Foreign Relations & International Law

The Limits of Leverage in Taliban-Led Afghanistan

Elizabeth Threlkeld
Tuesday, August 24, 2021, 2:33 PM

Short on options in Afghanistan, the United States is pressing the Taliban on several issues even as they cooperate on urgent priorities. The Taliban will not compromise on their core interests but could partner on narrowly defined mutual objectives.

U.S. representative Zalmay Khalilzad meets with Taliban leaders during negotiations in Doha, Qatar, in Nov. 2020.

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Following the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the United States has pursued a two-track approach to dealing with the group: Pressure when possible, and negotiate when necessary. While a logical strategy, the specifics of the situation on the ground complicate both efforts. The pressure campaign must contend with the need to cooperate with the Taliban on evacuations and to avoid inflicting further suffering on Afghans. Negotiations, meanwhile, are made more challenging by attempts to maintain maximum leverage over the group. How policymakers balance these competing objectives will determine the trajectory of outside engagement with the Taliban over the near term. Despite public statements to the contrary, the Taliban are likely to cede little ground on their core interests, rendering cooperation possible only on limited, mutually acceptable terms.

International Pressure Campaign

U.S. officials have sought to use Washington’s remaining leverage in the form of sanctions, control over funds, international recognition and future assistance to secure U.S. interests post-withdrawal. The United States has led the international campaign to deny the Taliban access to financial resources and development assistance by cutting off access to foreign reserves, cash shipments, International Monetary Fund aid and other sources of revenue. As a result, the Taliban have reportedly lost control over all but 0.1 percent of the country’s foreign reserves as they struggle to take the reins of a financial system far more complex than during their previous time in power and dependent on international assistance for 75 percent of public spending. No country has yet recognized the Taliban’s de facto rule, and the U.S. and its partners have demanded to see actions, not just words, before considering any relationship with the Taliban.

This pressure campaign is aimed principally at shaping the future form and function of the Taliban-led Afghan government. The United States and the international community have released several statements outlining expectations for the country going forward. The U.N. Security Council, for example, called for a cease-fire, restoration of constitutional order, adherence to international obligations, denial of terrorist safe havens, political settlement negotiations, and an inclusive outcome that protects the rights of women, children and minorities. The Group of Seven and NATO have echoed this list, as have key European partners. President Biden described the question of whether to seek international legitimacy as an “existential crisis” for the Taliban, balancing the group’s core beliefs with its need for access to the international system.

Negotiations on government formation are currently underway among the Taliban leadership and with influential Afghan politicians including former President Hamid Karzai, former High Council for National Reconciliation chair Abdullah Abdullah and Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A Taliban spokesman confirmed last week that an announcement on the future government will be made soon, adding, “[W]e will do our most to make sure that all Afghans are included.” He noted that the Taliban are “committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia,” offered a general amnesty to supporters of the former government, and pledged to prevent the activities of “anyone who means to use our land against other countries.” Despite these assurances, reports of door-to-door searches and revenge killings by Taliban members targeting employees and supporters of the former government have already emerged. Thousands of Afghans are attempting to vote with their feet and flee the country.

Limited Strategic Cooperation

Complicating this international pressure campaign is the need for the United States and others to work with the Taliban on key priorities. Most urgent is the safe evacuation of foreign personnel and citizens and those seeking resettlement. The surprising speed with which the Taliban took control of the country left Washington and other capitals scrambling to secure safe egress from Afghanistan for tens of thousands of people. In the absence of a viable alternative, the United States negotiated with the Taliban to facilitate evacuations and is currently relying on the group to provide perimeter security around the Kabul airport, where 6,000 U.S. Marines control operations. The terms of the agreement reached to facilitate evacuations are not public, though U.S. officials have hinted that the Taliban’s cooperation would be necessary for the future resumption of foreign aid.

Biden noted his surprise at the fact that the Taliban would “provide safe passage for Americans to get out,” suggesting it demonstrates some desire for international acceptance. While this arrangement has largely held for U.S. citizens, the Taliban recently announced they would no longer allow Afghans to exit the country. The group’s spokesman pointed to the challenges of brain drain and called on educated Afghans to remain within Afghanistan. Indeed, this approach tracks with the group’s overall objectives of securing the departure of foreigners. Rather than full cooperation, the Taliban are instead cooperating selectively, in line with their broader goals.

A second issue complicating the pressure campaign is its likely impact on Afghanistan’s remaining institutions, its people and the broader region. The U.S. and international community’s moves to restrict access to the country’s foreign reserves and cut off assistance could spur a serious economic crisis. Cash shortages are widespread, and prices have risen sharply in a time when Afghans are already struggling with the impact of insecurity, a pandemic and a severe drought. The Taliban have access to alternative sources of funding including through taxation, customs revenue, narcotics smuggling, and potential agreements with regional states such as Pakistan and China. But these revenue streams are unlikely to fully insulate the country from loss of access to international markets. The result could well be the worst of both worlds—pressure tactics that place an economic burden on the population but from which the Taliban government has some protection.

