Afghanistan: The United States Must Stay Engaged
One year after the fall of Kabul and departure of U.S. troops, the United States still has an important policy and action agenda regarding Afghanistan but with less leverage in a country suffering serious problems.
Millions in Afghanistan face the dire effects of a devastating humanitarian and economic crisis. The Taliban government is focused on installing its version of an Islamic Emirate and cementing control. The new regime gives little priority to including non-Taliban Afghans or to the human rights of women, girls, or others who do not share their vision. Nor does the Taliban give priority to concerns raised by the United States and others in the international community.
There is clear evidence that the Taliban are providing a haven to terrorist friends in al Qaeda and indications that they are sheltering radical Islamic groups from the region as well. The United States has also not yet fulfilled the promises of protection and refuge to many Afghans who worked closely with the US and shared its laudable objectives over two decades. Far too many of these Afghan friends are still in Afghanistan or other countries seeking to come to the United States.
The United States needs to address these issues as effectively and quickly as possible, while trying to maintain unity of effort with other international partners. The Taliban’s poor behavior is helping to maintain international unity. No country has yet formally recognized their government.
Going forward, the United States needs to be clear headed about its many mistakes from 2001-2022. It is essential to keep in mind that the United States undermined its own interests and those of Afghanistan with a terrible exit strategy – an unsound 2020 agreement with the Taliban followed by a deeply flawed plan to move toward peace and withdrawal, and then tragic errors during the 2021 departure (despite the heroic efforts at the Kabul airport).
Though the United States cannot redo earlier mistakes, it can acknowledge and act on its enduring moral responsibility toward the Afghan people...
Though the United States cannot redo earlier mistakes, it can acknowledge and act on its enduring moral responsibility toward the Afghan people as well as its security interest preventing Afghanistan from again harboring terrorists. Some would like to forget and turn away, but the United States still has an important, tough path to tread to meet its continuing responsibilities toward the Afghan people.
The U.S. approach needs to be humble not arrogant, patient not rushed, caring for those in need, thoughtful and creative maintaining international support, and tough-minded yet ready to act when the opportunity arises to make gains for the Afghan people or to deal with serious security threats.
This means continuing to engage with the Taliban where and when the US can convey important messages and make progress. The United States should remain open to working out practical steps to help Afghanistan’s economy better sustain Afghan citizens and businesses. It must continue to engage in getting more aid safely to Afghans and in restoring respect for the rights of women and girls. However, the United States should not make concessions to get progress when the Taliban won't concede anything. Taliban leaders seem to have learned from US behavior in the past several years that they can ignore what the US wants and the US will eventually give them what they want.
The United States should continue its laudable humanitarian relief programs, working closely with international organizations, NGOs, and other donors so that aid is effectively and securely delivered, without it being siphoned off to the Taliban government or corrupt actors.
The United States can only hope to make progress effectively with an active diplomacy that maintains and builds strong coalitions with international partners. That coalition work must reach beyond partners with whom the US shares priority objectives, such as human rights and democracy, to maintaining as much unity as possible with countries such as China and Russia and with Afghanistan’s neighbors including Pakistan and Iran.
Afghanistan’s neighbors have a particularly important role as they have clear interests in a stable Afghanistan, in an Afghanistan that does not shelter or export extremism, and in an Afghanistan with whom they can have good neighborly relations. And the Taliban have practical day-to-day interests in engaging with them. The pressure/temptation for neighbors to accommodate the Taliban will likely grow.
It will be hard to get the Taliban to take steps that the United States and its partners want, whether it involves respecting the rights of women and girls, supporting the transparent handling of financial assistance flows, or acting responsibly against terrorist groups with whom the Taliban have strong ties, like al Qaeda.
The Taliban prioritize maintaining unity and setting up their Islamic Emirate. They are trying to consolidate what they see as an historic victory. What the “international community,” even potential partners, seek is secondary.
The United States should be open to the possibility of U.S. officials visiting Kabul and Kandahar if there is progress, and eventually to a non-Embassy U.S. presence in Afghanistan for managing issues like the departure of approved Afghans.
Any U.S. success in this endeavor will likely be slow, with fits and starts in trying to use the leverage available. It will entail empowering others in the international coalition to lead on some issues. For example, it could be very valuable to have a higher profile head of the UN mission in Afghanistan take the lead in dealing with the Taliban on many issues. There is also little question that the United States should communicate directly with the Taliban on issues such as support for terrorism and arranging for Afghan partners to leave in a rapid and orderly manner. The United States should be open to the possibility of U.S. officials visiting Kabul and Kandahar if there is progress, and eventually to a non-Embassy U.S. presence in Afghanistan for managing issues like the departure of approved Afghans.
The United States must also keep doors open to dialogue with non-Taliban Afghans as they emerge with new ideas and organizations that offer viable alternatives to the Taliban.
It is vital that the United States continues to play a leading role in influencing international action and in providing aid to sustain the Afghan people. The work will require patience and long-term engagement to improve the situation that the United States left in Afghanistan. This engagement is very different than what the United States pursued from 2001-2021, but it remains vital for maintaining U.S. values and security interests.
Earl Anthony Wayne is a retired U.S. Career Ambassador with significant experience working in and on Afghanistan. He is a Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center and a Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service.
The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Earl Anthony Wayne
Former Career Ambassador to Afghanistan, Argentina, and Mexico; Distinguished Diplomat in Residence, School of International Service, American University
The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Read more