By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Why Afghanistan Still Poses A Threat To The Region And Beyond
It has been two years since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan. But earlier this summer, in a government office in Kabul overlooking a well-tended garden, a mid-level Taliban official lamented that the country remains locked in a political standoff. Regional and Western actors cannot agree on how to deal with the Taliban, he complained; even after the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, the West is still fighting a culture war. The United States and its allies want the Taliban to lift their restrictions on women’s rights, but the Taliban will not accept what they see as a feminist agenda.
Meanwhile, governments from Beijing to Washington have demanded that the Taliban form an inclusive government. At peace talks in Doha before August 2021, Taliban representatives offered to share power with opposing Afghan factions to end the conflict. But since winning the war, they have reserved the right to exclude politicians not in the Taliban from the cabinet. Taliban leaders complain that “inclusivity” is little more than a vague talking point that could mean anything from broader participation in governance (which they are willing to consider, at least for men) to inclusion of political figures from the defeated government (which they are not).
And so Afghanistan remains at an impasse, with no realistic pathway for the government to shake off its pariah status, escape sanctions, and take a seat at the United Nations. The Taliban refuse compromises that undermine their standing with core supporters and, in their view, corrupt their moral values. For their part, Western officials argue that it would be against their values and politically damaging to accredit diplomats from a regime that so flagrantly discriminates against women. Even sending a U.S. envoy to Kabul remains controversial in Washington, and the Biden administration has refrained from doing so. Formal diplomatic recognition of the Taliban could take years if it ever happens.
The World Has No Choice But to Work With the Taliban
These years cannot be wasted. Sanctions, asset freezes, and other economic restrictions that isolate Afghanistan have crippled its chances of recovering from a financial crisis that the United Nations has called the world’s largest humanitarian disaster for the last two years. Banking, aviation, and other critical sectors are hobbled. More than half the country’s people cannot satisfy basic household needs. Pledges of humanitarian aid have fallen as donors turn away.
For millions of Afghans, regional actors, Western governments, and institutions must work to establish more functional relationships with the Taliban. After spending several months in Afghanistan speaking to Taliban officials and the foreign dignitaries who negotiate with them, we concluded that, even though Afghanistan’s reentry into the community of nations remains a distant prospect, there are substantial practical steps that the outside world can take in the service of peace, stability, and security.
The swiftness of the Taliban takeover confounded more optimistic US and UK predictions about the survival of the Afghan government. But most of its consequences were entirely predictable and indeed predicted – from the worsening human rights situation to an economic crisis.
Diplomats should move quickly to break the current paralysis. The situation reminded the Taliban Foreign Ministry staffer of a local parable about a cow and its butchers: “The butchers disagree about how to carve up the animal. They bicker for so long that the cow dies of old age, and nobody gets to eat.”
Good Defenses Make Good Neighbors
The Taliban regime may be a pariah government, but Afghanistan does not exist in isolation. It anchors a region with neighbors who badly need it to recover; if Afghans continue to suffer, so will millions of others nearby. The Taliban are trying to cement their power with displays of state building: they have been improving dams around the country, flying drones over water projects, and filling social media with the footage of their works in progress. Whatever the world thinks, the Taliban now run a country with aims and urgent needs.
Afghanistan’s region cannot wait in a holding pattern for the world to strike a grand bargain with the Taliban on diplomatic recognition. Most of Afghanistan’s neighbors wanted the departure of foreign troops and were pleased when the U.S. withdrawal ended an extraordinarily deadly war. But now that American forces are no longer combating transnational militants in the region, Afghanistan’s neighbors worry the Taliban cannot, or will not, fill the gap.
China, for its part, wants the Taliban to hand over Uyghur militants based in Afghanistan. Still, the Taliban have adopted a softer policy of resettling them far from the Afghan-Chinese border. Central Asian countries have similar security concerns and get identical responses. Pakistan, which has supported the Taliban since the group’s inception in the 1990s, wants Kabul to crack down on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a jihadi group intermittently at war with Islamabad since 2007. The TTP has a presence in Afghanistan, although Taliban denials and TPP-related incidents in Pakistan have increased since mid-2021, resulting in three times as many fatalities as in the two years before the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul.
