From isolation to engagement: The evolution of America's Afghan policy

From isolation to engagement: The evolution of America's Afghan policy

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After withdrawing from Afghanistan, the US policy discourse and approach towards the Taliban has swung between isolation and engagement. US policymakers have grappled with the moral dilemma of helping common Afghans without endorsing the Taliban’s harsh theocratic rule. On the one hand, Washington froze Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, imposed economic sanctions, and withheld diplomatic recognition until the Taliban ensured inclusive governance, the rights of girls and women to education and work and counter-terrorism obligations under the Doha Agreement 2020. On the other hand, the US continued to provide humanitarian assistance to avoid famine and hunger in the country. Ironically, economic sanctions have endured poverty which the humanitarian assistance has tried to mitigate. 

Hitherto, the US approach has tried to balance principles and pragmatism while figuring out how to advance its security interests without compromising on its democratic and human rights values. However, there is a growing realization in Washington that its Afghan policy has not gone anywhere and the “to-do-lists” it has given to Kabul have not worked. 

At the same time however, the Taliban have shown willingness to engage with the West to work on other issues, including security concerns particularly against Daesh-Khorasan. 

Against this backdrop, US policy in Afghanistan is gradually evolving from isolation to pragmatic engagement. The most visible sign of this subtle change came in June, when President Joe Biden publicly disclosed ‘the help the US is getting from the Taliban against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.” Even though Biden’s position was out of sync with the United Nations Committee on Al-Qaeda and Daesh’s June report, Biden’s remarks were aimed at softening the public view of the Taliban. Likewise, various Biden administration officials while testifying before the Congress in the last two years have persistently maintained that the Taliban do not pose a threat to the US and identified them as a potential partner against Daesh-K, pushing the narrative of: “The US should work with the bad buys to fight the worse ones.”

Isolation has proven to be counterproductive. Rather than moderating, it has further hardened the Taliban’s attitudes towards political inclusivity and the rights of girls and women. 

Abdul Basit Khan

As the Biden administration’s new approach to the Taliban unfolds, the US commentariat has been busy explaining the pros of engagement and cons of isolation, as well as the need to avoid conflation of engagement with endorsement, i.e., the recognition of the Taliban regime. As author Hassan Abbas has noted in his recent book, “The US wants to have a relationship with the Taliban without putting a label to it.”

In August, the Foreign Affairs magazine’s survey of US and Afghan international experts found that an overwhelming majority of them rejected US-Taliban normalization, but in the subtext most of them advocated some level of engagement. Interestingly, the survey was launched when a major barrier was crossed in the US-Taliban’s official meeting in Doha in July to discuss the way forward for their ties. The meeting was unprecedented in several respects: both sides discussed confidence building measures, a notable exception in previous interactions, Washington dropped the pre-conditions of progress on human rights and political inclusivity for engagement and overlapping communiques issued by both sides after the summit. On all previous occasions, the readouts from Washington and Kabul appeared like statements from two different meetings. In the July meeting, US officials also acknowledged the Taliban’s progress on counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, managing the economy and eradicating corruption. 

The following four factors have shaped the US strategic calculus towards the Taliban from a policy of isolation to pragmatic engagement. 

First, since assuming charge in August 2021, the Taliban have consolidated their power and restored order in Afghanistan. They are not facing any formidable challenge from their two main opponents, the National Resistance Front and Daesh-K. In short, the Taliban are here to stay and by not engaging with their regime the US will lose ground and leverage, particularly when the Taliban have shown willingness, albeit privately, and capability in effectively tackling Daesh-K. 

Second, isolation has proven to be counterproductive: rather than moderating, it has further hardened the Taliban’s attitudes towards political inclusivity and the rights of girls and women to work and education. Furthermore, it has empowered the Taliban hardliners while sidelining the pragmatists. 

Third, while the US followed a policy of isolation, regional countries like Russia and China have pursued greater engagement with the Taliban. Recently, Beijing has appointed its ambassador to Afghanistan and even the close US ally India has reopened its consulate, albeit at a much lower scale, in Kabul. It is better for Washington to remain engaged to preserve its influence in Afghanistan instead of conceding grounds to Moscow and Beijing. 

Finally, the US can leverage engagement with the Taliban to help the Afghan people and make incremental progress on mutual interests, while staying engaged with moderate elements of the movement. Conversely, isolation will empower the hardliners, hurt the mutual interests, and sideline the moderates.

Though Afghanistan is a test case of US policy failures, it is also true that there are no right or easy answers for the Afghan puzzle. America’s inconsistent policy postures have empowered the Taliban to the detriment of the Afghan people, particularly the women. Washington will do well to create a regional and international consensus around its evolving approach towards the Taliban to optimize leverage over their regime. Otherwise, the group is smart enough to exploit regional and international divisions to its benefit.

– The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. X: @basitresearcher.

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