A Year After the Fall of Kabul

The New Yorker

For the Biden Administration, supporting the Afghan people without empowering the Taliban is the foreign-policy case study from hell.

Public anniversaries mark the meaning of the past in the political present. In Washington, one year after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the failure of the United States and its allies is emotive and polarizing. This month, House Republicans issued a report, entitled “A ‘Strategic Failure,’ ” which is unsparing of the Biden Administration’s decision last year to withdraw all remaining American forces from Afghanistan, and of its conduct of the chaotic evacuation that followed. The White House denounced the report as “partisan” and demagogic; the National Security Council circulated a memo defending the Administration’s actions. There will be more of this, particularly if Republicans gain control of one or both chambers of Congress in November’s midterm elections. Democrats have reason, in that case, to fear Benghazi-inspired, election-driving hearings and investigations on Afghanistan, although any Republican drive to hang last year’s failures on Biden will be complicated by the central role played in the dénouement by former President Donald Trump.

The stark politicization of America’s experience in Afghanistan threatens to add one more loop of failure and self-defeat to a sad record. Accountability is vital if it can be achieved impartially and reflectively, yet the urgent question of the moment does not involve the apportionment of blame. Many of the forty million Afghans left behind last summer by evacuating troops and diplomats are being battered by severe crises of hunger and persecution. The policy choices faced by the Biden Administration and its nato allies are morally complex and excruciatingly hard. If they are fogged by partisan politics in Washington, they will be harder still.

Richard Bennett, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, joined by other rights experts from across the world, used the anniversary’s occasion to declare, “Nowhere else in the world has there been as wide-spread, systematic and all-encompassing an attack on the rights of women and girls—every aspect of their lives is being restricted under the guise of morality and through the instrumentalization of religion.”

Meanwhile, about half of the population is struggling to eat. “We’re looking at near-universal poverty,” Vicki Aken, the country director of the International Rescue Committee (I.R.C.), an aid-and-development nonprofit, told me from Kabul. When Aken arrived in Afghanistan in 2017, she said, the poverty rate was at about fifty per cent; by the end of 2022, it may reach ninety-seven per cent. “When you go into clinics and you go into hospitals, you see no medicines,” she said. “You see three people to a bed, lines out the door of mothers with malnourished children.”

Governments and nonprofits are navigating an uncomfortable tension between prioritizing human-rights advocacy and working with the Taliban to stabilize the Afghan economy. “We want the pressure” on the Taliban over human rights, Fereshta Abbasi, an Afghan-born researcher at Human Rights Watch in London, told me. “We need to let the Taliban know that we are standing with the Afghan people” and that the regime’s record must change “if they want any recognition.” Simultaneously, she added, “On the humanitarian side, we don’t want the Afghan people to be victims of this crisis and chaos.”

And Taliban repression is worsening, according to researchers, not moderating under outside pressure. “There are definitely differing views between the humanitarian and human-rights communities,” Aken said. “I have immense respect for the human-rights people,” she added, yet “the only solution to this crisis is to find a way to make the economy function.“ That requires coöperating or, at least, engaging with the Taliban.

“One of the things that I find so hard is that there are a lot of Afghan women who stayed behind, women who run their own N.G.O.s, who are attacked by those outside of the country for even hinting that it’s even possible to do that,” Aken continued. About three thousand women work directly for the I.R.C. in Afghanistan. “It’s not easy,” she said. “There does need to be a light shined on human-rights abuses, but, if we don’t stay engaged, the opportunities that remain for women and ethnic minorities might disappear altogether.”

For nato governments, the dilemma comes down to whether to release large sums of money to Afghanistan to stabilize the economy, even if doing so may strengthen the Taliban. The alternative would be to tighten sanctions and expand travel bans, and further isolate the regime’s leaders, even if this accelerates the economy’s free fall, perhaps to the point of widespread famine. This is not an either-or policy question, of course. The often subtle difficulties of prioritizing rights advocacy while engaging with authoritarian regimes to provide humanitarian aid is a familiar one. But the current Afghan case is distinctive—and unmistakably difficult.

The Taliban’s prideful restoration of gender apartheid in secondary and higher education and in many sectors of the economy is an outrage of special dimensions, as Bennett and the other rights experts noted. For the U.S. and other nato countries—champions of a modernization drive in Kabul and other major Afghan cities for two decades—the reversal of the status of women is all but impossible to countenance. “Women and girls have largely been erased from public life,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, in Washington, on July 28th. “It’s especially difficult to accept because we all remember how different it was not so very long ago.”

On July 31st, a U.S. drone killed the Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri at his hideout in downtown Kabul. The Biden Administration, like its predecessors, has identified counterterrorism as a “vital” continuing interest in Afghanistan. That the Afghan capital was Zawahiri’s haven has only deepened doubts in Washington about the Taliban’s reliability. By “hosting and sheltering” Zawahiri in Kabul, Blinken said after the drone strike, the Taliban betrayed “repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists.” The Taliban insisted that they didn’t know Zawahiri was present.

