January 20, 2022

Dealing with a Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan

Supporting the Afghan People without Legitimizing the Regime

By Lisa Curtis

Executive Summary

Nearly 20 years after U.S. forces overturned Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the fundamentalist Islamist movement is back in power. This follows the U.S. troop withdrawal in summer 2021 and a failed peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban that was concluded during the Trump administration. The U.S. government must continue to monitor terrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan and work with like-minded nations to protect Afghan civil society, especially women and girls. While competing with China may be America’s number one foreign policy priority, managing terrorism threats and protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan also demands continued U.S. attention and resources.

First and foremost, the United States and other international donors must help Afghanistan avoid a humanitarian disaster and ensure average Afghans can meet their basic needs for food, shelter, and access to healthcare. While the United Nations and international humanitarian organizations are finding ways to get cash into the system without funneling it through the Taliban, there is a need to identify a more reliable and sustainable solution to Afghanistan’s liquidity crisis. However, releasing to the Taliban without conditions the nearly $7 billion in Afghan foreign reserves that Washington froze following the Taliban takeover of the country is not the answer. The Biden administration must avoid giving these assets to the Taliban interim government, which comprises mostly individuals who have been sanctioned for their involvement in terrorism.

Managing terrorism threats and protecting women’s rights in Afghanistan demands continued U.S. attention and resources.

The elevation within the Taliban regime of members of the Haqqani Network—a State Department–designated Foreign Terrorist Organization with links to al Qaeda—demonstrates that hardliners are in the ascendance, and that the Taliban is unlikely to break ties to terrorists anytime soon. The Taliban regime has also failed to live up to its initial pledges to protect women’s rights. Instead, there are numerous reports of women facing restrictions on their rights, including freedom of movement and access to education and employment. In mid-October, women’s rights activist Frozan Safi was shot dead along with three of her colleagues in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Human rights monitors view their murders as an act of Taliban revenge for their leadership of protest demonstrations advocating for the preservation of women’s rights.

Since August, the United States has relocated 73,000 Afghans to the United States as they pursue permanent resettlement. However, tens of thousands more Afghans are trapped in the country, and their lives are in danger because of either their support for human rights and democracy or their role in the 20-year U.S. mission. There is clear bipartisan congressional support for continuing to evacuate Afghans at risk who are eligible to apply for resettlement in the United States.

The United States still has significant national security interests in Afghanistan, and it would be a mistake for Washington to disengage from the country. The U.S. government can demonstrate continued global leadership and redeem its tarnished reputation for the disastrous withdrawal by working with like-minded partners to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and preserve civil society gains. Finally, the United States has a moral obligation to evacuate and resettle Afghans who support human rights and democracy and who worked with the U.S. government and are now in danger because of that work.

Moving forward, the United States should carry out the following steps in the areas of:

Humanitarian Relief

  • Work with international partners to establish a humanitarian and financial assistance corridor. This could involve the World Bank setting up an Afghan Relief Trust Fund to funnel money into the economy, including for civil servant salaries. The trust fund could operate along the same lines of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, which operated from 2002 until the collapse of Kabul on August 15, 2021.

Security

  • Refuse to recognize the Taliban government as long as U.S.- and U.N.-designated terrorists remain part of the cabinet. Recognizing a government that includes terrorists with U.S. blood on their hands would provide a boost to extremists throughout the region and increase danger to U.S. citizens worldwide.
  • Maintain State and Treasury Department sanctions on Haqqani Network and Taliban leaders until they completely sever ties to terrorism. The United States should not accede to Taliban demands to lift sanctions on individuals merely because they now hold positions of power. Until these groups completely sever ties to terrorism, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network should retain their classifications as Specially Designated Global Terrorist groups under Executive Order 13224, and the Haqqani Network should remain a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization under section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
  • Invest in enhancing drone technology for over-the-horizon counterterrorism (CT) operations. The United States should be prepared to conduct drone operations from bases in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, since Pakistan and the Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan are wary of allowing the United States to conduct lethal operations from their territory.
  • Increase CT cooperation with Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. There is potential to stage limited CT operations out of Central Asian countries and to increase intelligence sharing to monitor terrorist threats in Afghanistan.

Diplomacy and Human Rights

  • Form a contact group with like-minded countries to determine an engagement strategy with the Taliban and put forward a roadmap for influencing Taliban policies on human rights and terrorism. The roadmap for engagement should require concrete actions, not just verbal commitments, to generate reciprocal rewards from the United States and its partners, for example technical assistance and other forms of nonhumanitarian aid.
  • Establish that future U.S. development funding will be conditional on respect for human rights, especially those of women. The U.S. government must make any funding for education programs conditional on women being allowed to teach, girls being allowed to attend secondary school, and women being allowed to attend university classes, including those attended or taught by males.
  • Strengthen the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan mandate to work directly with civil society. The United States should encourage the U.N. to partner closely with Afghan civil society and non-Taliban political actors to keep civic and political space open.
  • Set up a credible, independent human rights monitoring mechanism. Establishing a credible and objective human rights monitoring mechanism is necessary to avoid the types of serious abuses that were committed during previous Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001.
  • Maintain a strong position on human rights and terrorism in the U.N. Security Council. Washington must work closely with London and Paris to prevent Moscow and Beijing from diluting language on human rights in UNSC resolutions related to Afghanistan, or from seeking to prematurely lift UNSC sanctions on Taliban leaders connected to terrorism.
  • Engage closely with the Afghan diaspora. The U.S. government should remain closely engaged with the Afghan diaspora to monitor the humanitarian and human rights situation inside Afghanistan.

Evacuations

  • Strengthen the State Department’s capabilities and hold it accountable for maintaining an effort to evacuate at-risk Afghans eligible to apply for resettlement in the United States. The State Department must assist these individuals in departing Afghanistan and reaching temporary third-country locations, while providing them humanitarian support as the U.S. government processes their resettlement applications using all available authorities and resources to expedite and streamline the current processes.
  • Work more closely with private entities seeking to safely extract Afghans in danger. The State Department should establish a more inclusive, better resourced, and more transparent process for working with private organizations to assist Afghan evacuation efforts.

Finally, the U.S. Congress should:

  • Fully empower the Afghanistan Commission mandated in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act and ensure it is handled in a nonpartisan manner. While the Biden administration mismanaged the U.S. withdrawal, the overall failure of the mission in Afghanistan is a result of mistakes made by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The American public, especially veterans and families who have lost loved ones in the war, were disturbed by the way the evacuation process was handled and want explanations for why and how the Biden administration made its decisions. However, the commission must examine all aspects of the Afghan mission during the past 20 years—not only the past six months. Another important issue for the commission to explore is why the Trump administration forced President Ashraf Ghani to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, even though it was clear the Taliban was not interested in a negotiated settlement. If congressional leaders try to use the Afghanistan issue only to batter their political opponents, all Americans will lose, because national leaders will not learn from past mistakes, but will make similar foreign policy blunders in the future.

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Authors

  • Lisa Curtis

    Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Lisa Curtis is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is a foreign policy and national security expert with over 20 years of service in...

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