Two years after taking Kabul, the Taliban are consolidating their control of Afghanistan even as they remain mostly shunned by the rest of the world.
Although much of the Afghan population faces dire economic conditions, an often predicted catastrophic humanitarian crisis has yet to materialize, and the economy is stabilizing somewhat in the face of still formidable challenges.
Despite an insurgency spearheaded by the local affiliate of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), for most Afghans, security is better than at any time since the early years following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
Reported rifts in the Taliban’s leadership have not significantly affected the grip of the country’s theocratic regime, headed from Kandahar by Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, which has imposed ever more draconian restrictions on women and girls, undoing two decades of changes that had brought them basic human rights and access to the public sphere.
Meanwhile, the international community has begun to accommodate itself to the reality of a Taliban-led Afghanistan. Although no country formally recognizes the Taliban government, a number of countries in the region—including China and Russia—have taken steps toward establishing ties. And India, Japan, the European Union, and the United Nations have reopened or retained diplomatic missions in Kabul.
As it becomes clearer that Taliban rule is likely to endure for the foreseeable future, a small but growing number of commentators and analysts have begun to debate whether it is time for the United States to deal more directly with the Taliban—including possibly restoring a U.S. presence in Kabul and even formally recognizing the Taliban government.
The analysts Graeme Smith and Ibraheem Bahiss argued inForeign Affairsthat addressing the country’s dire humanitarian situation, confronting terrorist organizations in Afghanistan, and improving regional security all require more official engagement with the Taliban.
The Economist suggested that isolation has only strengthened Taliban hardliners. In Foreign Policy, Javid Ahmad, a former Afghan diplomat, and Douglas London, a former CIA operations officer, went further still, calling for the United States to establish official diplomatic ties with the Taliban government.
Such arguments are seductive. Distasteful though the prospect might be, taking steps toward normalizing relations with the Taliban government could arguably serve a number of objectives central to U.S. foreign policy.
U.S. officials have periodically met with Taliban officials outside Afghanistan on an ad hoc basis in pursuit of humanitarian, human rights, and counterterrorism objectives in Afghanistan. Such efforts should continue. And the time may well come when it makes sense for Washington to consider a full diplomatic presence in Kabul.
But that time has not yet arrived. There is no indication that the Taliban’s calculations have been influenced by the pressing need for humanitarian assistance or the diplomatic presence in Kabul of countries and organizations that some expected could have a moderating effect. If anything, Taliban rule has grown only harsher.
And as Shaharzad Akbar, the former chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, and Melanne Verveer, a former U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues, have highlighted, there is one critical constituency that would be even more damaged if the United States prematurely accommodated the Taliban diplomatically: Afghan women and girls.
There is a tendency to relativize their plight by placing it in the broader context of challenges the international community faces in Afghanistan. But unless the Taliban signals that it is willing to grant fundamental rights to women and girls, it is hard to envisage what a formalized U.S. presence in Kabul would represent other than a tacit endorsement of the Taliban’s deepening theocratic despotism.
The United States has a long history of maintaining full diplomatic ties with authoritarian regimes and governments that violate human rights. Although relations have been suspended on many occasions because of war or political tensions, sustained breaks in ties since 1945 have been few and far between.
Currently, the list of countries totally shunned by Washington is short: Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. Diplomatic isolation, moreover, has rarely achieved its goals—as demonstrated by the endurance of the regimes in all four of those countries.
Furthermore, were Washington to move toward a more formal relationship with the Taliban government, it would not be alone. Not surprisingly, one country that maintains links with Kabul is Pakistan, which once served as the primary sanctuary for the Taliban insurgency. But Pakistan hardly offers a credible model for other countries, and today it faces the irony of coming under attacks by terrorist groups supported by its former allies in Kabul.
But Pakistan is hardly the only country dealing with the Taliban. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also broadly engaging with the group’s leadership. Emirati companies have won contracts to run Afghanistan’s airports, and the Taliban’s acting defense minister met with UAE President Muhammed bin Zayed in December 2022 to discuss cooperation.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was photographed shaking hands with Mullah Yaqoob, son of the Taliban founder Mullah Omar, in Saudi Arabia on the occasion of the Hajj pilgrimage. In May, the prime minister of Qatar, Mohammed al-Thani, held a secret meeting with Akhundzada in Kandahar, according to Reuters. Farther afield, the Taliban’s foreign minister has met with his Chinese counterpart; Taliban representatives have visited Indonesia; and Indian, EU, and UN officials have visited Kabul.
