Sarah Chayes lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2001-2011 and is the author, most recently, of On Corruption in America—And What Is at Stake.
The Taliban is tottering; Afghanistan is in chaos. This offers the West unprecedented leverage over a foe it couldn’t beat on the battlefield.
You can win the war but lose the peace. That’s a lesson Americans have been taught (not for the first time) by the conflict in Afghanistan. It’s a lesson the Taliban is being taught today. With no cash reserves and no idea how to govern, with the country’s spectacular fruit crops rotting in transport trucks lined up at closed borders, and the population struggling just to survive, Taliban rule is already tottering. That comedown gives the U.S. and its former coalition partners leverage over the group — leverage of a kind we have never enjoyed before.
I know what it looks like to lose the peace. For the best part of a decade, I watched us do it, squandering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for that beleaguered country. I saw the disintegration from the Afghan perspective, living as I did amongst ordinary people in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. I arrived in 2001 as a reporter for National Public Radio, then stayed, launching a manufacturing cooperative that made fragrant body-care products from the region’s legendary horticulture. By 2010, I was on the staff of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offering Adm. Mike Mullen an on-the-ground view he was not getting otherwise.
Today, that on-the-ground view is at odds with the idea of an unstoppable Taliban that swept the U.S. and its Western allies out of the country in a matter of weeks.
“They come door to door, for something to eat,” says the woman I’ve reached via Skype on her cellphone. A widow, she worked in my Kandahar cooperative, cracking almonds by the gunnysack and adding vegetable dyes to our soaps and molding them to look like glossy river-worn cobbles. She’s talking about Taliban fighters, who comb through her neighborhood, begging. “I tell them, ‘Look around, man! You think I’ve got something to give you?’”
Others I’ve reached say some of these unemployed fighters are joining ISIS-K, lured by the same combination of pay and the promise of good things to come if they’re “martyred” that the Taliban served up to recruit young men. “War for a paycheck,” said a former police officer. Last month, right there in the Taliban’s original stronghold, an explosion a few blocks away from our workshop killed nearly 50 people at Friday prayers. ISIS-K claimed the butchery.
So now it’s the Taliban who find themselves mired in a counterinsurgency.
Internally, Afghanistan’s new rulers are locked in a fight over who gets which position in their non-functioning government, according to another Kandahar friend, Pashtoon Atif, a former minister who fled the country but is in constant touch with contacts close to power in Kabul.
And what are the plum jobs within this embryonic Islamic Emirate? Are ideological moderates and hardliners, as we’ve heard them called, quarreling over the ministry of Religious Affairs?
“Are you kidding?” scoffs Atif. “They want the positions where there’s money — like the Finance Ministry. These aren’t the Taliban of the 1990s. They’ve watched their cousins and former neighbors rake in millions for the past 20 years. They want some of that.” All of his interlocutors, says Atif, both pro- and anti-Taliban, doubt the regime will last a year.
For the 40 million or so Afghans who were unable to crowd onto those planes taking off in the wake of Kabul’s collapse, the result of this chaos is unspeakable. According to the United Nation’s World Food Program, as much as half the population, or more than 22 million people, won’t have enough to eat in the coming year. More than 675,000 are internally displaced. That’s as many people as live in my hometown of Boston.
And there is no sign that Afghanistan’s new rulers are taking steps to address the catastrophes their victory has wrought.
Heartless as it may sound, this state of affairs offers the West unprecedented leverage over a foe it could not beat on the battlefield. Adding to that leverage is the fact that the Taliban leadership includes at least one sanctioned terrorist, and several notorious narcotics kingpins.
U.S. and European leaders should not squander this unexpected advantage. They should not allow the Taliban to turn the Afghan population into hostages, brandishing their suffering to extract financial assistance and international legitimacy with no strings attached.
