Even as the United States finalizes its departure from Afghanistan, it faces a dilemma as heartbreaking as any during the 20 Years War: how to deal with the new Taliban government.
The question is already evident in the debate over the depth of cooperation against a common enemy, the Islamic State branch in the region, known as ISIS-K.
Another: whether to release 9.4 billion dollars of foreign exchange reserves of the Afghan government which are frozen in the United States. Handing billions over to the Taliban would be to finance the cogs of its ultraconservative regime. But withholding the money would only ensure a sudden currency crisis and a halt to imports, including food and fuel, starving the Afghan civilians the United States had promised to protect.
These are just the beginning. Washington and the Taliban can spend years, if not decades, torn between cooperation and conflict, compromise and competition, as they manage a relationship in which neither can fully tolerate or live with one without. the other.
As fierce as they are in combat, the Taliban seem to understand that ruling an impoverished and war-torn nation is a very different challenge for which it needs economic and diplomatic support, which it is already seeking from the States- United.
Washington, for its part, sees Afghanistan as a potential safe haven for international terrorists, a center of geopolitical competition against its greatest adversaries, and the site of two looming catastrophes – the Taliban regime and economic collapse – each of which could end in itself. spread far beyond the country’s borders.
At home, President Biden is already facing a backlash against Afghanistan that would likely escalate if seen as allowing the Taliban regime. But he may find that even to achieve the smallest American goals in the country, one must tolerate the group that now controls him.
His administration got a taste of this new reality last week, when US forces evacuating Kabul relied on Taliban fighters to help secure the city’s airport.
“It is in their best interest that we can leave on time,” said President Biden, when asked about the risks, and perhaps the indignities, of accommodating partial Taliban control over access to evacuation .
He added, in a line that could come to define the relationship, “It’s not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of mutual interest.”
If the United States, now without troops or allies in Afghanistan, wishes to contain ISIS-K, it will need intelligence on the ground and friendly forces.
And the Taliban, still struggling to consolidate their control over the country’s many remote corners, may need American air power to help defeat the group.
This combination was essential in defeating the Islamic State in Iraq, officials who worked on the campaign said. Washington and the Taliban are already testing silent, mostly tacit coordination.
The United States has a long history of working with unsavory governments against terrorist groups.
But such governments have systematically exploited this to gain American assent, and even assistance, in suppressing national opponents whom they have labeled extremists.
This dynamic has long allowed dictators to ignore American demands for human rights and democracy, convinced that Washington would tolerate their abuses as long as they respect questions of terrorism.
Even if U.S. officials could verify every list of targets, any airstrike would serve a Taliban takeover that it has resisted for decades. And every Taliban soldier spared from fighting ISIS-K could be redirected to suppress less extreme opposition groups.
The question may ultimately be whether Washington prefers an Afghanistan divided by civil war – the very conditions that produced the Taliban and now ISIS-K – or a unified country under the control of a Taliban who can or not. moderate in power.
A diplomatic dance
The Taliban, desperate for foreign support, underscored a desire to forge ties with Washington.
The longer the United States maintains its recognition, formal or informal, the more the Taliban has an incentive to seek American approval. But if Washington waits too long, other powers may first fill the diplomatic void.
Iran and China, which border Afghanistan, both signal that they could embrace the Taliban government in exchange for promises related primarily to terrorism. Both are keen to avoid an economic collapse or to resume war on their borders. And they are especially keen to prevent American influence from returning.
“Beijing will want to extend recognition to the Taliban government, probably after or at the same time as Pakistan does, but before any Western country,” Amanda Hsiao, Chinese analyst for the International Crisis Group, wrote in a recent policy brief. .
Iran has already started to refer to “the Islamic Emirate,” the Taliban’s preferred name for its government. Iranian missions remain open.
For Washington, there are gray areas between embracing or isolating the Taliban. Friendly countries with interests in Afghanistan, such as Turkey or Qatar, already hint at a desire to maintain or even deepen commercial interests in the country, for which they are likely to seek at least the tacit approval of United States.
Washington did not recognize the Vietnamese government until 1995, 20 years after its withdrawal. But the intervening years were marked by a flurry of agreements. American concessions tended to strengthen Vietnamese pragmatists over hardliners, bringing reciprocity.
Yet Vietnam remains a one-party dictatorship that has only softened very slowly and slightly. But former enemies have come very close on an issue that is unlikely to apply to Afghanistan, intensive trade, and one that is opposition to China.
Many Afghans fear that American recognition, even indirect, could be seen as a blank check for the group to rule as it sees fit.
Yet some who are fiercely opposed to both the Taliban and the US withdrawal have called for international engagement.
“All those who have a stake in the stability of Afghanistan must come together,” wrote Saad Mohseni, an Afghan-Australian businessman who is responsible for much of the country’s media sector, in a Financial Times essay.
Rather than undermining the Taliban government, he urged, foreign powers, including the United States, “must capitalize on this need for recognition and persuade the Taliban to take a more accommodating stance.”
Understanding the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as leaders.
Neither commitment nor hostility is likely to transform the underlying nature of the group. And even when the engagement works, it can be slow and frustrating, with many breakdowns and reversals on a road to reconciliation that could take decades to travel.
The other impending catastrophe
Perhaps the only scenario as dire as a Taliban takeover is one that is virtually assured without US intervention: economic collapse, even famine.
Afghanistan imports much of its food and fuel, as well as most of its electricity. Because it has a large trade deficit, it pays for its imports mainly through foreign aid, which accounts for nearly half of the country’s economy – and has now been suspended.
The country has enough foreign exchange reserves to finance around 18 months of imports. Or he did, until the United States froze the accounts.
As a result, Afghanistan could soon run out of food and fuel with no way to replenish itself either.
“Acute famines usually result from food shortages triggering a rush for basic necessities, speculation and spikes in food prices, which kill the poorest,” wrote a Columbia University economist last week, Adam Tooze. “These are the things we can already see at work in Afghanistan.”
As the United States learned in ’90s Somalia, stealing food does not solve the problem and may even make it worse by bankrupting local farmers.
Mr Tooze warned of what economists call a “sudden stop”, in which countries suddenly lose the ability to finance their trade deficits. It can also trigger a currency crisis, leading to runaway inflation that makes food almost unaffordable.
In the city of Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, flour prices have already risen by 41 percent and gas prices by 63 percent, according to Save the Children, a charity. The group also interviewed some of the thousands of families displaced from rural areas to Kabul and found that many already could not afford food.
It’s hard to imagine a more difficult sale in Washington than offering diplomatic services and billions of dollars to the group that once housed Al Qaeda, excluded women from public life and organized public executions.
Republicans are already taking advantage of the chaos of the withdrawal to criticize Mr. Biden for being gentle on opponents abroad.
It could also come under pressure from Afghan emigrants, a number of whom are already living in the United States. Diasporas, like those in Vietnam or Cuba, tend to be openly hawkish towards governments they have fled.
The administration, which pursues an ambitious national agenda in a tightly divided Congress, may be reluctant to divert more political capital to a country it sees as peripheral.
Yet Mr Biden appeared to enjoy dismissing political pressures on Afghanistan. Whether he chooses to prioritize geopolitical rivalry, humanitarian well-being, or the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, he risks finding himself doing it again.