Biden Faces a Conundrum on Afghanistan | Opinion

Nearly four months after the Taliban drove former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani into exile and returned to power after a 20-year insurgency, Afghanistan is confronting one of the world's most catastrophic humanitarian emergencies. The United States runs the real risk of exacerbating the Afghan people's dire situation if it continues to implement its current policy.

The collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government has produced an economic cataclysm the Afghan people were simply not prepared to handle. Afghanistan's humanitarian emergency, however, was quite predictable. The country relied on foreign donors for roughly 80 percent of its public expenditures, and a sizable portion of Afghanistan's $20 billion GDP was based on a war-time economy, cash infusions from Washington and regular appropriations from foreign capitals. In effect, Afghanistan was less a sovereign entity in the traditional sense of the word and more like a dependent whose leaders grew complacent with foreign support.

All of this assistance evaporated the moment the Taliban took the reins of power in Kabul. The $3-$4 billion in annual U.S. security assistance is now being re-directed to other areas. Reconstruction and development programs funded by foreign donors like the U.S. and the European Union are frozen and will likely remain frozen as long as the Taliban refuses to govern inclusively. As Thomas West, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan, said, "We made clear that if they (the Taliban) chose a military path to power, that that aid would disappear, and that is what occurred."

While the U.S. decision is understandable (who, after all, would openly advocate for funneling U.S. taxpayer dollars directly to the Taliban?), it is the Afghan people who will suffer the most. Afghanistan is gearing up for what could be one of the largest economic contractions in modern history. According to projections from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Afghanistan's GDP could decrease by 30 percent, which would impact everything from employment to the capacity of the country's faltering hospital system. The World Health Organization cautioned that 3.2 million children would likely face acute malnutrition by the end of the year, putting an additional strain on a health care network across Afghanistan that is already struggling to operate due to a lack of funds. A constellation of factors, including a severe drought, could push Afghanistan's poverty rate to 97 percent by the middle of 2022.

Afghanistan's own leaders are ultimately responsible for the welfare of the Afghan people. Current U.S. policy, however, isn't making the job of alleviating the country's economic crisis any easier and is in fact hindering the task.

While the Biden administration has engaged in talks with the Taliban on issues like counterterrorism and expediting the evacuation of American citizens who wish to leave, it remains wedded to the belief it can fundamentally change how the Taliban operate. It is doing this largely through economic pressure. Roughly $9-$10 billion in Afghan foreign reserves remain tied up in U.S. banks. The World Bank and IMF continue to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan at the urging of the U.S. and its partners. Despite Afghanistan's future economic outlook, the U.S. position remains unchanged: If the Taliban want access to these funds, it must establish an inclusive government and respect the rights of women and minorities. The Taliban, however, are highly unlikely to cater to U.S. demands or do anything that might compromise the internal cohesion of their movement.

President Joe Biden speaks on the economy
President Joe Biden speaks on the economy during an event at the South Court Auditorium at Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Nov. 23, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. officials continue to delude themselves into believing the Taliban can be coerced and cajoled into meeting Washington's own standards of behavior. They also appear to believe they can separate the fate of the Afghan people and work around the Taliban.

Unfortunately, reality tells a different story. While the U.S. won't be offering diplomatic legitimacy to the Taliban anytime soon, the fact is that the Taliban are the de-facto governing authority in Afghanistan—and as much as U.S. officials wish otherwise, there is no insurgency of so-called good guys on the horizon that will bring Afghanistan into the age of enlightenment. The only alternative to the Taliban is the Islamic State—Khorasan Province (ISKP), a merciless terrorist organization that has no reluctance in blowing up mosques and maternity wards. The Taliban are the de-facto government in Kabul, whether Washington likes it or not.

Instead of trying to overturn this reality, the U.S. needs to work through it. This isn't an argument for formal diplomatic relations with the Taliban, which is politically untenable, but rather a call for a kind of flexible pragmatism. The U.S. should work with the Taliban in those rare instances when doing so serves the U.S. interest, particularly as it relates to ISKP. But this cooperation is exceedingly more difficult if the U.S. simultaneously seeks to pressure the Taliban into conforming with what Washington considers appropriate behavior. U.S. policymakers can't expect the Taliban to be useful to Washington's top priority in Afghanistan (ensuring Afghan soil is not used as a launching pad for attacks against the U.S.) when it is effectively isolating Afghanistan at the same time.

The Biden administration is at an inflection point in its Afghanistan policy. It can do what it is already doing, which entails penalizing the Afghan people for the sins of the Taliban. Or it can accept the reality staring it in the face, make at least some of Afghanistan's own money available so Afghans working in the public sector can do their jobs and allow international organizations like the World Bank to transfer funds that will help the Afghan people survive the coming winter.

The Afghan people's well-being is now connected to the Taliban. The U.S. shouldn't pretend otherwise.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.