It is difficult to overstate the multiple crises facing Afghanistan. With severe shortages and sky-high food prices, the World Food Program has reported that more than half the population is “marching to starvation”; an astonishing 97 percent of the population is at risk of falling below the poverty line by the end of 2022. Meanwhile, the Afghan government, with its profound disenfranchisement of women—girls older than 12 have been banned from school—has become the most gender repressive in the world. Western intelligence experts are also concerned that the country is once again becoming a haven for terrorist groups, as was made clear by the recent U.S. assassination of the al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the center of Kabul.
One year into Taliban rule, it is easy to blame these problems on the country’s new leaders. After the group captured Kabul, it was presented with an extraordinary opportunity to renounce some of its most extreme policies in exchange for some degree of international support. But it squandered a number of overtures by refusing to lift the ban on girls’ secondary education, for example, or taking steps to govern in a more inclusive manner. The regime’s failure to decisively deal with international terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda has further frustrated both Western leaders and Afghanistan’s own neighbors, which have demanded that the Taliban government match its words with action.
But Afghanistan’s woes go far beyond the mere fact of Taliban control. The economic situation has been made exceedingly worse by the international community’s decision to disengage from all development projects and to freeze $9 billion worth of assets that belong to Afghanistan and its citizens, regardless of who rules the country. Moreover, many of the country’s problems began long before the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021. Driving the country’s desperate situation is a confluence of disasters arising from over four decades of conflict, bad governance, and economic mismanagement, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the worsening effects of climate change.
The urgent challenge now is to prevent the country from a broader collapse. Although international efforts to provide basic humanitarian aid helped Afghanistan avoid the most dire outcomes last winter, the country is expected to face a similarly grim predicament later this year. Nor is there yet a global consensus about how to deal with the regime in Kabul. What has become apparent over the last 12 months is that the Taliban are not a monolithic political movement. Rescuing the country will require not only greater clarity about the roots of the current mess but also creative new approaches to dealing with its poorly understood rulers and the region.
Preachers and Pragmatists
Contrary to common assumptions, the Taliban leadership holds a broad range of views. During the years in which it fought the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, the movement remained focused on defeating the Afghan National Army and outlasting the government’s international backers. The quick disintegration of the army and the Biden administration’s decision to pull out U.S. forces allowed the Taliban to quickly attain their ultimate goal of reconquering the entire country. Since then, however, they have often been unsure how to govern it.
Although different factions—led by various charismatic leaders—remain committed to the Taliban leadership and to reaching major decisions through consensus, cracks have started to emerge. The slightly older and more conservative wing of the party remains intent on implementing the Taliban’s mid-1990s credo, word for word. Members of this group include the Taliban’s secretive leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhunzada, and his inner circle, made up mostly of village mullahs and a handful of conservative cabinet ministers. Based in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, in the south, Mawlawi Haibatullah and his followers have shown an inclination to take a more conservative position on all major policy decisions, including on women’s rights and girls’ secondary education.
But leaders such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the deputy prime minister and one of the founding members of the movement, along with younger Taliban leaders including the “princelings” Siraj Haqqani, the acting interior minister, and Mullah Yaqoob Mujahid, the acting defense minister and the son of the movement’s founder, have begun to challenge this approach, albeit privately. Increasingly, these more pragmatic leaders—in and outside Kabul—approach their positions as long term and view engagement with the world as paramount to achieving their ambitions. It is understood that they tend to be more focused on “God and country” than on just “God”.
Although most of these figures have remained silent on their policy differences with the conservative leadership, their supporters and proxies from across the country—second-tier leaders as well as religious leaders—have come forward and challenged decisions such as the ban on girls’ education. Furthermore, many local leaders—buoyed by the stance of these leaders—have continued to quietly allow for secondary girls’ education in almost a third of the country, directly challenging the edict coming out of Kandahar.
