Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
As the United States ends its mission in Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers have already begun to reckon with American military failures over 20 years of fighting. But the war’s disastrous finale was not solely the result of armed conflict. In cataloging its mistakes, Washington must also seriously evaluate its diplomatic efforts—especially peace talks with the Taliban led by U.S. negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad.
Both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden made clear their desire to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. But the negotiations, which were largely held on Taliban terms, were neither necessary nor desirable—in fact, the eventual deal struck in Doha likely hastened the Taliban’s victory. If Biden wishes history to judge his withdrawal from Afghanistan as an acceptable foreign policy decision, his administration must reckon with this diplomatic failure and begin to take a tougher and more realistic approach toward the Taliban. Doing so is the only way to prevent the reemergence of a global terrorist hotbed.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s desperation to conclude a deal will make this process more difficult. Three years of negotiations empowered Taliban hard-liners, many of whom now play central roles in the new interim government—including al Qaeda–linked Haqqani network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. As they craft a post-withdrawal strategy, U.S. officials must therefore change their diplomatic tack—judging the Taliban by their actions before granting them international recognition or economic assistance. This approach, coupled with a new counterterrorism strategy, is the best way to protect vital U.S. interests in the years to come.
Although the United States spent years locked in negotiations with the Taliban, Washington’s approach to those talks was often defined by wishful thinking. The so-called Afghanistan Papers—confidential documents published by The Washington Post in December 2019—showed that U.S. military leaders often provided rosy assessments of the military situation or told political leadership that the United States had “turned a corner” in the fight against the Taliban, even when facts showed otherwise. As deputy assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for South and Central Asia from 2017 to 2021, I witnessed senior civilian officials ignoring or papering over facts that did not comport with their diplomatic agendas.
This predilection produced a number of serious negotiating errors that eventually came to define the resulting Doha agreement, the deal paving the way for a U.S. troop withdrawal in exchange for Taliban pledges to counter terrorism and refrain from attacking American soldiers on their way out. The first mistake—the result of a misguided belief that the Taliban would eventually agree to negotiate with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul—was the U.S. decision to exclude the Afghan government from talks, which prematurely conferred legitimacy on the Taliban.
The second error was failing to condition the pace of the talks on Taliban violence levels. Washington’s unwillingness to suspend negotiations, even amid escalating violence, revealed the United States’ desperation for a deal. In the end, the only requirement Washington imposed on the Taliban was to reduce violence for six days before signing the agreement.
Three years of negotiations empowered Taliban hard-liners.
The third error, based on wishful thinking that the Taliban were actually interested in negotiating a political settlement rather than fighting their way back to power, was forcing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners without a commensurate concession from the Taliban, such as reducing violence.
Among the Taliban prisoners released was the Afghan army sergeant Qari Hekmatullah, who in 2012 murdered three Australian soldiers in cold blood while they rested on their base. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pleaded with Trump not to force Ghani to release Hekmatullah. It was unnecessary to free this hardened Taliban killer, especially when one of Washington’s most trusted allies was opposed to it. The Trump administration, for its part, hoped that Hekmatullah’s release would facilitate peace talks—a belief that turned out to be wildly unfounded. Instead, the Taliban used the Doha process to enhance their international legitimacy and divide the Afghan leadership.
Altogether, U.S. concessions weakened the Ghani government, sowed divisions among anti-Taliban leaders, and signaled to Afghan security forces that the United States was switching horses, sapping their will to fight. The United States would have been far better off negotiating its withdrawal directly with the Afghan government, something that Ghani himself proposed in early 2019. By doing so, the United States would have avoided demoralizing its Afghan partners as Washington pulled back U.S. forces. Instead, by simultaneously withdrawing its troops and making a political deal with the government’s enemy of 20 years, Washington ended up handing the country over to the Taliban.
