The Taliban have been in power in Afghanistan for more than half a year. During that time, the United States and its allies have struggled to come up with a coherent policy response. Western leaders would generally like the Taliban to form an inclusive government, respect women’s rights, refrain from persecuting members of the former Afghan state, and renounce international terrorism. Amid an economic and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, international policymakers are confronted with a serious dilemma: either they choose to continue to treat the Taliban as an international pariah and thereby withhold most forms of support, or they provide economic assistance to the country and effectively prop up the regime.

The policy debate is hindered by how surprisingly little the world knows about the new regime. The Taliban’s intentions, interests, and decision-making structure are foggy; its current leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, has neither been seen on television nor photographed in years; other members of the Taliban’s leadership, such as Mullah Mohammad Hassan, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, are also rarely or never seen. A helpful guide to understanding the new Taliban regime is Bette Dam’s recent book, Looking for the Enemy: Mullah Omar and the Unknown Taliban. Dam’s richly detailed study, based on years spent tracking the Taliban as an investigative journalist, exposes many of the inner workings of the group—and highlights how little the West truly understands about how the movement functions. Offering a far more nuanced view of the group than has generally been portrayed in the West, her research suggests that policymakers should neither attempt to marginalize the regime completely nor expect the Taliban to bow to international demands. Rather, policymakers should aim to craft an open-minded but clear-eyed policy that avoids overly punitive actions while taking time to understand the organization and identify areas where cooperation is feasible. Thereby, they can avoid needlessly turning the Taliban into an enemy or expending valuable resources pressing for far-reaching concessions that are unlikely to ever occur. And crucially, in adopting such an approach, they may be able to prevent the country from sliding further into humanitarian disaster.

FILLING IN THE BLANKS

Dam has studied Afghanistan since the early 2000s, and in 2012 began writing a book about Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed leader of the first Taliban regime, which hosted Osama bin Laden and ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, when it was overthrown by the United States. Mullah Omar had rarely been seen in public after the fall of the regime and has always been a somewhat mythical figure. Dam’s effort to track down the elusive Taliban leader led her on a years-long quest throughout the Afghan hinterlands, which she recounts in Looking for the Enemy. The conventional wisdom has long been that Omar led the Taliban from Pakistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But amazingly, after years of persistent investigation, Dam reveals good evidence that he was based in Afghanistan—at times only a short distance from U.S. forces—right up to his death in 2013. Omar had evaded detection by living in a modest mud dwelling, communicating infrequently with his subordinates through cassette tapes or handwritten instructions.

Omar was never well understood. He was often portrayed in books and the media, especially in the early years of the war, as something of an extremist who gave sanctuary to al Qaeda. But Dam makes the case that Western policymakers and the media are biased against Omar and the Taliban because they know so little about them, complicating assessments of their connections with terrorism. “The mainstream media were talking up the enemy and in doing so were prolonging the war,” Dam writes scathingly. “Remarkably little credible information was to be found about Omar after his departure from Kandahar at the end of 2001. He and bin Laden were the key targets for the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan, but it was as if the two men had disappeared off the face of the Earth.” Indeed, when Omar died in 2013, no one outside a small coterie of Taliban members knew about it, and it would take more than two years for the information to leak out to the world.

A member of the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 2021
A member of the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 2021
Jorge Silva / Reuters

Dam argues that the Taliban are widely misunderstood. She offers her account as a corrective to stereotypical portrayals of the group as oppressive zealots best known for banning music, instituting oppressive punishments, and barring the activities of women. Through extensive interviews with people who lived under Taliban rule, Dam demonstrates that life under the Taliban was never so uniform. Throughout the 1990s, communities under Taliban control could listen to traditional music, have poetry readings, and play sports. Though women were generally confined to the home, some girls attended primary schools. And, she writes, “There is little evidence for the common assumption that executions and stonings were being held every Friday in large stadiums in cities such as Kabul and Kandahar, and that local people were forced to attend.”

She also offers evidence that the movement commanded more popular support than is generally recognized, at least in the rural parts of the country. The residents of Kandahar, for instance, appreciated the Taliban’s efforts in 1994 to clear out warlords who had been taxing and harassing them and to ensure basic security and stability. Living in a traditional society, they were not taken aback by the Taliban’s strictures. Even in Kabul, some residents cheered in 1996 when the Taliban entered the city and ended the anarchy. And although enforcement of the new restrictions on daily life—and women’s lives, in particular—could be harsh, some were pleased as food and fuel became cheaper and the airport reopened.

Dam also complicates assessments of the Taliban’s support for al Qaeda—perhaps the issue of greatest concern to the United States and the world. She shows that the relationship between Omar and bin Laden was ambiguous. Although Omar allowed bin Laden to stay in Afghanistan, he was displeased with bin Laden’s calls for international terrorism and tried to prevent him from talking to the media. Bin Laden’s son later told Dam: “Relations were not good. Omar didn’t really want anything to do with my father but he couldn’t ignore him totally, precisely because he was being attacked so fiercely abroad.”

Dam argues that the Taliban are widely misunderstood.