Of course, referring to leaders such as Haqqani and Yaqoob as pragmatic may seem naive, given the Haqqani network’s historic ties to extremist groups and the recent assassination of Zawahiri in central Kabul. But such is politics in Afghanistan: there are many shades of gray. Moreover, the most urgent question facing the West and other international allies is not who rules Afghanistan—a question over which they now have very little control—but rather how to deal most effectively with the rulers it has.
Within the Taliban, the pragmatists also diverge from the ideologues on the matter of inclusivity and form of government. The pragmatists realize that survival will depend not only on international recognition and engagement but also on domestic support. Some of this group recognize that although the Taliban are rooted in the most extreme conservative populations of the largely Pashtun regions of Afghanistan, neglecting the interests of Afghanistan’s other minorities and the country’s urban populations will only weaken the movement over time. Nonetheless, the Taliban leadership does not endorse this urgent need to engage and to accommodate. Mawlawi Haibatullah, in his address to the loya jirga in Kabul on July 1, 2022, made clear that although he endorsed a general amnesty for officials of the previous Afghan government, he does not see a formal role for them in the new political order.
It is not yet clear how these differences will play out. Alliances—whether loose or formal—will allow the Kabul-based leaders to further consolidate their power at the expense of their more conservative colleagues. But given the movement’s extraordinary unity and resilience, the ascendance by the pragmatists over the conservatives will likely happen through an evolution rather than a coup. Still, as the Kabul leadership gains clout, the voices of the more traditional elements could be diminished or at least confined to specific areas, as they were under past governments.
Consensus governing has also meant that local leaders and the Taliban cabinet have not been able to govern in a decisive manner in a country that requires enormous leadership given the challenges it faces daily. The diversity of views within the movement, however—along with the inability of China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia to moderate the Taliban regime—could present new opportunities for the United States and its allies to build a more constructive approach to Afghanistan.
Dead On Arrival
In order to develop a better Taliban strategy, the United States will first have to come to terms with the political dynamics that gave rise to the movement’s return in 2021. It would be a mistake to assume that Afghanistan fell apart in the weeks preceding the U.S. withdrawal one year ago. The foundations for this collapse were laid more than a decade earlier, soon after the inauguration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2004.
The rise of a violent insurgency, abetted by safe havens in Pakistan and the legacy of decades of war, meant that Afghanistan was ill suited to rapid change. In addition, the corruption and ineptitude of the Kabul government and its inability to take advantage of billions of dollars of Western aid and thousands of Western troops meant that Karzai and his successors were unable to build a viable, secure, and stable nation. But there is little doubt that the international community—led by the Americans, who soon became distracted by the war in Iraq—enabled successive, corrupt governments in Kabul that were bound to fail.
For nearly two decades, the United States addressed the Afghan dilemma without ever adopting a larger vision for the country. Instead, Afghanistan’s management was tackled one year at a time, with a new plan every time a new U.S. ambassador or commander took over or a new presidential administration came to office. Washington often contradicted its own policies. An aversion to nation building gave way to nation building “light” and then nation building “on steroids”. The Pentagon determined that Afghan forces should remain small but then decided to double them. The idea of an Afghan air force was ignored initially but revived later with a limited range of aircraft. Training was originally outsourced to Germany but then taken back by the U.S. military.
Established in Bonn in 2001 amid much hope, the post-Taliban government was already on life support by 2014, following the deeply flawed presidential elections that year. Ignoring vote rigging on a massive scale, the international community opted to go along with the results, dismissing millions of votes in the process. Not only did the United States and its allies fail to hold any individual or institution to account, but by forcing the two leading contenders, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, into an unworkable marriage—a “national unity” government—they left the Afghan political leadership deeply weakened at a time of critical urgency.
Meanwhile, Washington ignored—or worse, encouraged—corruption and predatory behavior on the part of Afghan officials and authorities. And amid a worsening security situation, the United States increasingly relied on night raids and indiscriminate bombing attacks in which civilians were often killed. In this environment, it was not difficult for the Taliban to gain new support. Policymakers understood this early but failed to act on it; then they opted to bail out when it was too late.
