The recent chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport should make one thing painfully clear: We can’t airlift the whole country to some safe haven. Although the United States has a moral responsibility to evacuate the Afghans we put in harm’s way, the most consequential decisions in the days ahead involve how we will help the millions of Afghans who will be left behind and how we will relate to their new leaders.
The Biden administration faces a choice: try to thwart any government the Taliban create or use whatever shred of leverage America has left to encourage them to govern as inclusively and moderately as possible. If we care about the people of Afghanistan, we will try the latter — and do so with as little of the hubris and heavy-handedness that helped get us into this mess in the first place.
For many ordinary people across Afghanistan, this is a moment of cynicism and even despair about politics and the long game for their country. The sight of Afghan political and military leaders escaping in American planes is a betrayal, plentiful proof of whose bidding they had been doing all along. But not everyone caught a cargo plane out of town. The former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and the longtime leader and chairman of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, have been sitting down with Taliban leaders in an attempt to form a new and more inclusive government.
It’s far from clear whether they will succeed. Both presided over a government that was famously corrupt. So far, the Western press seems to be portraying their efforts as foolhardy rather than brave. But the people need a way out of their political despair — just as America needs a way out of the spectacle of a great power abandoning the people it had professed to care about. Afghanistan will be far better off with a government that includes non-Taliban figures like Mr. Karzai and Dr. Abdullah who have relationships with American and European leaders, not to mention recent experience running the country. The United States will be better off if talks are successful in forming a stable and inclusive government, an outcome that already faces long odds.
The Taliban might be in no mood for concessions after sweeping the country with relative ease. They appear to be divided about what kind of government they should form. We must not take at face value their promises to govern more moderately than they did in the late 1990s, when they last controlled the country. There are reports of some girls being forced to marry Taliban fighters, and female newscasters on state television were removed from the air. So far, the Taliban have mostly abided by a promise to offer safe passage to Americans who want to leave by the deadline of Aug. 31, but they have begun to block the departure of Afghans, a development that will spark more desperation and panic.
There are still reasons for hope that the Taliban might respond to incentives to moderate their behavior, even if only to gain international recognition and undercut internal opposition.
In a news conference last week, the Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid promised to protect the rights of women, minorities and the independent press — albeit in the context of Shariah. “There is a huge difference between us now and 20 years ago,” he pledged. In recent days, Taliban fighters did not interfere with a public ceremony of the Shiite religious minority that the Taliban persecuted in the past. A Taliban spokesman allowed himself to be interviewed by a female reporter for a segment aired by Tolo, the country’s largest private broadcaster. The Taliban have met with tribal elders and religious leaders, a sign they understand that in order to govern, they need broader support than they currently have.
The United States has already tried the policy of thwarting the Taliban at every turn. In 2001 the Taliban’s leader and co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar attempted to surrender to Mr. Karzai’s forces and demobilize, in exchange for allowing the Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to live in dignity in Kandahar. The U.S. defense secretary at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, refused to accept that deal. At the insistence of Americans, the Taliban were bombed and locked up at Guantánamo Bay. It’s hard not to see today’s debacle as a repudiation of the hubris of that era.
What leverage we have left — money — is not insignificant, but it has to be handled with the future of the Afghan people in mind. The Biden administration has frozen the roughly $7 billion that belongs to Afghanistan that sits in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The International Monetary Fund has refused to deliver funds that Afghanistan was due to receive to help the country weather Covid. Without international assistance, the salaries of low-level Afghan government workers — teachers, doctors and sanitation crews — will almost certainly not be paid. If the government runs out of funds, the price of food could skyrocket. Unrest will spread.
To be sure, it is impossible to imagine the international community providing aid directly to a Taliban-led government. The Taliban are listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. Treasury and as a “threat to international peace and security” by the United Nations Security Council. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit by and watch economic insecurity spread. Planes that land in Kabul to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies could be filled with humanitarian aid for the United Nations to distribute to the people who are left behind. If we care about Afghanistan, we should lay down some clear conditions under which a new Afghan government could come out from under international sanctions. This is the long game: to leverage money and international recognition to incentivize the Taliban to establish the most inclusive and moderate government possible.
For far too long, Afghanistan has been pulled apart by great powers pursuing their own agendas. In the 1980s, Americans funded Islamist fighters to undermine the Soviet-allied government at the time — setting the stage for the Taliban. For the past 20 years, the United States and its NATO allies have micromanaged the government in Kabul, engineering support for pro-Western policies and leaders. On the sidelines, Afghanistan’s neighbors have backed their own factions. Iran has armed and trained Hazaras, a Shiite minority, who fought in Syria. Pakistan has supported the Afghan Taliban, who have traditionally been Pashtun. Maybe it is finally time for the rest of the world to let Afghans chart their own path and to stop playing spoiler.
It seems to me that even a deeply flawed government in Kabul is preferable to no government at all, as people living in Somalia, Libya or the Democratic Republic of Congo can attest. Somalia is a particularly vivid example of the United States using its power to topple a group that had brought security to a lawless place. Our intervention drove out the Islamic Courts Union, only to leave Somalia at the mercy of an even more extremist group.
In Afghanistan, there are no good options. Americans could use additional sanctions to undermine the Taliban, but sanctions will have limited value unless Afghanistan’s neighbors — especially China, Iran and Pakistan — agree to abide by them. We could covertly arm the Taliban’s opponents. But that would condemn the country to more war or to falling under the sway of ISIS-K, which is considered more dangerous than the Taliban.
The occupation of Afghanistan was based on a flawed logic that people were either with us or against us, that the Islamic world was a swamp that we had to drain and that we had the moral authority and the power to remake an entire region to prevent another terrorist attack on our soil. In the process of all that draining and remaking, we created a whole crop of other terrorists and upended the lives of tens of millions of innocent people.
It is this way of thinking — not just the occupation of Afghanistan — that must end.
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