The United States mismanaged this complexity, Dam argues. Washington’s efforts to marginalize the Taliban in the 1990s proved largely counterproductive. The United States’ pariah treatment of the Taliban obstructed mutual understanding, exacerbated biases, and deterred compromise, especially when dealing with al Qaeda. Military actions designed to compel the Taliban to repudiate al Qaeda instead triggered intransigence and entrenched Omar’s refusal to turn over bin Laden. When, for instance, the United States attacked al Qaeda camps in eastern Afghanistan in 1998 after the group’s bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Omar was outraged. “If the whole world carries on opposing us despite our assurances and keeps asking for bin Laden, then we won’t hand him over,” he exclaimed. “Instead, we’ll defend him to our last drop of blood.” Shortly thereafter, Omar warned the U.S. diplomat Tom Malinowski that such attacks would only increase Islamic solidarity and hostility toward the United States. In the words of one of Malinowski’s aides, “The sixty cruise missiles essentially drove him into bin Laden’s arms.”

Yet Dam also seeks to temper hopes that the group might be willing to make broader concessions in exchange for a degree of engagement with the West. As she observes, Taliban leaders have often prioritized their faith, at whatever cost that may bring to their international reputation, over practical compromises with the international community. After the Taliban destroyed two monumental Buddha statues near the central Afghan town of Bamiyan in 2001 and was met with global condemnation, for instance, Omar remarked: “I’m not concerned about our relations with the world. My task is to implement the rules of Islam, no more or less than that.” Moreover, Omar famously refused to give up bin Laden to the United States out of fear that “enemies … would tear into him and label him a fake Muslim if he were to hand over such a big prize to the United States.” Omar even looked to his dreams for guidance, a practice that has a strong tradition among Afghan religious leaders. Policymakers would do well to pay close attention to these examples: the Taliban’s current leader, Haibatullah, seems to model himself on Omar. Haibatullah similarly stays in Kandahar, avoids the camera, and is said to likewise privilege following his interpretation of Islam—a reading of Islamic law as the sole source of law and authority—over pragmatic dealmaking. Dam’s book is a reminder to Washington and others that the Taliban’s dedication to Islam is real, that they genuinely believe it is for the betterment of their country, and that they often value it over diplomatic compromise, often no matter the cost.

The strength of Taliban beliefs is evident not only in their relationship with the United States but with their primary benefactor, Pakistan. Dam shows that the Taliban’s relationship with Afghanistan’s neighbor has often been ambivalent and fraught: although the Taliban have accepted Pakistani aid and support, she writes, they resent what they perceive as Pakistan’s arrogant treatment of Afghanistan as one of its provinces. “The Taliban saw foreign interference as a curse. […] It was important for everyone to realize that the Taliban had emerged ‘from within’ the country.” Dam quotes Omar scolding a Pakistani party leader for daring to advise him: “What exactly are you doing here? [...] You need to focus on getting an Islamic state in Pakistan first.”

A NEW CHAPTER?

Dam’s research helps policymakers chart a potential new course with the Taliban. Treating them as a reviled extremist movement may possibly inflame the very terrorist support that the United States and its allies fear most. Washington’s conventional method of countering potential terrorist threats by launching strikes on Afghan soil comes with far more blowback than many U.S. policymakers have realized. Especially when civilians are killed, such strikes have turned local populations powerfully against the United States. If their use continues, it could prompt Afghans to rally around the Taliban regime—and potentially around other extremist groups in the region. Patient diplomacy to compel the Taliban to turn over wrongdoers is the better choice.  

Per Dam’s assessment of the Taliban, diplomatic engagement with the organization is the sensible option—perhaps even, as time passes, granting the regime a seat in the United Nations or even reopening a U.S. embassy. The Biden administration has been wise to allow banks to transact in Afghanistan and the international community to unfreeze their respective Afghan government assets and deliver aid without fear of U.S. retribution. While the Biden administration recently decided to authorize transactions involving the Afghan people, Washington should also consider repealing existing U.S. sanctions on financial transactions and trade with the Taliban government specifically. Both the United States and the Taliban would benefit from a neutral and independent Afghanistan, which would reduce the chances of the country becoming a field for great power rivalry and rekindling the civil war.

Treating the Taliban as a reviled extremist movement may inflame the very terrorist support that Washington fears most.

But those hoping that the Taliban will accede to Western demands regarding the formation of an inclusive government and respect for human rights will likely be disappointed. The Taliban may bend to small conditions—allowing a few more girls to go to school, humanitarian aid being funneled through nongovernmental organizations, restraining reprisals or public beatings—but loftier expectations are, unfortunately, baseless.

The unlikelihood of getting the Taliban to change their basic approach to governance and society make major economic investments in the country unlikely. Yet secondary levels of humanitarian assistance, divorced from politics, ought to be feasible. Afghanistan should receive aid on the basis of the suffering of its people, not as a reward to its government for being a cooperative partner. The Biden administration’s controversial decision to devote half of the Afghan government’s $7 billion in frozen assets to humanitarian assistance, given directly to the Afghan people rather than through the Taliban government, appears to be a recognition of the limitations of working with the Taliban. It is also a sign of the powerful forces pushing the Taliban and the United States apart. The United States has few interests in Afghanistan, and in terms of domestic politics, giving U.S. taxpayer dollars to a former enemy would likely receive only lukewarm support at home. But while the degree of financial assistance necessary to sustain economic growth is politically infeasible, the United States and the international community should nonetheless avoid cutting the Taliban off.

As the United States and others think through how to engage with the new Taliban regime, any good strategy will require policymakers to practice patience, not assume the worst, and above all to try to learn more about their interlocutors. One does not have to like the Taliban to see that Dam offers sound policy counsel.

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