To Help Afghanistan, Engage Its Political Opposition

By , the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, and , the director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Foreign Policy magazine
January 31, 2023, 9:33 AM
The Taliban’s rule isn’t inevitable or forever.

Eighteen months after the fall of Kabul, the situation in Afghanistan is moving from bad to worse. In addition to banning girls from secondary schools, the Taliban recently closed universities to women. Taliban officials also stopped women from working with nongovernmental organizations that distribute humanitarian aid in December, prompting international charities to suspend their work. The United Nations now reports that 6 million Afghans stand on the brink of starvation.

The United States has rightly continued to provide help to Afghanistan despite the Taliban conquest and stands today as the single largest donor of humanitarian assistance in the world. While such aid remains critical, Washington should not simply accept the Taliban’s coercive rule as an indefinite if unfortunate reality. By engaging with the political opposition, the United States can take steps toward a better Afghan future.

Traveling recently in Tajikistan and Turkey, we met with former Afghan officials, members of the diaspora, refugees, and others who look in anguish at Afghanistan’s plight. Kabul’s ambassador in Dushanbe, appointed by the previous government, holds meetings in the cold: The embassy’s budget for central heating has run out. Opposition figures in Turkey attempt to harmonize their political approaches but face constraints on their speech and activities imposed by the Turkish government. Each one laments the fall of Kabul and all urge the international community to not simply give up on Afghanistan.

The challenges go beyond the Taliban crushing the rights of women and girls. The new regime is overhauling the educational curriculum, ensuring that millions of boys will be subject to its hardline Islamist views. U.N. officials report that the Taliban has “precipitated the collapse of the rule of law.” Two-thirds of the entire population is expected to remain dependent on foreign aid this year. ISIS is active and deadly in Afghanistan, and the Taliban remains linked to al Qaeda.

The international community’s ability to alter these realities is now highly circumscribed. But it is not zero, and the United States should lead the effort to wrest from today’s perils a better tomorrow.

For all its inflexibility, elements of the Taliban seek internal legitimacy, including basic governance and services, not least to forestall an eventual uprising against their rule. They crave a measure of international legitimacy as well, including the ability to travel, acquire diplomatic status, and tap frozen assets and foreign assistance. They frequently visit the Gulf states and have sent representatives to diplomatic missions in Turkey, Russia, China, and Pakistan. Last summer, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid blamed Washington for blocking the regime from receiving wider international recognition. This provides a modicum of leverage.

Washington should seek to build on that leverage by engaging not only the Taliban itself but also the burgeoning political opposition now largely resident outside Afghanistan. It should reopen the embassy in Washington and allow the previous ambassador (or her representative) to return to it. Many, perhaps more than 60, Afghan diplomatic missions across the world remain open and staffed by members of the previous government. No country has recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government, and in November the U.N. General Assembly criticized the its record on human rights, sending a message that member states will not recognize the Taliban under current circumstances. Such moves provide implicit support for engaging with non-Taliban political actors.

The enduring disunity among the opposition groups presents challenges to this approach. Divided over ethnic identity, power politics, corruption allegations, and prior service in the government of Ashraf Ghani, there are today three main opposition groups: the National Resistance Front, based in Tajikistan, led by Ahmad Masood, the “Ankara Group,” based in Turkey, comprised mostly of former warlords, and a group calling itself the National Movement for Peace and Justice, led by former members of the Ghani government. They are united by opposition to the Taliban and concern for Afghanistan but not a great deal else.

The United States should support a political office for the Afghan opposition in a third country, as the Taliban had in Doha for years, one that could serve as the focal point for the groups to unify, organize their political activities, and harmonize their engagement with the Taliban and the international community. While several members of the political opposition already engage individually with Taliban leaders, a formal office would give more weight to those discussions and encourage a more broad-based, Afghan-led negotiation process.

U.S. diplomats should also increase engagement with the diaspora who seek to build a different future for Afghanistan. They should press countries, particularly the Gulf states and Turkey, to enforce the ban on international travel by Taliban officials blacklisted by the United Nations. And the Biden administration must ensure that the millions of dollars in cash shipped into Afghanistan each week for use by the U.N. Assistance Mission—lifesaving support for many Afghans—does not line Taliban pockets, as is widely suspected by many former government officials.

If the United States wishes to send a clear diplomatic message about the unacceptability of the Taliban’s policies, it should formally discard the Doha deal signed in February 2020. Many Afghans interpret it not as a peace agreement but as a withdrawal measure that guaranteed Taliban rule. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has acknowledged that the Taliban “grossly” violated the Doha deal by harboring al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in downtown Kabul. Voiding the agreement would signal that America’s approach to Afghanistan is no longer premised on trust in Taliban promises.

All these measures, even taken together, will neither dislodge the Taliban nor dramatically empower the political opposition. The opportunity to exert more direct leverage was lost in the chaos of America’s withdrawal. But Washington should seek even modest steps to deny the Taliban international legitimacy, strengthen Afghanistan’s political opposition, and make clear that a better future is possible.

With its Kandahar-based, hardest-line elements in the ascendancy, the Taliban today hurriedly wrings from Afghanistan the basic rights of its people and the essential functions of its society. Yet if history is any guide, this faction will not rule forever. The effort to help Afghans shape a better alternative should begin now.

Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @RHFontaine

Lisa Curtis is the director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and served as senior director for South and Central Asia on the National Security Council staff.

To Help Afghanistan, Engage Its Political Opposition