Too Little, Too Late
Again and again, the United States failed to prepare for or engage with the Taliban. Already in 2003, when the newly established Afghan government tried to engage with the Taliban, U.S. Defense Secretary Obama years, which culminated in the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, were abandoned far too quickly in 2013, when Karzai protested.
When U.S. President Donald Trump took office in 2017, his initial instinct was simply to walk away from Afghanistan. But the arrival of H. R. McMaster as the national security adviser postponed the inevitable for almost 18 months; McMaster argued that engaging with the Taliban was a futile endeavor and that the movement could still be defeated on the battlefield. In the fall of 2018, however, Trump made it clear to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he wanted out. His determination to withdraw culminated in the appointment of a seasoned diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, as special envoy for Afghan Reconciliation. Khalilzad’s task was twofold: first, he was to secure a deal with the Taliban that would allow for a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops and an agreement on terrorism so that there would be no repeat of 9/11. Second, he was to forge an intra-Afghan peace deal to ensure a peaceful transition to a new government.
The flawed February 2020 deal that emerged from this effort was the beginning of the end for Afghanistan. In reality, the agreement brought no progress on peace. It required little of the Taliban apart from an unenforceable pledge to break with al Qaeda, and it seemed mostly designed to allow U.S. troops to leave without being attacked by the group—an astonishingly low bar for the world’s most powerful military. Khalilzad’s oft-quoted remark—“nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”—reflected the hollowness of U.S. policy. With Washington renouncing the troops and assistance to the Afghan National Army that constituted its most important leverage, the Taliban could simply wait for the United States to leave.
The Ghani government’s inability to understand the significance of the Trump decision ensured that it was unable to operate in a post-American environment. During a trip to Washington in June 2021, Ghani opted to praise President Joe Biden and assured him repeatedly of the Afghan forces’ preparedness. Despite the fact that the Taliban were already rapidly advancing, Ghani failed to secure additional assistance, including the air support and maintenance required to operate the Afghan military’s equipment and hardware.
Biden’s decision to complete the U.S. drawdown, meanwhile, triggered a rush for the exit by U.S. contractors who were in Afghanistan to offer logistics, service, and upkeep to the Afghan troops. This all happened many weeks before anyone bothered raising the consequences of a rapid drawdown in Washington. The Afghan military was deprived not only of basic functional support but also of planning and strategy. What followed was a slow-motion train wreck.
Now, even Iran and Pakistan have buyer’s remorse with the Taliban. Having backed or supported the group in various ways during the insurgency, the two countries have discovered that the Taliban are far from compliant in Kabul. Both of these points are important: the former because some of Afghanistan’s neighbors were content to see the West lose and the latter because these same neighbors lack the resolve and the resources to help the country survive under its new leaders.
Afghans Into Militants
It is bad enough that the Taliban are now ensconced in Kabul, but a greater source of concern are reports that even more dangerous groups are once again taking root in Afghanistan. The UN and other sources have provided extensive evidence that foreign terrorist organizations, including a branch of the Islamic State known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), among others, remain active in Afghanistan. The Taliban tolerate some of these groups, such as al Qaeda, because of historic ties and for the leverage the groups may provide against regional and international powers; others, such as ISIS-K, have flourished because of myopic decisions by the Taliban government, such as freeing prisoners from Bagram in August 2021, and the Taliban’s targeting of rival groups, which has helped swell the ranks of ISIS-K.
The country’s dire economic situation has not helped. A majority of young Afghans—in a country that boasts the youngest population of any state outside sub-Saharan Africa—remain unemployed, and, as a result, many are being lured into joining ISIS-K and other militant movements. If there were alternatives, they would seek them. But by abandoning Afghanistan, the West has deprived the population of secure livelihoods, the consequence of which is an entire generation of young Afghans who are vulnerable to recruitment by radical groups.
The presence of Zawahiri in Kabul at the time of his assassination highlights the conundrum Taliban leaders face concerning their historic allies. The rank and file as well as the regional founders of the Taliban will not tolerate the expulsion of foreign terrorist leaders and their supporters, given the religious ideologies these groups share with the Taliban and al Qaeda’s oath of allegiance to the Taliban leader.
