After weeks of deliberating, the Biden administration announced a new withdrawal date for US troops in Afghanistan, giving hope to end America’s longest war. The decision was met with mixed reactions from those who think that the US withdrawal is long overdue and those who favor keeping a longer presence in the country.
But both who support or disagree with the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw all US troops by September 11, 2021 are looking at the war through a myopic lens, focusing only on the counterterrorism perspective — and this is totally wrong. Instead, the United States needs a new, more nuanced approach toward its foreign policy that should start with finally ending the Global War on Terror (GWOT). With respect to Afghanistan, as the United States prepares to leave, the Biden administration can — and should — do what seemed impossible two decades ago: build a strategic relationship with the Taliban.
DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE
The world status quo has changed and US hegemony is no longer an absolute truth as China and Russia are becoming more and more emboldened to challenge American supremacy. The debate over keeping troops in Afghanistan or removing them, therefore, obscured a more important question: the need for the United States to transform Afghanistan from a liability into an asset in the world defined by the GWOT. While the Biden administration has announced a new withdrawal date — September 11, 2021 — what’s really needed is a strategic plan after US troops leave. While US efforts to turn Afghanistan into a democratic and inclusive country have largely failed, that does not mean that the United States will not continue its relationship with the Afghan government. In addition to its relationship with Kabul, Washington should continue to build a strategic relationship with the Taliban, with the vision that it will continue to grow well after the US military has left the country.
For the United States to build a workable relationship with the Taliban is not only possible but critical for US interests in the region. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, warmongers and proponents of the military-industrial complex incorrectly identified the Taliban as the primary threat to US national security. The movement, since its rise to power in the late twentieth century, was keen to establish a relationship with the United States and wanted an embassy in Kabul. The 2001 attacks caught the Taliban by surprise and the group condemned the terrorist act and offered its condolences, even though they refused to give up al-Qaida. Since the US invasion, the Taliban have not attacked any US targets outside of Afghanistan borders, and have not attacked any US service members since the peace agreement it signed with the Trump administration in February 2020.
In addition to its relationship with Kabul, Washington should continue to build a strategic relationship with the Taliban, with the vision that it will continue to grow well after the US military has left the country.
The Taliban have also evolved. The Taliban today is not the same Taliban that the United States ousted from power in 2001. The movement has experienced significant changes both socially and politically over these last two decades. For example, the Taliban has softened its parochial views about many societal norms, such as girls education and virtue policing. The Taliban have also developed relationships with other countries — even those that historically have been critical and/or against the movement — creating what looks like a pragmatic foreign policy. Finally, while the Taliban has not severed its ties with al-Qaida, the relationship has been weakening. Viewing the United States as a common enemy bonded them, but as the United States prepares to withdraw, that may change. In fact, the differences between the two have become glaringly obvious since the US invasion of Afghanistan.
Past US administrations made a grave mistake by considering the Taliban and al-Qaida as two faces of the same coin. While it is true that the movement is a fundamentalist ideological militant movement that does not share any values with the United States, it does not mean that the Biden administration can’t build a strategic relationship with the Taliban. After all, Washington has several unsavory “friends” like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Furthermore, one just needs to look at Vietnam, where the United States waged war for decades against communists, only now to recognize them as a key partner against the spreading of Chinese influence. So, why can’t the Taliban and the US government reconcile?
FINDING COMMON GROUND
The United States is currently at a crossroads. Washington must choose between continuing the senseless GWOT or realize and prepare for the competition for hegemony against the Chinese and Russian challenge. Afghanistan has almost always been at the forefront of great power politics and has been called the “graveyard of empires” for this reason. But by finally withdrawing its troops, the Biden administration will be doing something past administrations have failed to do: ending America’s longest war while also simultaneously beginning the end of the GWOT, which has been almost as ill-designed and poorly conducted as the US war in Afghanistan.
There are two things that both opponents and proponents of the US withdrawal agree upon: that ending the US presence will intensify the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan and that the Taliban is in better shape than the Afghan National Security Forces, and hence, are more likely to control Afghanistan’s territory than the Afghan government. After all, the Taliban were able to control the whole country in the 1990s. More recently, the Taliban took over Kunduz in 2015 and again in 2019, demonstrating their manpower.
With respect to the Biden administration and the Taliban, there are several shared points of interest that could create a strategic and lasting link between the Taliban leadership and future US administrations. First, both oppose the existence of Islamic State Khorasan (ISK). The Taliban has been clashing with the group and managed to dislodge them from many of their strongholds. Even without the American logistical support that the Afghan government relies on, the Taliban may prove to be more efficient in fighting the group. Nothing proves this more than the stark failure of the Afghan government to prevent devastating terrorist attacks, especially against minority communities — like the car bombing in front of a girls school on May 7 that killed 55 people and injured at least 155 — despite enjoying all the resources provided by the US government over the years. Second, the Taliban can serve as a check on al-Qaeda within Afghanistan and the region. The Taliban’s relationship with al-Qaeda has been uneasy after they experienced firsthand how the group’s adventures led to what they consider a disaster for the Afghan people.
And third, a working relationship with the Taliban may provide a much-needed avenue to rebuild Afghanistan’s economy, reduce its dependence on foreign aid, replace poppy cultivation with another crop or commodity native to the country, and create an environment that would attract foreign direct investment. Afghanistan is rich in rare earth metals, which are in high demand. Currently, China has a monopoly on rare earth metals. But stabilizing Afghanistan and laying down the infrastructure to extract that wealth will help both Afghanistan and the United States simultaneously. For Afghanistan, it would mean creating a new, legitimate, and hopefully sustainable revenue source, while for the United States it could mean potentially weakening China’s monopoly and not having to spend millions of dollars on aid to Afghanistan. In other words, the United States, the Taliban and other stakeholders can work together to build this industry and create infrastructure. While this will largely depend on how the Taliban choose to govern in the post-US invasion environment, there is room to be optimistic since the Taliban have revealed themselves to be rational actors — and playing a crucial role in development is a rational act.
A strategic relationship between the United States and the Taliban, therefore, is not only important for the United States but also for the Taliban. The Taliban may have a stronghold on various parts of Afghanistan, but it still has a long way to go when it comes to being viewed as a legitimate actor in international politics. The movement needs help from the international and regional community — and this won’t happen easily without the approval and blessing of Washington.
A PRAGMATIC RELATIONSHIP IS POSSIBLE
While there is no single answer to Afghanistan’s woes, development is the key to creating a stable country — and the United States can call on its allies to assist in Afghanistan’s development, which is already underway. For example, Turkey has pledged $75 million in aid for projects that focus on education, health, and infrastructure in Afghanistan. Other foreign governments have pledged close to $12 billion over the next four years as long as there is consistent progress in the Afghan peace process and human rights within the country. The United States could work with other countries and provide expertise and resources to empower Afghan women in all social classes. Having a strategic relationship, therefore, does not necessarily mean an alliance or partnership between the United States and the Taliban. Rather, it means a pragmatic relationship that allows Washington to remain connected to Afghanistan and the region without being tangled in military operations — or nation-building.
It will, however, be very difficult for the establishment in Washington to engage in the outlined policy changes. Washington, after all, is not a fan of change. But rethinking — and rebuilding — its relationship with the Taliban, who are a part of Afghanistan’s political fabric, will allow the United States to turn Afghanistan into an asset rather than the political, economic, and military liability it has been.
Islam Abdel-Rahman is an anesthesiologist who is interested in international security and grand strategy. He is an alum of the Politics and International Studies (PAIS) department at The University of Warwick.