Ever since al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a U.S. drone strike in his last hideout in an upscale neighborhood of Kabul, it has become clear that the United States needs a mechanism for managing a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. That relationship must be one that steers clear of granting formal recognition and legitimacy to Emirate 2.0. That would embolden Islamist actors across the world.
It is imperative that the country does not become a launchpad for transcontinental jihadist attacks, again, but it is also urgent to contain the Taliban's own radicalism on both the domestic and regional levels.
The West cannot change the nature of the Taliban, but it can try to limit the movement's malign impact. If left to their own devices, the Taliban are likely to consolidate their version of Islamist authoritarianism and develop close ties with actors like Iran, China, and Russia— likely the list would even include some allies of the U.S.
There has been a great deal of discussion about how the Taliban violated the Doha Agreement between the group and the U.S. by harboring al-Zawahiri. The reality is that such talk misses the point. The Doha Agreement was dead upon arrival, something I predicted shortly after the Trump administration began talks with Taliban negotiators in late 2018.
The Doha Agreement was a short-term diplomatic instrument to create the formal conditions for bringing to closure the longest war in American history. The Taliban evidently had no intention of upholding their end of the bargain with regards to al Qaeda. They made their intention to take power by force quite clear, and well before they signed on the proverbial dotted line.
Since the Taliban's return to power, the U.S. has lacked a well-crafted plan for managing Afghanistan. Last November, the Biden administration signed an agreement with Qatar that the Gulf Arab state would represent U.S. interests in Afghanistan. While that allows for carrying out basic diplomacy, it does not provide the answer we seek.
Aside from this indirect diplomacy, the U.S. has been in negotiations with the Talibs on how to release frozen funds to the Afghan central bank so as to help alleviate the grave humanitarian crisis plaguing Afghans for the past year. But the challenge is to ensure that the cash is not diverted to strengthening the coercive apparatus of the regime.
Of course, our adversaries Iran, China, and Russia, are already a source of encouragement for the Talibs – enabling their aim of creating a long-term religious autocracy. Even allies like India—which has long been concerned about the Taliban—have started to engage with the jihadist regime at least in part because of the lack of U.S. leadership or even a plan. Similarly, according to a senior U.S. official who currently works on Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates is supporting the deadly, terrorist Haqqani faction. That further exacerbates the deleterious effects of Pakistan's longstanding backing of the group. This emerging situation is utterly unacceptable and decreases America's capacity to influence Taliban behavior.
We obviously can't change who the Taliban are, but the U.S. still has a narrow window through which it can keep the Taliban in check. It will require a carefully calibrated strategy leveraging incentives—such as the country's sovereign wealth fund—for the Taliban to heed the demands of the U.S. and its partners. The Taliban are currently under pressure to prove themselves capable of governing a country beset by economic crises and an ISIS-K-led insurgency.
Notwithstanding deep divisions between the Taliban's "pragmatists" and ideological purists, there is still a chance for the outside world to influence the illegitimate emirate, even if only incrementally. The U.S. has two things that the Taliban desperately need: control over $7 billion in frozen assets and counter-terror capabilities to fight ISIS-K. (Despite their alliance with al Qaeda, the Taliban are reportedly cooperating with U.S. security agencies in the fight against ISIS-K.)
Between the formal diplomatic channel via Qatar, Central Asian states like Uzbekistan, and others who are willing to help, a modus vivendi can be established that allows the United States to limit the extent to which the Taliban will engage in radical behavior. Meanwhile, it will be incumbent on American policymakers to counter outside spoilers—both allies and adversaries—whose support for a variety of Taliban factions is detrimental to U.S. interests.
Kamran Bokhari, Ph.D. is the Director of Analytical Development at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington. Dr. Bokhari is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa's Professional Development Institute. Bokhari has served as the coordinator for Central Asia Studies at the U.S. Department of State's Foreign Service Institute (FSI). Follow him on Twitter at @KamranBokhari.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.