Getting Washington’s Taliban policy right may spare US from circumstances that again force America’s return

Javid Ahmad & Douglas London

As we prepare to close out another tumultuous year, the world confronts uncertainty that evokes déjà vu, outrage, and at times an urge to look away. With much attention rightly drawn to Ukraine, it’s understandably challenging to remind the world of the danger in the Taliban’s campaign to turn Afghanistan into a hermit kingdom, from where its leaders can insulate themselves from external pressure or internal dissent and from which no distance or distraction will provide reprieve.
Despite assurances from two U.S. administrations that the Taliban would have no alternative but to work constructively with the world in a new beginning, the Taliban unsurprisingly has followed a historically consistent religious guidebook. And although decades of American engagement failed to produce a meaningful change in the Taliban, it did contribute to a now untenable version of the “Afghan Dream” for millions of Afghans.
Much of the debate around America’s engagement in Afghanistan had been puzzled by a curious paradox: Every time Washington pushed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, it ironically created the conditions to remain or later return. That irony now informs the current paradox that the country had never seemed safer like today under the Taliban, or likewise more dangerous. And yet, as in the past, Afghanistan’s crippling dependence on U.S. cash and involvement for survival still reinforces America’s centrality there and across the region. The truth is, as bad as things are now in Afghanistan, it can get worse, and the country’s collapse into a rump state or decadency into dystopian existence would not stop at its own borders.
The Taliban’s return has transformed the terrorism landscape into a veritable commercial jihadist enterprise, enabling terror groups to which it feels kinship and some degree of obligation from years of collaboration. Once competing jihadist forces are variously negotiating separate accords while others realign to establish tactical partnerships, developments facilitated under the Taliban’s protective umbrella.
The Taliban has quietly cemented or adjusted its own arrangements among a troubling jihadist constellation involving Pakistani, Uzbek, Tajik, Uyghur, Arab and Baloch groups. Taliban rulers are reportedly registering foreign fighters and issuing them weapons permits and travel documents. Concurrently, the Islamic State’s Afghan chapter, ISIS-K, has emerged as the most kinetically active group rivaling the Taliban, which the ISIS-K depicts as apostates, Western puppets.
Externally, the Taliban has clashed with almost every neighboring country and regularly exploits the threat of militant violence to extract concessions. None of the Taliban’s neighbors has been able to offer the Taliban enough to walk away from regional jihadist groups, despite determined efforts by China, Iran and Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors. Conversely, the Taliban’s cooperation largely depends upon the degree to which each regional country supports or opposes anti-Taliban groups.
Domestically, the Taliban has extended their minoritarian tyranny and engaged in a class conflict to consolidate power, acquire resources, and remove competition. This power consolidation is done through a combination of vice and virtue politics, punishments and retributions, political alienation, and selective patronage. Sharia courts proliferate the country and civilian bureaucracy has become largely militarized and operated by Taliban fighters. Scores of Afghans, especially women, continue to bear the brunt of the Taliban’s brutality, forced marriages, segregation, hunger and unemployment.
Taliban rulers have knitted together a strictly conservative Sunni Hanafi state in which they have wedded clerical and executive powers. The Taliban’s clerics have validated themselves as the vanguard for pure Islamic leadership, each burnishing their originalist credentials and proclaiming how their religious legitimacy grants them political legitimacy. What’s more, Taliban leaders see no need for a national dialogue to establish an acceptable government even if they end up leading it.
To avoid their previous fate, the Taliban has carefully distributed power and authority covering domestic policy, business partnerships, and foreign relations among a tight circle close to Emir Haibatullah Akhundzada and secondarily to the powerful acting interior and defense ministers, internationally wanted terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani and Taliban founder’s son, the young Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, respectively. But as a supreme cleric, the emir has the final word on all things. He acts in a manner far less concerned than Haqqani or Yaqoob about outward appearances that might play better in attracting international support and cooperation, or internal compromise to cross political divides. Inside the Taliban, the new rulers primarily use patronage to ensure cohesion, including through appointments, shares in revenue collection, and land distribution.
While hardly progressives or friends of America, Haqqani’s international criminal syndicate and illicit business interests and Yaqoob’s national political ambition account for their greater openness to global outreach than the insular Akhundzada, who believes that doing so risks Afg-hanistan’s independence and freedom from external pressure. Among such posturing, Yaqoob welcomed the American media to his Kandahar compound in August 2022 following Haqqani’s televised, and carefully scripted, May 2022 interview with CNN.
No Afghan group has emerged to credibly challenge the Taliban, nor does any command the Taliban-like, longer-term tactical or religious staying power. Washington shows little appetite to muddy the already toxic waters by supporting any of the fledgling and politically problematic resistance organizations. Internally, this hopelessness has forced many ordinary Afghans into becoming accidental or part-time Taliban. And America’s desire to move on leaves in question its obligation to the thousands of Afghans it worked with, either trapped and left behind, or in legal limbo in the U.S. and elsewhere.
While no Taliban action thus far is redeemable, their staying power requires Washington to diversify its approach and engage the clerical leadership, potentially by developing new sources of pressure and leverage. There is evidence of low-visibility engagement. In October, the State Department acknowledged “an interagency” American delegation, code for a group that likely included U.S. intelligence community elements, which met with Taliban administrators in Qatar.
In December, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) released a communique regarding a meeting in Abu Dhabi between Yaqoob and the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Thomas West. It is likely that individual U.S. agencies are concurrently pursuing their own direct contacts, some publicly showcased in Qatar and some, perhaps, more discreetly occurring in alternative venues such as the UAE. But Haqqani and Yaqoob are not operating without the emir’s full blessing, though what they share with outsiders might not accurately convey their superior’s true views or agenda.
Such contact, albeit none directly with rulers in Kandahar, ideally aims to find a common language to understand the ruling clerics’ ideological priorities and explore areas for accommodation and compromise. As it develops, the engagement might benefit from deploying a special U.S. liaison team to staff a small American diplomatic support facility in Kabul.
In the end, there is no zero-risk approach to dealing with the Taliban, which contains all the ingredients for its own destruction — one that might put neighbors at risk and force U.S. involvement. But dialogue with the ruling clerics could help Washington integrate necessary regional collaborators and enforcers whose common interest is mitigating the Taliban’s inclination to facilitate destabilizing extremist factions residing within its borders. That would be a useful start in helping the clerics in Kandahar interpret their own religious priorities within which they might be nudged toward acceptable engagement, requiring them to ease social restrictions and start an inclusive national dialogue.
Getting Washington’s Taliban policy right could spare the U.S. from circumstances that again force America’s return. That starts with passing the Afghan Adjustment Act and working to influence developments in Afghanistan, rather than reacting to them.