Even in the face of this record, development experts continue to urge the Biden Administration to release to the Afghan central bank billions of dollars in foreign-currency reserves. The issue is technically complicated. After the Taliban took Kabul last August, the Biden Administration froze seven billion dollars in reserves held in the U.S. Lawyers representing families of victims of 9/11 then asked a judge to designate those funds as compensation for their clients. (The Taliban, who never lawyered up to defend themselves, have been found liable for the attacks.) Last February, Biden issued an executive order allocating 3.5 billion dollars as potential compensation for the 9/11 families, but reserving the rest for possible future restoration to the Afghan central bank, which is known as Da Afghanistan Bank. One impediment to any future release: the first deputy governor appointed to the bank by the Taliban, Noor Ahmad Agha, has been designated as a terrorist by the U.S.

The Taliban want all of the reserves frozen in the U.S. back, and they have respectable allies. On August 10th, seventy-one economists, including the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, wrote to President Biden and the Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, urging them to immediately allow the Afghan central bank to reclaim all of its reserves. They argued that the funds are “critical to the functioning of the Afghan economy.” The Afghan private-banking system “has nearly ground to a halt,” salaries are not being paid, and businesses and individuals cannot access their savings. Repatriating the reserves would allow the central bank to stabilize the national currency and pay for food and energy imports, the economists wrote. William Byrd, a development economist formerly with the World Bank in Kabul, now at the United States Institute of Peace, argued in reply that the Afghan central bank is in no position to manage billions of dollars productively.

The Biden Administration has handed this foreign-policy case study from hell to two well-regarded mid-level State Department officials: Thomas West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, and Rina Amiri, the special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights. West negotiates directly with Taliban leaders on aid, counterterrorism, and other subjects. He has ruled out releasing the Afghan central-bank funds as a “near-term option.”

Amiri has so far declined to attend bilateral talks with the Taliban, because of the regime’s policies toward the women and girls she is charged to defend—a split on diplomatic tactics that is a microcosm of the larger dilemma. “I support my colleagues engaging the Taliban,” Amiri tweeted recently. “Engagement on issues where there’s traction, such as economic stabilization & the humanitarian response, is necessary.” Yet, in the areas her office oversees, she continued, “robust international engagement . . . hasn’t produced meaningful outcomes for Afghan, women, girls & at-risk populations.”

Byrd is among those promoting a nascent plan to put frozen Afghan reserves into a trust fund that would be housed in Switzerland, perhaps to be overseen by central-banking experts—details to be negotiated with the Taliban. The State Department spokesman Ned Price acknowledged that the U.S. continues to explore “mechanisms” that would allow the 3.5 billion dollars of the reserves designated for possible release by Biden to be used “precisely for the benefit of the Afghan people . . . in a way that doesn’t make them ripe for diversion to terrorist groups or elsewhere.”

Hanging over these negotiations is America’s record of diplomatic failure in the run-up to last summer’s collapse, and during the first Taliban emirate, which reigned from the mid-nineties to late 2001. The Clinton years—when the Taliban controlled Kabul and its ministries—offer perhaps the closest parallel to the present layout. Initially flummoxed by the Taliban’s extremism, and later alarmed by the sanctuary it provided to Al Qaeda, State Department envoys pushed all of the buttons of professional diplomacy—direct engagement with Taliban ministers, multilateral peace talks, economic sanctions, travel bans, and weapons embargoes. The Taliban attended conferences, talked politely, and allowed some international aid to flow into the country, but the movement’s leaders offered no major compromises and stood by passively as Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri carried out deadly strikes against U.S. targets in Africa, in 1998, and Yemen, in 2000, meanwhile secretly plotting 9/11.

Eventually, in 1999, Clinton authorized C.I.A. covert action against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The C.I.A. funded and equipped anti-Taliban insurgents, such as those led by the legendary guerrilla commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. Today, some Afghan opponents of the Taliban and their allies in Washington advocate a rerun of covert-action strategies. But neither the Biden Administration nor other nato governments appear to have any appetite for fostering more violence in Afghanistan. In a Foreign Affairs essay this month, Ali Maisam Nazary, the head of foreign relations for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, a movement led by Massoud’s son, acknowledged that its anti-Taliban insurgents of 2022 have yet to receive “a drop of help from any country.”

For their part, the Taliban declared a public holiday to mark the anniversary of Kabul’s fall. On Twitter and in a round of media interviews, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a Taliban foreign-ministry spokesman, promoted the emirate’s achievements one year on, including the resumption of commercial flights to and from Kabul, economic projects, and the accommodation of about a thousand foreign journalists who have travelled to report in the country since last summer. He also cited the Taliban’s engagement with diplomatic missions and argued that an international consensus had taken hold that there is “no alternative to [the] current government.”

It is certainly true that the Taliban have made themselves an intractable fact of life in international affairs. Five successive White Houses have failed to defeat the movement militarily or to influence its leaders to change their ideology. Yet the hardest and least politically rewarding problems in foreign policy are sometimes the most important ones.

For its own failings and those of its predecessors, the Biden Administration has a moral obligation to the Afghan population suffering today under Taliban rule. The U.S. and its nato allies also have an interest in preventing a further Afghan economic collapse that could trigger more mass migration toward Europe or foster more violent extremism. Blessed are the peacemaking, rights-promoting mid-level special envoys, but this is a crisis for Presidents and Prime Ministers. Where are they? ♦

A Year After the Fall of Kabul