At this year’s meeting of the General Assembly in the U.N.’s splendid Turtle Bay headquarters, there was a lot of hand-wringing over what’s going on in Afghanistan. The country was taken over two years ago by the revanchist Taliban, following the U.S. surrender brokered by Donald Trump and the Saigon-style mess of an evacuation under Joe Biden. Since then, Afghanistan has become a paradise for terrorists, extremists, and drug traffickers; hell for almost everyone else. Washington’s focus has moved on to Ukraine and now Gaza, but Afghanistan is a black hole for U.S. foreign policy.
The country is nearing implosion amid concerns of conflict between rival Taliban factions that have been arming against each other, in the quest for power and wealth, almost since they took control. Food fills the markets, but few people have the cash to buy it, due to U.S. sanctions on the banks and the Taliban’s inability to create jobs. The Taliban control the $55-billion-a-year global heroin business and are moving into methamphetamines, which are much more profitable. Farmers who have for decades produced poppies are now swelling the ranks of the jobless, the hungry, and the thousands of people left homeless by earthquakes.
If famine arrives this winter, as many believe it will, women and children will be the first victims. Men will continue to leave, a mass exodus of desperate humanity in search of work, income, and food.
In the 2024 election, Afghanistan presents a toxic dilemma: Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to acknowledge their share in the shame of the disastrous military and civilian pullout, the return of a terrorist-run regime, and the destitution of tens of millions of people, many of them joining the westward flow of refugees. Both sides are equally desperate to keep Afghanistan out of the election discourse as they each try to shout the loudest that the calamity wasn’t their fault.
Afghanistan has become a paradise for terrorists, extremists, and drug traffickers; hell for almost everyone else. And a black hole for U.S. foreign policy.
Two decades in Afghanistan cost the United States upward of two trillion dollars and more than 2,000 lives lost in the longest war in American history. Social and economic progress has been reversed. If and when war returns, as appears inevitable, the United States will find it impossible to avoid responsibility or involvement, regardless of who is in the Oval Office.
That chalice, for now, is held by President Biden, who has sidelined Afghanistan from foreign-policy and humanitarian considerations. Since the pullout of U.S. troops, the administration has not come up with a strategy for Afghanistan, “de-prioritizing” it, as one source in the development sector put it, “as a policy or spending priority for U.S. foreign assistance.”
Some senior U.S. diplomats, frustrated with the apparent lack of coherent policy from above, believe the time has come to reopen the Kabul embassy and at least get moving on issuing visas for the tens of thousands of stranded Afghans eligible for re-settlement in the United States. This, they say, would also facilitate contact with senior Taliban figures, in hopes of influencing, or even improving, the situation of women and girls.
As career foreign-service officials drift off into that pipe dream, Republicans don’t mention that it was Trump’s bilateral deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops that catapulted them back into power. Trump bypassed Afghanistan’s government and people and signed them over to the extremists who’d harbored al-Qaeda while the atrocities of September 11, 2001, were planned and carried out.
By the time President Biden announced, in April 2021, that he was sticking with Trump’s deal, there were only 2,500 U.S. military personnel left in Afghanistan, down from the peak of 110,000 in 2011, under President Barack Obama. The evacuation was in full swing. Contracts for mechanics who kept air assets flying were not renewed, removing the Afghan Armed Forces’ only battlefield advantage. The Afghan government, under former president Ashraf Ghani, couldn’t believe that America would go.
While Ghani flailed, the Taliban heard Trump’s message loud and clear. They unleashed waves of fighters who squeezed the landlocked country inward until, on August 15, 2021, they were inside the gates of Kabul, and Ghani fled into historic oblivion. Taliban 2.0 proclaimed the “Islamic emirate” and began the systematic and illegal suppression of all perceived enemies, starting with women.
Since then, Biden’s people, including the special representative for Afghanistan, Thomas West, have talked of “pragmatic engagement.” Security and intelligence sources said engagement focuses mostly on counterterrorism, with the United States providing targeting information to the Taliban’s acting defense minister, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, on the local franchise of ISIS, called I.S.-Khorasan Province.
Republicans don’t mention that it was Trump’s bilateral deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops that catapulted them back into power.
The Taliban and I.S.-K.P. are strategic competitors in the Islamist extremist space, their actions aimed at burnishing credentials among grassroots supporters as the most righteous ideologues. Ironically, the Taliban are receiving help from both the United States and al-Qaeda to eradicate I.S.-K.P., while using it as cover for eliminating other enemies, such as officials and military of the collapsed republic, or anti-Taliban militia.
West has praised the Taliban for having “a very aggressive, violent, offensive ongoing that has significantly degraded IS-KP capability”—a disingenuous if widely accepted narrative that works to the Taliban’s advantage by portraying them as responsible stewards of government.
Security cooperation is a prevailing theme. In June, President Biden hailed the Taliban for eradicating al-Qaeda, a false claim undercut in mid-2022, when the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed in a drone strike on his residence in Kabul.
The U.N. Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team regularly reports on the symbiotic relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Big Daddy among almost two dozen terrorist and jihadist groups protected by the Taliban. Al-Qaeda runs training camps and safe houses, senior figures hold administrative posts, and operatives are issued passports. Al-Qaeda is now an indelible feature of the landscape.