Also profoundly troubling for most neighbors and Western countries is the ongoing presence in Afghanistan of the Islamic State Khorasan Province, an affiliate of the group known as ISIS. Taliban security forces have become adept at killing ISKP leaders, sometimes with the apparent assistance of foreign intelligence agencies. But the Taliban have been unable to subdue the group entirely, and neighboring states remain worried that ISKP could still use Afghanistan as a base to threaten other countries. Information-sharing remains limited because the Taliban have not established much trust with regional and international security agencies.
Part of the problem lies with the Taliban: they deny that some militant threats exist. Meanwhile, other regional governments—Russia, especially—stoke paranoia among the Taliban by absurdly claiming that the United States backs ISKP and other militant groups. But it does not help that UN monitoring teams, which used to visit Afghanistan to research and publish analyses of terrorist threats, have not returned since the Taliban takeover.
Those monitors are unlikely to return any time soon because they accept information only from UN member states—and the Taliban do not sit in Afghanistan’s UN seat. But in the meantime, other multilateral forums could serve as a stopgap. Afghanistan has observer status at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded by China and Russia in 2001, and includes all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. The Taliban want to join its discussions about security.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears reluctant to welcome the Taliban, and authorities in Kabul might have to settle for the kind of regional meetings hosted by Uzbekistan in recent years. But regardless of the forum, the countries surrounding Afghanistan must sit down with the Taliban and discuss their mutual security needs. Kabul has legitimate concerns about anti-Taliban militants sneaking across its borders, and its neighbors need to prevent illegal immigrants, drugs, guns, and jihadis from crossing into their territory from Afghanistan.
These practical conversations seem unlikely to harden the Taliban’s stances on big issues that foreign governments care about—and they would have many possible benefits. Regional security forums could push the Taliban toward regularizing border management or at least keeping their fighters away from the edges of neighboring countries unless they are uniformed guards. The Taliban might accept help professionalizing their border forces with better training and equipment, and they and their neighbors could install new technologies for border screening and customs integration together. Neighboring countries might also agree to give back Afghan aircraft stranded in their territory since 2021.
All the security interventions in the world cannot improve the lives of Afghans or their neighbors without economic improvements. Here, too, many possible collaborations do not entail formal diplomatic recognition. The Taliban want their highways—and, eventually, railways—to serve as trading connections with South Asia—Kabul dreams of electrical corridors and gas pipelines linking the region. But as the world heats up, the most urgent regional cooperation efforts should focus on water management.
Afghanistan is mostly upstream from neighboring countries but has fewer dams and irrigation systems. Decades of war have smashed infrastructure and stalled development. Climate change is exacerbating flooding and droughts. The Taliban’s flagship water project is a new canal system in the north called Qosh Tepa, which would divert water from the Amu Darya, a large river, for irrigation.
The Taliban’s desire to manage water resources is understandable and necessary, but they are plowing ahead without regard for their neighbors. The Amu Darya also irrigates vast swaths of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and officials in those countries worry about their cotton fields and their exports withering. For its part, Tehran complains that the Taliban are taking too much water from the Helmand and other rivers that flow into Iran.
Disagreements over water rights have almost undoubtedly contributed to deadly clashes between Taliban and Iranian security forces. Coordination and investment by both Afghanistan and Iran are necessary not only to forestall violent conflict over water; both countries also need it to grow. Iran cannot afford to let its rivers dry up, and business in landlocked Afghanistan cannot flourish without access to Iranian ports such as Chabahar, which could be threatened if border tensions escalate.
A blueprint for better cooperation already exists in the form of a 1973 water treaty between the two countries, which guaranteed Iran fixed amounts of water. Negotiations at the time included discussions about increasing Afghan trade through Iranian seaports. That treaty was never implemented because of political upheaval in both countries, but the old deal could serve as the basis for today’s negotiations. New infrastructure is also required to measure river flows and, especially, to use water more efficiently.
Iran and Afghanistan could achieve such climate adaptations themselves. But they are saddled with foreign sanctions, and the barriers to securing expertise and funding for such ventures are multiplied. Getting help from organizations such as the World Bank is not only a matter of technical assistance; it could help with the politics of water.
A cautionary tale of what happens if the Taliban are left to their own devices is unfolding on Afghanistan’s northern border. Uzbekistan has offered technical support for the Qosh Tepa project to help the Taliban avoid the risk of routing a river into an improperly engineered trench. Still, the Taliban have resisted what they see as foreign meddling in their flagship project. The neighbors have leverage—Afghanistan imports most of its electricity from Central Asia—but their bilateral outreach to the Taliban on water issues has not worked so far.
