is unlikely to change Taliban behavior. Moreover, isolation may well strengthen Taliban hardliners — as it appeared to do in the late 1990s — and weaken those who are open to cooperation with the West. It bears acknowledgment that some Afghans inside the country have called for more, not less, U.S. and Western engagement with the Taliban.

There are compelling concerns about the risks of engagement as well. Some voices urge less engagement and more stringent conditions on the Taliban before using any lever of Western influence. They argue that more engagement lends legitimacy to the regime. Political scientist Dipali Mukhopadhyay points out that “[f]oreign aid and engagement often end up insulating the regimes that receive them from the hard domestic work of accommodating political rivals, bargaining over power and resources, and offering rights and concessions to citizens.” Questions around engaging the Taliban have created a rift among civil society and rights activists.

Indeed, a critical question is where human rights fit in a framework that favors greater engagement. More engagement would mean delivering consistent messaging on human rights at various levels of government, keeping rights on the agenda and enabling the United States to track developments more closely. A more distant goal of engagement would be to influence Taliban leaders toward reversal or moderation of policies violating Afghans’ human rights, especially those of women and girls; or to work with those within the movement who already support moderating such policies. It would require months or years to assess the outcomes of this approach.

A recent Foreign Affairs poll asked more than 50 prominent U.S., Afghan and international experts on Afghanistan, “Should the United States normalize relations with the Taliban?” Responses overwhelmingly advised against normalization, but embedded in the answers was the more nuanced debate about ill-defined “engagement.” Many of the experts arguing strenuously against normalization wrote that some level of engagement — in the form of humanitarian aid, targeted development efforts and counterterrorism cooperation — is needed. 

Most observers seem to agree on two key principles: 1) that the human and financial costs of supporting armed opposition against the Taliban would be too great and 2) that total isolation is not acceptable, as it risks an even deeper humanitarian crisis and precludes discussions on terrorist threats. There is, in fact, marked consensus on the need for outcome-oriented engagement that includes some degree of conditionality.   

The core debate, then, is not whether to engage, but rather how and when. What are the optics of engagement, what policy tools should be used and should engagement be sustained despite the Taliban’s grave violations of human rights?

What Should More Engagement Look Like?

A longer-term strategy for actions to address Afghanistan’s enduring problems is sorely needed. This is why the United Nations (U.N.) secretary-general appointed Special Coordinator Feridun Sinirlioğlu of Turkey to lead an independent assessment that will provide “recommendations for an integrated and coherent approach” vis-à-vis Afghanistan by the international community.

We can expect that the assessment, due out in November, will make the case for greater engagement with the Taliban. U.S. policymakers should be looking for recommendations along these lines:

  • A multifaceted, international structure or process for regular engagement with the Taliban de facto authorities — one that can build confidence and trust among all sides, and enable measurable progress on certain tracks, while still applying pressure on the Taliban.
  • Greater clarity around what steps the Taliban need to take in order to fulfill Afghanistan’s international obligations and to obtain what the Taliban want, such as lifting of U.N. sanctions and a seat at the U.N.

In parallel, the United States needs to work out an approach to U.S. bilateral engagement with the Taliban. An effective framework would help the parties move past the policy incoherence that has caused confusion on the Taliban side in terms of what they think the United States wants. It would also enable modest wins in areas of mutual interest, while keeping up pressure on the Taliban on rights and counterterrorism. Elements of such a framework could include:

  • Numerous tracks for technical-level meetings on a range of issues, such as: macroeconomic management and the international financial system; the humanitarian response; agriculture, water and climate-related impacts; counternarcotics and drug treatment efforts; health and nutrition; border security and counterterrorism.
  • Raising human rights and governance issues consistently, at national and subnational levels of the Taliban de facto government. This could help U.S. officials identify where openings for progress exist across different sectors — whether on treatment and release of political prisoners, support for women in the private sector, girls’ education or media freedom — or where conditions are deteriorating.
  • More clarity on what the Taliban must do before the United States is willing to consider recognition, lifting of sanctions or other major steps toward normalization of relations. This kind of dialogue may be months or years away, but U.S. policymakers must think through the details of these steps in advance.   

Talking to the Taliban does not preclude broader U.S. work on human rights and political freedoms. The United States should maintain support in whatever forms possible — advocacy, psychosocial support, online learning, documentation and investigation of human rights violations and in international courts — for individuals and organizations working on these issues in Afghanistan, like U.N. Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett. The biggest challenge for the United States and like-minded countries will continue to be helping the Afghan people achieve what most Afghans want for their country, while holding accountable the Taliban government for its repressive behavior.

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