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US policy of ‘pragmatic engagement’ in Afghanistan risks legitimatizing Taliban rule

The Biden administration has not ruled out diplomatic recognition of the Taliban. Doing so risks legitimizing the group’s rule without holding it accountable.

Supporters celebrate the second anniversary of Taliban rule on Aug. 15, 2023. Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images

For two decades, the conflict in Afghanistan occupied international attention and U.S. resources. But ever since American troops withdrew in 2021, the conflict has seemingly been viewed in Washington more as a concern localized to the region of Central and South Asia.

This is due in large part to the U.S.’s shifting global priorities. The invasion in Ukraine and Chinese ambitions in the Pacific have meant that Afghanistan is no longer a top priority for the U.S. administration.

Naturally, the U.S.’s exit from Afghanistan has left the Biden administration with weaker leverage in the country. Indeed, some observers are now calling for the U.S. to diplomatically recognize the Taliban government – something the Biden administration has stated it has yet to make a decision on.

As an expert on international relations and Afghanistan, I would argue recognizing the Taliban without pushing for a political road map and guarantees from them would be a mistake. As a partner in the Doha agreement – the peace deal signed by the U.S. and the Taliban in 2020 leading to American troop withdrawal – Washington has an obligation to hold the Taliban to account over its side of the bargain: Preventing terrorists from operating in Afghanistan and engaging in intra-Afghan talks to end decades of conflict.

Yet over the past two years, the U.S.’s policy of “pragmatic engagement” in Afghanistan – which amounts to working with the Taliban on limited security concerns while urging a course correction on human rights – has done little to discourage Taliban policies that have degraded the rights of Afghan citizens. Nor has it pushed the Taliban to long-promised talks with other factions and parties in Afghanistan aimed at ending decades of turmoil.

Evolving US interests

America was drawn into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack on the U.S mainland. It’s goal was to dismantle and destroy al-Qaida and its affiliate groups. But at the same time, it was considered to be in the U.S.’s interest to also assist Afghans in creating a more equal and just political system after decades of civil war and instability. The vision was for a government that respected human rights, guaranteed access to education for all and promoted democracy.

Some of those ideals made it into the Doha agreement and public statements by the Taliban delegation before the deal was signed. Yet, more than three years after the agreement was inked in the Qatari capital, the Taliban appears to show no intention of following through on its promises. It has restricted the rights of women and girls to education and rejected the idea of an inclusive government with input from other Afghans.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s policy of pragmatic engagement amounts to combating terrorism through an “over-the-horizon” strategy directed from outside the country and intervening in Afghan affairs only through the Taliban itself, an unconventional partner for the U.S. in this effort.

In July 2023, President Biden implied that working with the Taliban in counterterrorism efforts had borne fruit: “I said al-Qaida would not be there. I said it wouldn’t be there. I said we’d get help from the Taliban.”

Taliban failing on pledges

Yet, after vowing in the Doha agreement to send a “clear message” to groups such as al-Qaida that “threaten the security of the United States and its allies,” the Taliban has yet to publicly sever ties with the group or banish militants from Afghanistan.

The Taliban has killed a few individuals identified as being threats to the U.S., notably by targeting the terrorist group ISIS-K. But it has been less helpful in cracking down on al-Qaida members. Indeed, al-Qaida leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was hiding out in Kabul – something that couldn’t have happened without the involvement of high-ranking Taliban officials – until a U.S. operation in July 2022 killed him.

In maintaining contacts with the Taliban for counterterrorism goals without pressuring the group on human rights issues, the U.S. might serve to legitimize the Taliban’s leadership of the country at times when the group still lacks an internal mandate.

Despite these concerns, the U.S. is seemingly pushing ahead with this policy of “pragmatic engagement.”

In July 2023, A U.S. delegation led by Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West and Rina Amir, the special envoy for Afghan women, girls and human rights, met with the Taliban foreign minister in Doha. A State Department press release framed the meeting as a confidence-building exercise, noting positive developments such as growth in trade, a “decrease in large-scale terrorist attacks” and a “reduction in opium cultivation.”

Mention was made of the U.S. urging the Taliban to “reverse policies responsible for deteriorating human rights.” But as one critic noted, such language “fall(s) atrociously short of describing the Taliban’s vast inhumanity toward Afghans.”

Lack of regional consensus

The void left by the U.S. is being filled by regional powers and countries that share a border with Afghanistan: China, India, Russia, Pakistan and Iran.

But every one of these countries has its own interests in Afghanistan. Sometimes these are directly conflicting, such as with Pakistan and India, which have long been suspicious of the other’s influence in Afghanistan. Historically, all border countries have looked upon warring Afghan factions as proxies to further their own aims – a tactic that has only added to the instability of the country.

The result is a lack of coordination between regional players on Afghanistan’s path forward and little pressure on the Taliban to continue down the political road map as set out by the Doha agreement.

Repeating past mistakes

This failure to hold the Taliban accountable risks repeating past mistakes in Afghanistan.

In the 50 years since the last Afghan monarch was dethroned in 1973, the country has been ruled by a succession of single-party governments that have excluded other political groups. In 2001, the international community excluded the Taliban from the Bonn Conference, which set the pathway to governance for the country after the U.S. invasion.

Masoom Stanekzai, a former chief peace negotiator for the Afghan government, called the exclusion of the Taliban “a strategic mistake” – and for good reason, I believe: History has shown that excluding factions in Afghanistan has led only to civil strife.

Since 2021, the Taliban has been allowed to continue Afghanistan down this path of single-party governance. As Andrew Watkins, senior expert on Afghanistan for the U.S. Institute of Peace, noted, the Taliban has shown in its governance one intent: “To establish uncontested and unquestioned authority over Afghanistan’s state and society.”

With such ambitions, the Taliban leaves little room for the intra-Afghan dialogue needed for Afghanistan to move forward.

The US role

By signing the 2020 deal with the Taliban, the U.S took on joint responsibility for the delivery of promises made in the agreement. The pledge by Washington to withdraw forces has been fulfilled. But two years on from that, the Taliban has yet to deliver on its commitments.

This leaves the Biden administration with a choice: Try to keep the Doha deal alive by pressuring the Taliban into intra-Afghan talks, or accept that the deal is now dead. Either way, “pragmatic engagement” with the Taliban has shown itself to be wanting.

Sher Jan Ahmadzai is affiliated with Afghan-American Foundation.



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