The dimensions of the looming crisis, as well as perhaps a lingering sense of guilt, make the pressure to do so almost irresistible. Especially for Europeans, the specter of a mass exodus of Afghan refugees, and the potentially explosive political repercussions at home, can contribute to the sort of panic-revved thinking that does not lend itself to good policy. Humanitarian agencies, motivated by concern for Afghans, but perhaps also their own bottom lines, are doubling down on the pressure for immediate action.
Washington and its NATO allies should resist it. Instead, they should use their leverage to attach conditions to the provision of any financial or humanitarian assistance, and exploit the Taliban’s desperation to enforce some of the terms of the 2020 Doha Agreement that the group promiscuously violated when it was winning the war.
Does the West want the Taliban to refrain from trucking with international terrorism or trying to expand their Islamic Emirate beyond Afghanistan’s borders? Do we think an Afghan government that represents the spectrum of people who make up the nation would be more stable than one run by a narrow — and largely detested — authoritarian faction? Do we want the half of the population that has two X chromosomes to enjoy comparable human rights to their male counterparts, such as the right to learn, teach, or practice medicine? Do we believe Afghans deserve freedom of motion and expression?
Those are some of the conditions the West can and should place on any assistance to its erstwhile enemy.
Using this kind of leverage might seem like an obvious diplomatic tool, but oddly, the United States has never been skillful at wielding it. In his landmark 1973 study of the Vietnam War, Robert W. Komer examines what he calls a “fixed feature of U.S. relations with other countries:” a “notable reluctance” to pressure client governments — through conditions on military and civilian assistance, for example — to conform to minimum standards of behavior toward their citizens. The government of Vietnam, he judges, “used its weakness as leverage on us far more effectively than we used our strength to lever it.”
Komer might as well have been writing about Afghanistan. When then-General David Petraeus was in command of international troops in 2010, I pleaded with him to find ways of imposing consequences on senior Afghan army officers — and even on civilian leaders with whom he worked — if they were caught perpetrating serious acts of corruption. Failing to do so, I warned him, would lose the war.
I don’t think we have much leverage, Petraeus countered. I could feel my eyes widening. Really? American taxpayers were underwriting the salaries of every Afghan soldier and officer — not to mention those of the president, and his personal staff, and hundreds of other Afghan officials. International forces contracted with companies run by the sons and cousins of members of the government. Westerners’ visible presence side by side with corrupt officials allowed them to lord it over their communities. No leverage?
(When called for comment, Petraeus told POLITICO he did indeed believe in leverage and found ways to remove Afghan commanders for corruption on numerous occasions.)
The European Union was no more sophisticated in dealing with Afghan counterparts back then. And now it is apparently on the verge of opening a diplomatic mission in Kabul — in effect, recognizing the Taliban government that violates its every stated value.
Western countries should not move too fast. Just because we’ve failed to use our leverage in the past doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start now.
One way of thinking about the fraught matter of placing conditions on humanitarian assistance is to consider any offer to provide it as the equivalent of a treaty with a hostile foreign power. The nuclear deals with the USSR and Iran included not only conditions, but intrusive verification procedures. That’s the model that should be applied here.
But strangely, though the Taliban has inflicted more damage to our countries’ national interests than either Iran or the USSR, I haven’t seen any list of conditions that might be attached to assistance or the legitimacy that would be conferred by an E.U. mission, nor a discussion of timelines and benchmarks for negotiations to expand the government beyond the ranks of Taliban commanders. I have not heard any intention to field monitoring missions to ensure compliance with such conditions, or to impose consequences in case of failure to do so.
Humanitarian assistance should be tailored to serve humanitarian purposes exclusively. And whatever rights, values and national interests the West sought to establish and protect in Afghanistan should now be required from the Taliban in return for saving them from themselves. Independent verification measures should be part of any agreement, and should be rigorously enforced.
Let’s not let a squabbling gang of war criminals maneuver us into begging them to let us bail them out — and sacrificing the Afghan people yet again, as well as the labor and lives of our own citizens, in the process.