<strong>The stark choice facing the United States in Afghanistan: Leave entirely or finish the job</strong>

From former US president Jimmy Carter to the current president, Afghanistan has been a key foreign and domestic issue for successive US administrations. President Joseph R. Biden may wish to turn the corner on Afghanistan once and for all, but, the release of the White House’s review of the chaotic 2021 troop withdrawal showed once again that the realities of Afghanistan and US partisan politics take precedence over his desire to permanently disentangle Washington from Afghanistan. The review fails to settle the debates surrounding the United States’ failed Afghanistan policies. One newspaper characterized it as “a schoolboy’s excuses for failing to do his homework.”

The February 2020 Doha Agreement with the Taliban had one essential and one desirable objective. Securing the safe withdrawal of US troops was its essential objective, which was complemented by an unwritten one, replacing Afghanistan’s nascent democratic constitutional order with the Taliban’s version of “pure Islamic government” led by the so-called moderate leader, Mullah Baradar. In other words, it was another case of Washington’s policy of “regime change.” The United States’ refusal to disclose the secret annexes to the Doha Agreement reinforced the prevailing suspicion among many Afghans and observers about the true nature of relations between Washington and the Taliban. 

During a lengthy phone call, former US president Donald J. Trump invited Mullah Baradar to Camp David. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Burns reportedly managed to meet Mullah Baradar in Kabul, the first senior US official visiting Taliban-occupied Kabul. That visit has been followed by regular exchanges between CIA senior officials and the Taliban’s notorious GDI, or General Directorate of Intelligence. The relations between the CIA and militant Islamists dates back to 1979, when the Agency initiated Operation Cyclone to covertly support Afghan and later Arab mujahideen against the Afghan government and the Red Army.

Washington’s investment in Mullah Baradar as its savior was consistent with the United States’ decades-old practice in Afghanistan. Earlier saviors included Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani, and Zalmay Khalilzad.

The United States’ strategy to convert the Taliban into its new partner is also visible in the diplomatic and economic arenas. By rejecting armed resistance against the Taliban, the United States has been advocating for an “intra-Afghan dialogue” to create an inclusive, representative, and constitutional governance system in Afghanistan. This delusion is supported by the usual peace-industrial complex and Norway and Qatar’s petrodollar diplomacy. For the Taliban, accepting any form of representative, democratic, and developmental governance is tantamount to committing political and ideological suicide, particularly when they are endowed by the sense of victory over the democratic alliance. Since the Taliban occupation, the United States remains the largest donor to Afghanistan. The monthly shipment of US dollars via United Nations (UN) agencies has been the key factor in stabilizing the Taliban-run economy and monetary management. Additionally, individual Taliban commanders are enriching themselves by abundant donor monies. The donor-induced corruption of militia and political actors has been another feature of Western interventions in Afghanistan since the 1980s.

However, as with its previous policies, reality has already exposed the limit of US’ machinations in Afghanistan. Mullah Baradar has been sidelined by the invisible Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Hibatullah, who is converting his base in Kandahar as the actual capital of the Islamic Emirate of Taliban. Even the Taliban’s spokesperson has moved his office from Kabul to Kandahar. The scope of relations between the US officials and the Taliban’s supreme leader is not publicly known.    

What is globally understood, however, are the dire consequences of the Taliban’s reign. Afghanistan under the Taliban represents a leading humanitarian crisis, where two-thirds of households struggle to meet basic food and non-foods needs, according to a World Bank survey. Afghanistan is now the only country where the ruling junta have established a functioning gender apartheid system. The Taliban’s reign of terror and oppression is making Afghanistan the North Korea of the region. Former allies of the United States remain key targets for assassination and detention by the Taliban.

Global ramifications of Washington’s abandonment of Afghanistan are also visible. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the neutral stance of key countries such as India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Brazil have been partly shaped by receding trust in the United States’ capacity as a reliable ally and a serious power. Washington’s self-made defeat in Afghanistan has given the militant Islamist bloc a new global victory. Palestinian protesters waved the Taliban flag recently in Jerusalem, showing that Islamists have found an inspiring power in the group. Another major terrorist attack on US and European soils emanating from Afghanistan is no longer a question of if, but when and how.

There are two alternatives to Washington’s decades-old tried and spectacularly failed approaches to Afghanistan: fulfil Biden’s wish to leave in its entirety, or complete what it initially began in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The former entails disbanding all ongoing US intelligence, political, diplomatic, and human and women’s-rights programs and rhetoric. The United States should let Afghans and regional countries fill the vacuum created by its departure.  

Neither total disengagement nor the present Taliban-centric strategy is feasible or sustainable without risk of considerable blowback. The tragic events of 9/11 aligned Afghans’ yearning for a dignified life and a constitutional polity with the world’s fear of militant Islamists. The United States’ numerous blunders, Afghanistan’s polarized elites, and the region’s anti-US agendas destroyed both Afghans’ inspiration and also the prospect of victory against the global threat of Islamist militancy.

The two objectives are intertwined, and the Taliban’s entrenched power is an obstacle to both ends; as such, it needs to be dismantled by a global coalition of stakeholders that are threatened by Afghanistan’s descent into Talibanistan. The upcoming UN-sponsored conference on Afghanistan in Doha should be seized as an opportunity to charter a meaningful, inclusive, and Afghanistan-centric political path. Such a process should recognize key anti-Taliban constituencies, including Afghan women, democratic voices, progressive Pashtuns, and non-Pashtun communities.

Regional and Western security concerns can only be addressed by a peaceful, inclusive, and constitutional polity in Afghanistan, not by the naïve idea of fighting one terrorist group—Islamic State—with another one—the Taliban. Neither the early US-led nor present Taliban-centric approaches would address Afghanistan’s multiple crises.  

Dr. Davood Moradian is director-general of the Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies (AISS).

The South Asia Center is the hub for the Atlantic Council’s analysis of the political, social, geographical, and cultural diversity of the region. ​At the intersection of South Asia and its geopolitics, SAC cultivates dialogue to shape policy and forge ties between the region and the global community.

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