An additional challenge for states applying pressure on the Taliban is the question of whether and how to maintain humanitarian assistance. The need for such external support is acute and likely to grow further in light of the upheaval many across the country are facing, which could spur further outflows of refugees and risk destabilizing the wider region. Biden pledged to continue supporting the Afghan people through humanitarian aid. The U.N. Security Council called for strengthened efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and for unhindered access for aid providers, suggesting that such outreach would occur through external agencies rather than being routed through the Taliban.

This approach would still require the assent of the Taliban for operations to continue, giving the group leverage via access to specific locations or populations and the potential to derive ill-gotten gains. It would also blunt the impact of the pressure campaign to the extent that it would mask some of the likely failings of the Taliban government as civilians would be provided with at least limited support. Public services including electricity and water could soon face shortages given service delivery interruptions in the absence of a functioning government, and policing remains ad hoc. Humanitarian assistance cannot compensate for these governance gaps, but it could prevent the Taliban from facing the full extent of the crisis they would otherwise confront.

The Way Forward

As should be clear by now, there are no good options remaining in Afghanistan for the U.S. and like-minded states. The ascendant Taliban are extremely unlikely to give ground on the full list of demands set forward by the international community as outlined in the U.N. statement. These objectives guided the U.S. approach in seeking a political settlement in the Doha negotiations, which the Taliban declined to accept. The idea that the Taliban would reverse course now that they are Afghanistan’s de facto leaders defies belief. That is not to say, however, that limited collaboration should be ruled out to the extent that it suits both sides. Beyond the immediate need to complete evacuation operations and provide humanitarian assistance, some tactical cooperation could be worth pursuing in areas including counterterrorism and counternarcotics to supplement external capabilities.

The Taliban are an unlikely partner in counterterrorism given their long-standing ties to organizations including al-Qaeda. They maintain close relations with the group despite international pressure and will almost certainly continue to do so. Notably, in speaking about their future counterterrorism commitments, they echo the language of the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha in February 2020, in which they committed to “prevent any group or individual, including al-Qa’ida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” As written, the language leaves room for groups to remain in Afghanistan so long as they do not seek to launch attacks—a pedantic distinction but one the Taliban seem to have exploited. In line with this focus on curtailing the activities of such groups, the Taliban have reportedly begun “registering and restricting” their members, albeit not to the extent that such steps would be irreversible.

Though such commitments may be far from trustworthy, they are better than the alternative. The U.S. should maintain its over-the-horizon counterterrorism capacity while making clear to the Taliban the severe consequences that would follow any attacks traced back to Afghanistan. Washington should also consider limited coordination with the Taliban on mutual adversary Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Given that the group represents a threat to the Taliban and the wider region, there are greater chances of success in such operations than against organizations sharing allegiances with the Taliban. Indeed, quiet, joint operations against ISKP have already been taking place and could serve as a model to the extent that the U.S. is able and willing to maintain necessary aerial surveillance capabilities.

The second issue on which the U.S. and Taliban share an interest is counternarcotics. The Taliban spokesman specifically highlighted this as an area in which it “needs international assistance” to make Afghanistan a “narcotics-free country” by providing alternative crops. While hyperbolic, this goal tracks with the Taliban’s crackdown on drug production during its previous rule. It does not take into account the revenue the group currently derives from drug production and smuggling, however, which could make implementation challenging. The fact that the group is actively seeking international assistance on an issue that aligns with the interests of the U.S. and regional states suggests cooperation is nonetheless worth pursuing to the extent that the international community is willing to invest the resources required. Should it become clear that these appeals are intended only to garner assistance funds and are not matched with action by the Taliban, this effort should be discontinued.

Beyond these limited aims, the most the U.S. and the international community can hope for is to strike a difficult balance between pressure and engagement. By maintaining sufficient pressure to rein in the Taliban’s worst tendencies while offering enough support to provide some comfort to Afghanistan’s population, concerned nations can best chart a future course in Afghanistan. This approach will become all the more challenging in the likely event that states including Pakistan, China and Russia formalize ties with the group, rendering a focus on maintaining a united international stance for as long as possible an important goal. Washington should also put pressure on countries with links to the Taliban, principally Pakistan, to reinforce its red lines regarding Afghanistan and outline consequences that would follow their breach. This approach, combined with limited counterterrorism and counternarcotics cooperation, would allow the U.S. and its partners to manage their key interests in Afghanistan while gauging whether the Taliban’s actions live up to their words.

Elizabeth Threlkeld is a fellow and deputy director of the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program, where she researches regional politics and security issues. She formerly served as a foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State in Islamabad and Peshawar, Pakistan.

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