But the removal of one terrorist leader will not solve the problem. In 2021, Colin Kahl, the U.S. undersecretary of defense, warned that ISIS-K and al Qaeda forces based in Afghanistan could have the capacity to launch attacks on the West within two years. Clearly, more comprehensive engagement and pressure will be needed to persuade the Taliban to shun groups allied with the movement. The Taliban will need to understand that the policies that worked well during their violent insurgency are unlikely to help them govern the country.
Although Western governments may be encouraged by the conclusion of some U.S. spy agencies that al Qaeda has not done much to reestablish itself since the Taliban took control and that only a handful of longtime al Qaeda members remain in the country, many analysts remain skeptical.
Coming In From the Cold
What the last four decades have shown is that what happens in Afghanistan rarely stays in Afghanistan. Today’s dire economic and humanitarian crisis could reignite a civil war, which would further destabilize the wider region and allow international terrorist groups to reestablish themselves in the country—even more brazenly than in previous decades.
Europe’s leaders, currently dealing with the Ukrainian refugee Iran and Turkey. On a continent where even centrist political leaders have grown hostile to new refugees, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Afghans could dramatically alter the political landscape.
The United States, European countries, and international organizations have sought to avert a humanitarian disaster by providing emergency assistance to the population through the UN and other NGOs coupled with limited development or “basic needs” efforts focused on livelihoods, food security, and economic resilience. But these initiatives will have a durable impact only if the West remains engaged with Afghanistan, including with the Taliban government. It has also become clear that Europe and the Western allies are unprepared to take the initiative in Afghanistan; U.S. leadership is of paramount importance.
In fact, there is much more that Washington and its international partners can do not only to steer the pragmatic leaders of the Taliban toward a more inclusive and moderate Afghanistan but also to help the Taliban come in from the cold. There needs to be a clear, incremental road map to normalization that sets standards and expectations and also prioritizes engagement. This road map should have well-defined phases that allow time for difficult decisions and confidence building on both sides—perhaps over a 24-to-36-month period.
International recognition need not be an all-or-nothing proposition. There could be limited recognition in exchange for progress on key issues: rights for women and minorities, say, or steps toward a more inclusive government. But Western governments must act now to support a national dialogue outside of stilted meetings between diplomats and the Taliban in third countries. For example, an intra-Afghan forum could be convened in which prominent Afghan leaders—members of the Taliban, opposition leaders, civil society, and others—gather to discuss the future of the country. And international donors need to move forward with bold efforts to safeguard the gains made in Afghanistan over the last two decades. This means finding ways to increase educational access for all Afghans, maintaining an independent media, and harnessing the private sector to provide jobs, economic opportunity, and a moderating influence on the government. Although international donors are no longer providing hundreds of billions of dollars to station their own troops in Afghanistan and support the Afghan security forces, robust humanitarian and development aid could have a big impact at a fraction of the cost.
Many continue to view the Taliban leadership as intransigent, recalcitrant, and unyielding. A year in office has helped some Taliban leaders recognize the need for compromise, even though they have mostly not acted on that impulse. But the cement is not yet dry. As has been shown in the case of past regime changes such as those in Cuba and Iran, the window for change, once passed, can remain closed for a very long time. By nurturing and encouraging moderating tendencies in Afghanistan and by allowing more pragmatic leaders to form new domestic alliances, the West can help empower the realist elements of the Taliban. This will not be easy, and for the moment, the country seems to be on a trajectory that does not bode well for compromise. But Washington ignores Afghanistan at its own peril: by failing to support the Afghan people or engage with the Taliban, the West may be consigning the country to a future as a humanitarian catastrophe and terrorist haven.
Saad Mohseni is Co-Founder and Chair of Moby Group, an independent media holding company founded in Afghanistan in 2002. He also serves on the Advisory Board of the International Crisis Group.