Throughout the talks, U.S. negotiators also failed to accurately assess the Taliban’s remaining links to terrorist groups. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Khalilzad repeatedly claimed that the Taliban had agreed to break ties with al Qaeda, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. In October 2020, Edmund Fitton-Brown, United Nations Coordinator for the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and Taliban Monitoring Team, said the Taliban had promised al Qaeda before the Doha agreement was signed that the two groups would remain allies. Fitton-Brown also reported that al Qaeda was already celebrating the departure of U.S. and NATO forces from the country as a victory for global radicalism. In a report released in early June 2021, the United Nations also noted that the relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda remained strong and that the Taliban had done little to sever links that had been “cemented through second-generational ties.” This was despite explicit language in the eventual agreement stating that the Taliban would instruct their members not to cooperate with groups that posed a threat to the United States and its allies.
It is too early to determine exactly how the Taliban’s victory will alter terrorism trends in the region. Still, initial indicators are worrisome. After Kabul’s fall, the Taliban appointed a hard-line interim government headed by Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, who served as foreign minister and then deputy prime minister during Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the new interior minister, has a $5 million FBI bounty on his head for his role in terrorist attacks that killed U.S. citizens. An exception to this hard-line rule is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, now deputy prime minister, who spent eight years in a Pakistani jail before Khalilzad requested his release to participate in peace talks. Baradar is more moderate and was part of a group of insurgents who engaged in negotiations with Hamid Karzai when he was Afghan president in 2009. Baradar’s relegation to deputy, however, appears to be a sign that hard-line Taliban factions currently have the upper hand.
As the United States reckons with these failures, policymakers in Washington must learn from their negotiating mistakes and alter U.S. diplomatic strategy accordingly. A crucial part of this process will be developing a collaborative strategy with the European Union, United Kingdom, and other like-minded states to press the Taliban to meet specific human rights and counterterrorism conditions. This approach would stand in sharp contrast to Khalilzad’s focus on coordinating closely with China and Russia—countries that, unlike the United States’ European partners, place little value on respect for human rights.
Although the United States will need lines of communication with the Taliban to get its remaining citizens and allies safely out of the country and deliver humanitarian assistance, there should be no rush to establish formal diplomatic relations with a group that remains allied with terrorists. By closely coordinating with allies and partners and setting clear conditions for engagement, Washington stands the best chance of successfully shaping future Taliban behavior. Striking the appropriate balance is particularly critical here, as nearly 70 percent of the Afghan government’s budget came from foreign aid. The donor community must determine how to meet Afghans’ basic needs while not rewarding the Taliban with diplomatic recognition and economic assistance before the group has earned it.
A central condition for any future engagement should be Taliban respect for human rights and governance standards. During their first week back in power, the new leadership went to great lengths to show the world that their movement had evolved on issues of governance, terrorism, and women’s rights. The Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid gave a press conference in Kabul where he offered amnesty to those who worked for the government, vowing that there would be no reprisal killings. He said women would be allowed to work, study, and participate in society “within bounds of Islamic law.”
Washington’s approach to talks with the Taliban was often defined by wishful thinking.
Contrary to Mujahid’s statements, however, women were later told to stay in their homes until the Taliban rank-and-file received instructions on how to treat women properly. The Taliban subsequently banned women’s sports and mandated that women attend only all-female university classes. There have also been reports of the Taliban preventing girls from attending school beyond the primary level and threatening female police officers. Donor countries should make clear that further limits on women’s rights and participation in society, education, and the economy will impact the Taliban’s ability to access international finance.
The United States also must maintain Treasury Department sanctions on individuals involved in terrorism. Washington should not accede to Taliban demands to remove the sanctions merely because these leaders now hold positions of power. Furthermore, the United States should refrain from unfreezing $9 billion in U.S.-held Afghan assets so long as terrorist leaders such as Sirajuddin Haqqani remain part of the Taliban government.
