A New U.S. Policy Toward the Taliban | Opinion

When the U.S.-supported Afghan government collapsed in mid-August after a rapid Taliban advance across the country, President Joe Biden was quickly confronted with a choice. Should Washington work with Afghanistan's new rulers, staying well short of formal recognition but otherwise exploring whether opportunities for cooperation (fighting IS-K, for example) were available? Or should the U.S. try to exert economic and political pressure to undermine the Taliban's control of Afghanistan?

More than four months into the Taliban's reign, the Biden administration has largely taken a middle line between these two options. While U.S. officials have met with the Taliban on several occasions since the summer and remain open to the prospects of a business-like relationship, the White House is also using financial tools to force Afghanistan's de-facto government to change its ways. Washington remains adamant that the Taliban need to establish an inclusive government, allow women and girls equal access to education, stop repressing its former Afghan government opponents and ease up on human rights abuses. In other words: If you want respect and recognition from the world, you need to prove to the world you are worthy of it.

None of this economic pressure, however, appears to be having an impact on how the Taliban governs. At its core, the movement still thinks of itself as a band of fighters, not a collection of civil servants organizing trash pickup or bureaucrats collecting taxes. For hardline Taliban commanders and foot soldiers who have spent their entire lives battling U.S. soldiers and various governments in Kabul, the winners of the war hold the spoils—and the world doesn't have any right to dictate how the winners choose to operate. The Taliban may be modifying some of their conduct in terms of women's education and saying some of the right things, but the organization's first priority is maintaining internal cohesion. Any step that could potentially jeopardize this, like embracing more liberal social norms, will likely be avoided.

The Biden administration continues to press the point, even if there is a growing realization that connecting the resumption of normal banking channels to political demands the Taliban have no intention of accepting is exacerbating Afghanistan's humanitarian crisis. According to Martin Griffiths, the U.N. humanitarian affairs chief, Afghanistan could be facing near-universal poverty by the middle of next year. The International Monetary Fund projects the Afghan economy losing 30 percent of its GDP. Over 8 million Afghans are at risk of famine due in part to the stoppage of international financing and donor support, as well as a drought so severe that some farmers have quit cultivating for the season. The country's health care system is on tenterhooks and could fold altogether if hospitals and clinics don't receive funding. "Much of Afghanistan's health care system has collapsed," Paul Spiegel of the World Health Organization concluded after a five-week trip to Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters at Blue Mosque
Taliban fighters walk through the compound of the Hazrat-e-Ali shrine or Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif on Dec. 23, 2021 MOHD RASFAN/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. has tried to rectify these issues by granting humanitarian exemptions to current sanctions on the Taliban and supporting an infusion of $280 million in World Bank funds to the World Food Program and U.N. children's agency. Last weekend, Washington expressed support to the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation's creation of a trust fund specifically geared toward alleviating Afghanistan's downward spiral. The U.S. has also authorized $474 million in no-strings-attached humanitarian aid this year. And in the most visible sign yet that a change in tact is needed, the U.S. Treasury Department expanded the definition of humanitarian aid to allow aid organizations to pay the salaries of Afghan teachers.

Yet other funding streams remain predicated on the Taliban leadership essentially waking up and deciding to become democratic. An estimated $9.5 billion in Afghan foreign reserves remain stuck in U.S. banks, and about 80 percent of the World Bank's $1.5 billion Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund is still frozen despite this month's $280 million diversion to U.N. agencies. Afghanistan can no longer rely on foreign donors for budgetary support (about 80 percent of Kabul's public expenditures came from foreign sources). No state in the West is prepared to send taxpayer money to Taliban-controlled ministries. Doubly so for the U.S., which has pumped trillions of dollars into Afghanistan over the last two decades.

The U.S., though, doesn't need to throw more of its own money into the pot. All it needs to do is make Afghanistan's own money available so the humanitarians and international agencies on the ground have the resources to pay public sector employees and doctors, keep hospitals functioning, ensure the Afghan population can survive the winter and prevent a total collapse of the banking system. This will require more concrete action from the U.S., including publishing clear, written guarantees to financial institutions that they won't be penalized for engaging in legitimate humanitarian activity.

Why should the United States care about Afghanistan's crisis at all? It's a good question—and a fair one. Many U.S. policymakers want to leave the 20-year failed experiment in nation-building in the rear-view mirror. Given the casualties the U.S. endured, the extreme financial expense associated with America's longest war, and the unaccountability embedded in the senior U.S. military leadership despite a consistent lack of sound judgment, the easiest thing would be to look away.

But the Biden administration needs to ask itself whether the current strategy hurts or helps the primary U.S. policy objective in Afghanistan: neutralizing any anti-U.S. terrorist threats that may emerge. Will the Taliban be more or less inclined to work with the U.S. on counterterrorism if Washington simultaneously prevents Afghanistan from accessing its own assets? Thanks to its military capabilities, the U.S. doesn't need the Taliban's assistance for successful counterterrorism operations. But it certainly doesn't hurt to enlist the local government in the endeavor. In Afghanistan's case, the local government is the Taliban—whether the U.S. likes it or not.

Rather than isolating the Taliban government in perpetuity, U.S. officials should be explicit during their conversations with Taliban ministers—willing to help Afghanistan help itself, but also expecting some assistance against terrorist groups like IS-K and Al-Qaeda.

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.