No justification for engaging with Taliban
published : 19 Aug 2022 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
In the year since the United States' disgraceful abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the country has gone down precisely the path any logical observer would have predicted: a medieval, jihadist, terrorist-sheltering emirate has been established. The US will incur costs for betraying its Afghan allies for a long time to come. But nobody will pay a higher price than Afghans.
The geopolitical fallout of America's humiliating retreat from Afghanistan -- after President Joe Biden followed through on the withdrawal commitment of his predecessor, Donald Trump -- is still growing. By exposing the US as a power in decline, the withdrawal gave a huge boost to militant Islamists everywhere, while emboldening Russia and China.
But things are much worse in Afghanistan. Women and girls have lost their rights to employment and education, with many girls subjected to sexual slavery through forced marriages to Taliban fighters. Afghanistan's Hindus and Sikhs have been fleeing to India to avoid slaughter.
While Mr Biden was quick to take a victory lap after al-Zawahiri's killing, the assassination hardly reflects well on him. A year ago, when ordering US troops to beat a hasty retreat, he claimed the US no longer had any interest in Afghanistan, because al-Qaeda was already "gone." (No matter that, just weeks earlier, a United Nations Security Council report had shown that al-Qaeda militants were fighting alongside their Taliban associates.)
Compounding the danger to Afghanistan and its neighbours, the US left behind weapons in its chaotic withdrawal from the country. According to a recent Pentagon report, the US has no plans to retrieve or destroy the equipment. In short, Mr Biden's decision to overrule his generals and withdraw from Afghanistan has created a security and humanitarian nightmare. And Mr Biden is nowhere near finished making foreign-policy blunders in Afghanistan.
After Kabul's fall, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that the US would judge its future engagement with the Taliban-led government based on "one simple proposition": whether it helps the US advance its interests, including "seeing that women's rights are upheld", delivering humanitarian assistance, and pursuing counterterrorism. But even though the Taliban has failed on all three counts, the Biden administration is gradually easing sanctions on the regime.
At the UN, the US spearheaded a resolution providing for a humanitarian exemption to the sanctions imposed on Afghanistan. The US Treasury Department's General Licenses, aimed at facilitating the provision of humanitarian relief, now allow financial transactions involving the Taliban and the network of Sirajuddin Haqqani -- former Islamist militant and now acting interior minister of Afghanistan. And the US is currently negotiating with the Taliban over the release of $3.5 billion (124.7 billion baht) of Afghan central-bank reserves.
Meanwhile, the US refuses to target Haqqani or other leading terrorists in Kabul. Yes, al-Zawahiri was assassinated, but, contrary to the Biden administration's narrative, he was not that influential. He was largely retired, living with his extended family in a Kabul house under Haqqani's protection.
What's next? Will the US now reward Pakistan -- one of America's 18 "major non-Nato allies" -- for opening its airspace to the drone that killed al-Zawahiri? True, Pakistan reared the Taliban and engineered the US defeat in Afghanistan, but now it wants an early IMF loan dispersal to help it avert a debt default.
Likewise, will the US now continue to pursue the release of Afghanistan's central-bank reserves to the Taliban, despite its indisputable harbouring of terrorists and establishment of an oppressive and violent Islamic state? The Biden administration defends its engagement with the Taliban by speciously contending that the top terrorist threat in Afghanistan is the Islamic State-Khorasan, but it has few members and controls no territory.
The Biden administration seems committed to striking a kind of Faustian bargain with the Taliban. But to what end? The Taliban's political power and Islamist ideology make it a critical link in the international jihadist movement. And its rule is threatening to turn Afghanistan into a breeding ground for international terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and mass migration. There is no justification for engaging with it.
Through its bungling withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration handed Islamists worldwide their greatest victory. But the war in Afghanistan is hardly over. As the Taliban's self-styled emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, recently declared, "This war never ends, and it will continue till judgement day." ©2022 Project Syndicate
Brahma Chellaney, professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including ‘Asian Juggernaut’, ‘Water: Asia’s New Battleground’ and ‘Water, Peace and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis’.