Still, there is room for agreements or tacit understandings that address the concerns of the Taliban and other countries. The Taliban could make deals in multilateral discussions on watershed management and climate adaptation. For example, the hosts of the COP28 climate summit, which starts in November, could invite the Taliban to attend. The United Arab Emirates, the event organizers, will need to weigh the opprobrium that hangs over the Taliban against the much more significant benefit of including all regimes in talks about how to survive a worsening climate.
Baby Steps Are Major Steps
These regional, piecemeal solutions might provide international actors with a template for how to deal with the Taliban in the short term. More than a few Western leaders want to forget Afghanistan. Ignoring the country allows them to avoid the shameful topic of a lost war. Some prominent voices, including in these pages, are demanding that more pressure be put on the Taliban and holding out hope for regime change, although the Taliban show no signs of collapse.
Others may nurture a hope that undermining the Afghan regime will leave a mess on the doorsteps of China, Iran, and Russia. And others who want to negotiate a better future for ordinary Afghans, especially women, and girls, may believe that withholding money and help will give them leverage if and when negotiations begin over the normalization of diplomatic relations. When formal negotiations begin, this theory goes, Western officials could use promises of future support to extract concessions from the Taliban—although, in the past, the Taliban have rarely been swayed by such incentives.
But there are more ways to support Afghanistan than many acknowledge. And regional solutions often need international backing, whether a Western government’s OK to send equipment for Taliban border guards or a yes vote from the World Bank to proceed with water infrastructure projects. Financing through the Global Environment Facility, the Green Climate Fund, and the Adaptation Fund could substantially help defray infrastructure costs. Still, Afghanistan’s access to these funds has been suspended since the Taliban’s takeover.
Regional diplomats are trying to deal with the Taliban on security, economic, and environmental concerns. But an official at an understaffed embassy in Kabul admitted that the to-do list feels daunting. Day-to-day engagement with the Taliban now mainly falls to officials like him, who draw on limited budgets that do not match the size of the problems. Western sanctions also constrain local actions. For instance, it is hard for regional governments or private investors to get loans to build infrastructure in Afghanistan; grants from international donors are used to provide much of the financing for such projects.
And many of the problems facing Kabul—for example, its lack of budgeting, banking, and development-strategy expertise—are the kind of development challenges typically financed by Western countries. But Western donors are withholding development assistance and offering less humanitarian aid, which has fallen to about 25 percent of last year’s humanitarian funding in 2023. “If your engagement is mostly based on humanitarian assistance and that assistance is declining, then your ‘engagement strategy’ is a disengagement strategy,” a Western official in Kabul told us.
Afghanistan’s economic and security troubles cannot be ignored indefinitely, not least because the people who suffer most from instability and deprivation are often women and girls. The neighborhood cannot simply “stop and wait,” a regional diplomat told us. He said that regional actors “on the frontlines” need international backing.
Two years after the Taliban’s ascent to power, it is worth listening to the nearby countries that now spend substantially more time talking to Kabul’s new leadership than do Western diplomats and who have the most to lose if the country crumbles. They are saying that the world cannot let Afghanistan become a failed state and that global isolation will only make the Taliban more challenging to work with.
Pursuing and supporting regional cooperation does not mean giving up hope for talks between the Taliban and the world about achieving recognition. Diplomats must keep chipping away at the challenging positions that block progress toward full normalization. One modest step forward occurred earlier this year in Doha when UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened a meeting of international envoys to Afghanistan.
The envoys agreed that the conditions were not right to recognize the Taliban—even if they did not spell out the requirements. But in his public comments, Guterres concluded that such gatherings should continue to fight terrorism and drug trafficking and promote inclusivity and women’s rights. And earlier this year, the UN Security Council mandated an independent review of all international engagement with Afghanistan; that report will be delivered in November.
In many ways, Western countries remain Afghanistan’s gatekeepers. Someday, a Taliban regime that respects human rights might be fully welcomed into the club of nations. That day, however, is distant. The West cannot stand around and wait for the cow to die. The region is struggling, and both Afghans and their neighbors deserve to eat.