Finally, the Biden team should work closely with like-minded UN Security Council members, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, to resist Chinese and Russian pressure to lift sanctions without conditions. In particular, the United States and its European allies should be clear that unless the Taliban establish a more inclusive government, the UN waiver that allowed sanctioned Taliban leaders to travel internationally will be withdrawn when it comes up for renewal later this year. As former U.S. State Department officials have noted, the Taliban misused the waiver to gain international legitimacy while continuing to wage war and assassinate Afghan civil society leaders, journalists, and human rights activists.
Washington also needs to reevaluate its reliance on Pakistan as its key partner on issues related to Afghanistan. This was another mistake during talks with the Taliban, as U.S. negotiators worked hand in glove with Islamabad. Although the United States leaned heavily on Pakistani leaders to facilitate peace talks, statements from officials in Islamabad as the Taliban entered Kabul were revealing. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the group “had broken the shackles of slavery,” while his special assistant tweeted that “the contraption that the US had pieced together for Afghanistan has crumbled like the proverbial house of cards.”
Since 2001, no U.S. administration has been able to successfully convince Pakistan to crack down on Taliban activity inside its territory. Trump, for his part, suspended U.S. military assistance in January 2018, but Islamabad still failed to disrupt the group’s operational activity, financial transactions, or cross-border flows of weapons and fighters. Although it is too late to penalize Pakistan, U.S. officials should learn from 20 years of intransigence and maintain low expectations when it comes to counterterrorism cooperation. It may be possible for Washington to work with Islamabad when targeting other terrorist groups such as ISIS-K, the Islamic State’s Afghanistan offshoot, but Pakistan’s intelligence service will never turn on the al Qaeda–linked Haqqani network. Pakistani military and intelligence leaders rely on the latter to deny India a foothold in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s new era offers terrorist groups a unique and dangerous opportunity.
Instead, the Biden administration should refocus its efforts on coordination with other regional democracies, especially India. For too long, Washington eschewed the idea of counterterrorism cooperation with New Delhi out of deference to Pakistan. With that policy in tatters, the United States must realize that it has far more to gain by coordinating with democratic states that fight terrorism than by fruitlessly trying to work with regimes that rely on terrorist proxies to achieve regional objectives. India already is playing a helpful role at the UN Security Council, where it is currently serving a two-year term as a nonpermanent member. As UNSC president, India introduced a strong resolution on Afghanistan in August that called for combating terrorism, upholding human rights, and encouraging an inclusive political settlement with full, equal, and meaningful participation by women.
As it devises a new counterterrorism strategy that does not rely on an active troop presence, Washington should also invest in partnerships with Central Asian states that border Afghanistan, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Without bases inside Afghanistan, the United States will need to invest in enhanced drone technology for operations launched from bases in the Middle East. The Pentagon and intelligence agencies should, moreover, focus on increasing signals and other nonhuman intelligence collection assets in the region.
Although Biden is right that al Qaeda has sustained serious damage over the last decade, Afghanistan’s new era offers the terrorist group a unique and dangerous opportunity. The country is now ruled by an Islamist movement that has fought alongside al Qaeda for more than 30 years. Over the months and years ahead, the terrorist group will undoubtedly take advantage of this opportunity to reestablish its power base.
Washington, therefore, cannot simply wash its hands of Afghanistan and wish away a terrorist threat that will likely grow over the months and years to come. The United States ignored Afghanistan after the Soviets departed in 1989, and the result was the 9/11 attacks. The central issue, however, is the way in which the United States chooses to engage with the problem. U.S. behavior should be based on both a commitment to freedom and human dignity and an awareness of the terrorist threats emanating from the region.
The most effective way to redeem Washington’s botched withdrawal and rebuild trust among U.S. partners is to closely coordinate with like-minded states on a diplomatic and security policy designed to shape Taliban behavior. The Biden administration must first work to understand why past U.S. negotiations with the Taliban went so wrong—and then begin dealing with the group from a position of strength.