Thursday’s terrorist bombings outside Kabul’s international airport were a humanitarian tragedy – and may greatly complicate the way forward for both the United States and the Taliban, which have been warily cooperating during the largest evacuation airlift since the Vietnam War.
The attacks Thursday – which killed at least 12 American servicemen and dozens of Afghan civilians – have the potential to alter the calculus on everything from the Taliban’s stated promise to keep Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of terrorist activity to their attempt to present a more moderate face to the world than they showed the last time they were in power.
At the same time, the attacks may make it more difficult for the U.S. to develop their current relationship with the Taliban into something more than a narrow working effort to manage the evacuation’s chaos. For President Joe Biden, the political pressure of this foreign crisis will only increase.
The Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the explosions, may want a future Afghanistan in which the Taliban and the U.S. have as narrow a relationship as possible.
Nevertheless, an impetus remains for the Taliban and the international community to engage diplomatically. The Taliban are taking the reins from a government in Kabul that relied on U.S. and Western funding for 80% of its budget. At the same time, about half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people have been dependent on international food assistance to survive.
As the Taliban transition from waging an insurgency to governing the country, those factors might seem to suggest that the Western-led international community will have significant leverage to press the conservative Islamist movement to modify its past behavior.
At the same time, the U.S. and other countries have a range of interests, from preventing terrorism and controlling the illicit drug trade to avoiding a new humanitarian disaster marked by rising hunger and an overpowering refugee exodus. And these international concerns will play to the Taliban’s favor.
What this means, experts in Afghanistan and global politics say, is that both sides have cards to play in an emerging diplomatic game between the Taliban government and the international community.
What does the Taliban want from the world?
Much will depend, they add, on perhaps the biggest unknown of the new reality: what kind of governance the Taliban intend to impose, and what kind of relations they want with the world. The Taliban’s actions in the days immediately following Thursday’s devastating attacks will likely influence whether the international community sees them as a credible governing body.
“The leverage the U.S. and the broader international community have is squarely on the financial side, when you remember to what degree Afghanistan has been dependent on international support,” says Earl Anthony Wayne, a former deputy U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
“But of course how much leverage that is depends on what the government that emerges on the Taliban side really wants to do,” he adds. “If they want to be a government that provides services and can help people get jobs that allow for stable and productive lives, then they’re going to require international assistance.”
There are a few conditions the international community as a whole, led by the five powers of the United Nations Security Council – the U.S., China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom – will want to set with the Taliban government in order for international sanctions on the group to be lifted and foreign assistance to resume.
At the top of the list is terrorism.
“It’s actually helpful to the Taliban to have terrorist attacks like today to tell the U.S., ‘If you don’t leave Afghanistan, there will be more like this,'” says Bradley Bowman, senior director at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s Center on Military and Political Power in Washington.
Today’s attacks may deepen Russia’s worries that the Taliban victory could prove to be a boon to Islamist extremists in some former republics of the Soviet Union, while China has similar concerns about the influence Afghanistan’s triumphant Islamists could have among its minority Muslim Uyghur population.
Moreover, Russia in particular will be focused on another common interest of the international community – stemming the flow of opium and other drugs out of Afghanistan.
“The key to controlling the Taliban’s behavior has to be the region,” says Anatol Lieven, a British South Asia analyst who is now a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington. “All the countries in the region are deeply opposed to Afghanistan again becoming a terrorist haven,” he says.
Not far behind, he adds, are regional concerns about illicit drugs.
The Taliban have assured regional powers that they will “suppress heroin – they’ve made that promise in Moscow and Tehran, as well as to the U.S.,” Mr. Lieven says.
But beyond such primarily security concerns, interests are likely to diverge. The U.S. and its Western allies could soon find themselves alone in pressuring a new government on human rights, women’s and girls’ rights, an independent press, and inclusive governance, some say.
“The challenge for the U.S. in seeking to preserve the gains made by Afghan society is going to be, can you get tough conditions for the Taliban to hold?” says Ambassador Wayne, now a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.
G7 leaders met Tuesday for a virtual summit on Afghanistan, but the focus remained on the chaotic evacuation out of Kabul airport – and on disagreement among G7 partners with President Joe Biden’s decision to keep to the Aug. 31 deadline agreed with the Taliban for ending the formal evacuation process.
“The G7 [group of wealthy Western economies] will be the easiest forum to bring along,” Mr. Wayne adds, “but will others join? The Security Council – which is the forum that counts in terms of international sanctions – is going to be a key testing point of the pressure the international community is willing to keep on the Taliban.”
Much has been made over the past two weeks of what some are calling the “new Taliban” – allowing some women journalists to continue working, proclaiming that women’s rights will be respected, assuring (with an eye to neighboring Iran) that the country’s Shia minority will not be repressed.
But many experts caution that the Taliban could simply be “playing nice” in this early period in which no powers have yet recognized the new government, international sanctions on the Taliban are still in force, IMF funding for the country is on hold, and national assets are frozen, mostly in U.S. banks.
Already the Afghan economy is in free fall, with Afghans reporting empty ATMs and food shortages in markets – and skyrocketing prices on the supplies that remain. The World Food Program warned Wednesday that 14 million Afghans could face starvation if massive food aid does not come soon.
Faced with such a catastrophic scenario, some analysts say, the international community could very well shift priorities like human rights and inclusive governance to the back burner. Mr. Wayne says for example that he would expect the U.S. Treasury to move quickly to create “cut-outs” from sanctions on the Taliban to allow for humanitarian assistance.
Certainly no one wants to see a grave humanitarian crisis take hold of Afghanistan. But some international analysts say the U.S. – its image already severely damaged by a tumultuous withdrawal and a widespread conclusion that it abandoned friends and allies in the process – can ill afford to see its international standing tarnished further by forsaking the young leaders, rights advocates, and Western-style journalists it fostered.
“Everyone right now is talking about the pressure the U.S. and the rest of the world can bring to bear on the Taliban through sanctions, [withholding] formal recognition, and international funding, but they are not the only three elements at our disposal,” says Rina Amiri, who served in the Obama administration as a senior adviser to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The fourth, in my view even more crucial element … is the soft power – the ideals and values that have been such an important part of American power and influence,” says Ms. Amiri, now a senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “What worries me now,” she adds, “is that the United States is acting like it’s on its back heel and withdrawing from those ideals.”
At a press conference Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Taliban will “have a very strong interest in acting with a modicum of responsibility” if they don’t want to return to “pariah state” status. And he insisted that the U.S. “will use every tool at our disposal … to do everything possible to uphold [Afghans’] basic rights.”
Ms. Amiri, who has maintained her work with human rights defenders and women’s groups in Afghanistan, says she remains hopeful the U.S. will return to emphasizing its moral authority in dealing with a Taliban government.
But she cites a statement she received from a group of Afghan women leaders Tuesday to illustrate just how low America’s stature has fallen.
“There is no political will to rescue Afghan women,” the statement posted on social media said. “America is going to do what it did the entire way. They will raise our hopes, then abandon us at the last minute and wash their hands of us.”
If indeed the U.S. intends to use its moral authority as leverage with the Taliban, Ms. Amiri says, it has a deep hole to dig out of first.