These countries and organizations have different reasons for dealing with the Taliban. Some want to work with the group out of a desire to aid the Afghan people. Others want to respond to the growing presence of terrorist organizations in the country or try to moderate Taliban policies on women and girls. Still others hope to counter Chinese and Russian influence in a country that may be rich in critical minerals.
For its part, Washington would like to do all those things. A U.S. diplomatic presence could also make it easier to assist the more than 100,000 Afghans who helped American forces and personnel during two decades of war but were left behind by the hurried U.S. evacuation in August 2021. Washington would also likely have a better understanding of what is happening inside Afghanistan and be able to calibrate policy accordingly.
Not the Time or Place
But Washington must operate under a unique set of constraints. Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States were largely planned in Afghanistan while al Qaeda was enjoying sanctuary there thanks to the Taliban.
U.S. forces then toppled the first Taliban government and led the international coalition against a Taliban insurgency. The group declared victory in the long war against the United States and sees no need to make concessions now. That legacy cannot be shrugged off, and any move to soften Washington’s line against the Taliban might produce a political backlash at home, especially in the run-up to a presidential election in 2024.
Indeed, late last month, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, a Republican representative from Texas, warned U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken against allowing U.S. officials to travel to Afghanistan, arguing that any such visit would constitute “an egregious betrayal of the memories of the fallen and the millions of Afghans who continue to hope for a free, prosperous, democratic Afghanistan.”
Even without any official presence in Kabul, however, Washington has hardly been passive since the city fell to the Taliban. Although humanitarian assistance is largely channeled through the UN system and its network of local partners, the United States has been in the forefront of mobilizing almost $1 billion in aid for the Afghan people.
There is little reason to think that a U.S. presence on the ground would increase or improve that flow. Although the needs of Afghanistan’s population are still staggering, there are indications that Afghanistan’s economy is stabilizing in some respects. “Essential food and non-food commodities are available in major markets nationwide,” according to the June World Bank Afghanistan Economic Monitor report.
U.S. diplomats have also met with the Taliban to discuss security and political issues since the fall of Kabul, most recently last month in Qatar, when Tom West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, discussed human rights (especially those of women and girls) with Amir Khan Mutaqqi, the Afghan foreign minister, and discussed the economy with officials of the central bank and the Ministry of Finance.
They also discussed security issues. A strike that U.S. forces launched last summer that killed the al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in downtown Kabul may have persuaded the Taliban to think again about openly supporting international jihadists.
According to CNN, a few months later, David Cohen, the deputy director of the CIA, met with the Taliban’s head of intelligence, Abdul Haq Wasiq. Earlier this year, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that U.S. officials were “working tirelessly every day” to make sure the Taliban stick to their pledge to not allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for groups plotting to attack the United States.
Again, it is hard to see what an American presence in Kabul would add to those efforts. Diplomatic pressure from other countries and international organizations which do have a presence on the ground has not prevented the Taliban from erasing the rights of girls, who are now banned from secondary schools and sports facilities.
Women must cover themselves in public and are now almost entirely forbidden from working outside the home, including for international relief organizations. Last month, the Taliban eliminated the final public gathering places available to women when it ordered all beauty salons to close.
Put simply, there is no evidence that any Taliban policies are affected by external pressure. The group has cracked down on its opponents without a backlash and has managed internal squabbles without giving its adversaries an opening to exploit.
And when it has taken steps that please other countries—such as launching a campaign to eradicate the poppy cultivation that had fueled the global trade in heroin—it has made the decision unilaterally and for its own reasons.
There may come a moment when the Taliban will decide to change course. As Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, suggested in an article in The Hill, Washington should remain flexible in its responses to what the Taliban does and consider confidence-building measures such as easing sanctions on groups and individuals who work with Taliban authorities, which make it more difficult to assist Afghans directly.
But no one should harbor any illusions about the prospects. It is striking that two years after the fall of Kabul, not one of the world’s 193 governments has recognized the Taliban—not even Pakistan. This past June, the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan told the UN Security Council that recognition “is nearly impossible” as long as restrictive decrees on women and girls remain in place.
And given the history of enmity between the United States and the Taliban—and the group’s seemingly unshakable commitment to oppressing half the country’s population—the United States should notbe the country to take the first steps toward normalization.