That hasn’t escaped the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Republican representative Mike McCaul, who uses Afghanistan as a political cudgel. He told Air Mail that Biden has abandoned the cause of oppressed Afghans and is “normalizing relations with the Taliban” under the guise of counterterrorism cooperation. Not surprisingly, McCaul avoided addressing Trump’s role in bringing back the Taliban.
The Taliban is not listed as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions team, though many of the movement’s leaders are blacklisted, including Yaqoob, the son of founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, a deputy leader of the Taliban and leader of the Haqqani network, a Taliban offshoot behind some of the worst atrocities of the war. The Abbey Gate bombing bore the hallmarks of the Haqqani network, though it has been ascribed to I.S.-K.P.
Haqqani is also widely believed to be a leader of al-Qaeda and is one of the F.B.I.’s “most wanted.” He is the acting minister of the interior, in charge of security across Afghanistan. He runs a squadron of trained suicide bombers and is wealthy, powerful, ambitious, and duplicitous. He covets the top job of supreme leader, held by Hibatullah Akhundzada.
Biden is “normalizing relations with the Taliban” under the guise of counterterrorism cooperation.
It’s a rivalry, split between Hibatullah’s power base in Kandahar and Haqqani’s clique in Kabul, which preoccupies both men and their circles, diverting attention from proper governance, even if they were capable of it. Yet Haqqani is promoted, by U.S. and U.N. officials who should know better, as a “moderate” who believes the persistent, ideological suppression of women and girls should be reversed, and so should be nurtured as an ally. If anything, he is an opportunist who will do, and say, whatever it takes to get what he wants.
After 45 years of war, Afghanistan’s women and girls account for more than half the population of 42 million and are now mostly prisoners in their homes, again. The United Nations, a master of mixed messaging, releases regular reports on Taliban outrages—arbitrary imprisonment and killings, sex slavery by forced marriage, repression of media and civil society. Yet its agencies on the ground comply with Taliban edicts banning women from working with international non-governmental organizations.
“The [U.N.] member states have washed their hands of Afghanistan, they tried, it didn’t work, and now it’s an embarrassment, an abject failure of 20 years of nation building,” a Western official at a U.N. agency in Kabul, said. “Everyone wants to forget about it. The Taliban have been great for them—everyone gets to disengage and still maintain the moral high ground, while they move on to Ukraine, Gaza, or the next terrible place.”
While the Taliban abuse without consequence, the U.N. mission in Afghanistan facilitates regular deliveries of cash, shrink-wrapped on pallets and flown into the Kabul airport. Officials in Kabul said $3.073 billion has arrived in 85 shipments since December 2021. This is aside from more than $2 billion in aid from the United States. Multilateral organizations are also pumping in cash: in September, the Asian Development Bank pledged $400 million for women and girls in need. The U.N. cannot account for it all, yet senior officials try to discredit journalists who report on Taliban theft or question their approach.
The Taliban appear to believe, as did the republican government they ousted, that the free money will keep flowing. But their violence and incompetence, corruption, bigotry, and boneheaded stupidity have put almost everyone off. The big donors are no longer pledging funds, as they know the Taliban will steal much of it, and they are disgusted by the intransigent misogyny.
Two years of international pressure to ease the repression of women and girls has convinced Taliban leaders, such as the canny Haqqani, that it’s the key to diplomatic recognition. That’s a delusion of fanatics. Western governments and donors also want to see action against the abuse of ethnic and religious minorities, such as Shi’a Hazaras, as well as on drugs, arbitrary detention and killings, and toward an inclusive government. Women’s rights is a banner issue but just one of many.
“Everyone gets to disengage and still maintain the moral high ground, while they move on to Ukraine, Gaza, or the next terrible place.”
Overwhelming condemnation of their “gender apartheid” at the U.N. Security Council last month could lead to a resolution—which the United States could support, as apartheid is not codified in international criminal law—that would preclude any member state from recognizing the Taliban.
Meanwhile, it’s the money that’s doing the talking. U.S. officials, apparently satisfied with the counterterrorism cooperation, reward the Taliban with face-to-face meetings in the Qatari capital, Doha, where they discuss economic and humanitarian issues. The latest took place on October 17.
Recognition, which special representative West and U.N. officials believe is the Taliban’s most coveted prize, is not on the table yet. But nor is a coherent U.S. policy to deal with the growing threat Afghanistan poses to regional and global security as a haven for trans-national terrorist groups.
Jeff Grieco, president of the Washington-based Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, led a delegation to Kabul in September, invited by the Taliban’s acting deputy prime minister, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, with a green light from the State Department. Afghanistan is open for business, Grieco said.
Officials at the central bank—who were deputies to the former governors before the takeover—are among a small number of competent individuals working in the Taliban’s administration. Grieco said they are making some progress against money-laundering and terrorism financing, continuing work begun under the republic to comply with international standards and remove a huge and long-term deterrent to investment.
“It’s worth trying to do more with them in that area, if they’re willing to work hard at it,” Grieco said. “They know their future is tied to the international banking system. Without it, they will just be North Korea, and they know that.”
Lynne O’Donnell, an author, journalist, and broadcaster, specializes in South and Central Asian affairs, war, and terrorism