Saeed Ghasseminejad / Matthew Zweig / Richard Goldberg
In late August, CIA director William Burns met with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul, presumably to negotiate the evacuation of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies. For all intents and purposes, the Biden administration is running a hostage negotiation with a terrorist organization. The question for policymakers: What is U.S. President Joe Biden offering to pay now that the last remaining U.S. forces have withdrawn?
Thousands of U.S. and other Western citizens, along with their Afghan allies, remain trapped in Taliban-controlled territory in the wake of Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from the bases and airfields that could have been used to protect and evacuate them. These stranded individuals are wholly dependent on the Taliban’s cooperation to enter and depart Kabul and other airports.
The prospect of thousands of U.S. and allied hostages remaining in Afghanistan without U.S. military assistance leaves the United States and its fellow democracies vulnerable to extortion. International recognition as Afghanistan’s legitimate government will be the Taliban’s critical first step toward gaining additional concessions and resources, such as direct economic assistance. Official recognition would, in turn, likely help the Taliban achieve another demand: access to hard currency, including Afghan government assets that have been blocked by the United States and others.
Afghanistan’s reserve assets, estimated at around $9 billion, are mostly parked in the United States. The Taliban face two obstacles in getting their hands on these funds. First, the United States does not recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as the country’s legitimate government—and, therefore, owner of these assets. Second, the Taliban are designated a terrorist entity by the U.S. Treasury Department, as are many of the group’s leaders. For now, the bulk of Afghanistan’s reserves remain frozen at the U.S. Federal Reserve.
Funds held and distributed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) offer another potential source of hard currency for the Taliban. As part of the IMF response to the global economic crisis triggered by COVID-19, Afghanistan was scheduled to receive $455 million in assistance this month. IMF officials have suspended this transfer and also blocked access to other IMF resources, such as special drawing rights. Obviously, the Taliban are keen to get their hands on these funds.
The Taliban likely have other diplomatic and economic demands. The group hopes to be officially recognized as Afghanistan’s representative to the United Nations General Assembly, a key source of legitimacy they were denied when they ruled Afghanistan before 2001. The Taliban will also demand the removal of U.N. and U.S. sanctions that could impede commercial relationships with the rest of the world.
Biden may be tempted to pay the Taliban’s racket, if only to keep Afghanistan out of the headlines going into the 2022 midterm elections.
China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and Qatar already appear willing to help the Taliban avoid international pariah status. For his part, Biden has not taken recognition or the release of funds off the table, perhaps naively believing such incentives will induce good behavior by the Taliban. In the president’s mind, the Taliban are grappling with what he called an “existential crisis” about whether or not they want to be internationally isolated. The State Department told reporters that the administration would consider a carrot-and-stick approach.
Biden may be tempted to pay the Taliban’s racket, if only to keep Afghanistan out of the headlines going into the 2022 midterm elections. But appeasing a terrorist organization allied with al Qaeda would be a catastrophic mistake that endangers U.S. national security.
The Taliban maintained close ties to al Qaeda both before and after the 9/11 attacks. For example, one of the Taliban’s deputy emirs, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is a long-standing al Qaeda ally and the head of the Haqqani network, the Taliban’s most sophisticated and experienced faction. Since regaining power, the Taliban have already freed thousands of al Qaeda and Islamic State prisoners and appointed former al Qaeda-linked commanders and Guantánamo Bay detainees to key government posts. The U.S. military is now warning that al Qaeda’s operational capabilities are rapidly regrowing. Given the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda, a de facto trade of cash for hostages could end up financing future terrorist attacks against Americans.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are already demanding that the Biden administration reveal all details of its negotiations with the Taliban since the fall of Kabul. This would provide much-needed transparency and accountability to any quid pro quo being offered to the Taliban.
But Congress should not stop there. It should also prohibit the release of any funds to the Taliban through the Federal Reserve, IMF, or other international organizations Washington has leverage over. In addition, Congress should pass legislation barring recognition of a Taliban-led government, including by the United Nations, and dramatically expanding U.S. financial sanctions to target the Taliban government’s central bank and economic sectors.
The administration, for its part, should not capitulate to the Taliban’s demands; it should make clear that any attempt to impede the continued departure of U.S. citizens, other Westerners, or Afghan allies will be met with force.
The Trump administration’s decision to negotiate with the Taliban and undermine the Afghan government was wrong. Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan was even worse—and his withdrawal process has been a disaster. Doubling down by caving to Taliban extortion will not prevent the group from helping al Qaeda launch terrorist attacks against the United States. It will guarantee they will.
Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior financial economics advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @Sghasseminejad. Matthew Zweig is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @MatthewZweig1. Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, and as the governor of Illinois’s chief of staff. Twitter: @rich_goldberg. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.