That may explain some actions taken by the Biden administration, such as proposing in September that the Taliban be removed as potential targets from congressional Authorizations for Use of Military Force legislation, or AUMFs. Other moves that would signal serious policy shifts are under consideration would be any efforts to water down U.N. sanctions targeting the Taliban when they are renewed in December 2023; reopening a U.S. diplomatic mission in Kabul; and delisting the Taliban as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity and the Haqqani network as a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.
One rationale for improving relations with the Taliban, paradoxically, is to try to recover counterterrorism capabilities the U.S. lost after its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, including military and intelligence bases in a country bordering Iran, China, Pakistan and three nations of Central Asia. Administration officials who testified to Congress about removing the Taliban from the AUMFs argued that the Taliban regime is not a threat to the U.S. and might even be a potential partner against the Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K, the ISIS-affiliated group that operates within Afghanistan.
This rationale is shortsighted, however. First, any battlefield losses the U.S. could help the Taliban inflict on IS-K are relatively insignificant and would come at the cost of legitimating the Taliban’s consolidation of power. It would also offer encouragement to other extremist groups in the region and worldwide, including Hamas, whose leadership congratulated the Taliban in August 2021 for having seized power militarily, instead of falling for “flashy words such as democracy and elections.” Second, although Biden made it clear in 2021 that human rights are not a “vital U.S. national interest” in Afghanistan, promoting human rights and fighting extremism are inextricably linked. The U.S. should safeguard international norms of human rights and sanctions enforcement, not undermine them, since these tools are crucial to U.S. national security policymaking.
Despite these costs, the signs that Washington is preparing to soften its stance on the Taliban are evident to anyone familiar with the techniques the U.S. government routinely uses in similar situations. These include:
Changing the narrative. The Haqqani network, a designated terrorist organization guilty of murdering U.S. citizens, is an integral element of the Taliban regime, but this fact is carefully elided in U.S. official communication. The U.S. State Department still lists Sirajuddin Haqqani as a terrorist, with a $10 million reward for any information about his “whereabouts” leading to his capture; the FBI, which has similarly offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Haqqani’s capture, considers him a most-wanted criminal who “is thought to live in Pakistan.” In fact, Haqqani lives openly and freely in Kabul as Afghanistan’s de facto interior minister. And when the U.S. killed Ayman al-Zawahiri with a drone strike in July 2022, the leader of al-Qaida was staying in a Haqqani-owned residence, leading to speculation about whether the Haqqani network leadership would be “next” on the list of U.S. targets. Yet after the most recent meeting between representatives of the U.S. and the Taliban in July, the State Department’s readout puzzlingly stated that “U.S. officials took note of the Taliban’s continuing commitment to not allow the territory of Afghanistan to be used by anyone to threaten the United States and its allies.”
Denigrating trusted experts. U.N. experts’ reports are frequently used as a basis for U.S. policy actions and adopted by consensus, which includes the U.S. mission. But after the U.N. sanctions committee released its June 2023 report, which stated that the Taliban and al-Qaida maintained a strong working relationship and that al-Qaida operatives held senior positions training Taliban fighters, various “unnamed U.S. government sources” cited by the media claimed that the report was “wildly out of whack” with U.S. assessments. However, those sources declined to explain how and why their assessments diverged from that of the U.N.’s team.
The signs that Washington is preparing to soften its stance on the Taliban are evident to anyone familiar with the techniques the U.S. government routinely uses in similar situations.
Enlisting high-level cover. Judging by Biden’s unguarded statement to the press in June 2023 that the U.S. is “getting help from the Taliban” in the fight against al-Qaida, he had been briefed about the evolving U.S. security relationship with the regime in Kabul. He clearly was not supposed to mention it out loud, however; in a subsequent clarification of Biden’s remarks, national security adviser Jake Sullivan stated only that the U.S. was “holding the Taliban to account” on its commitment as part of the Doha Agreement not to allow Afghan territory to be used for terrorist groups threatening the U.S. and its allies. That would not amount to the kind of “help” Biden suggested, but Biden’s remarks should be seen as much as an attempt to soften public views of the Taliban as a gaffe or misrepresentation.
Launching expert-level trial balloons. In a May 2023 opinion piece in “Foreign Policy,” former CIA operations officer Douglas London and former Afghan diplomat Javid Ahmad laid out a case for recognizing the Taliban as a way to both achieve a U.S. presence in Afghanistan to fight ISIS and develop working ties with the Taliban’s so-called pragmatists. The Middle East Institute later hosted a roundtable in July with these authors, where the same ideas—as well as fiercely opposing perspectives—were discussed.
Reordering priorities. The U.S. readout after meeting with the Taliban in July 2023 also praised the Taliban’s counternarcotics efforts, including their ban on poppy cultivation as well as the production and trafficking of opium and heroin. In September, members of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce traveled to Kabul, where they praised the Taliban government for what they called its astute handling of the Afghan economy, eliciting no public disavowal by the U.S. government.
Launching a mainstream media trial balloon. One unmistakable signal of an upcoming administration policy change is often an article by an influential columnist in a paper of record filled with insider leaks. In this case, that took the form of Washington Post columnist David Ignatius’ mid-September opinion piece that again featured unnamed intelligence officials as well as an unnamed National Security Council official. The NSC official conveniently provided a declassified version of a brand-new CIA assessment, not otherwise made public, pushing back on the U.N. report’s assessment of al-Qaida’s strength and relationship with the Taliban. The article also claimed that some members of the Taliban “probably” knew that Zawahiri was hiding in Kabul at the time of his killing, and that he was “likely sheltered by members of the extremist Haqqani faction,” once again eliding the fact that the leader of the Haqqani faction is Afghanistan’s interior minister.
Despite all these signals, however, a policy shift is not necessarily guaranteed. Trial balloons can and do get shot down by those paying attention, in this case the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has cautioned the State Department several times on the matter. In a July 2023 letter, for instance, Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul warned U.S. officials against potentially visiting Kabul. In early October, McCaul and other committee members reacted strongly to statements made by Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland at an earlier committee hearing. McCaul publicly expressed his opposition to what he described as the administration’s desire to “normalize” relations with the Taliban. He cited the decision to remove the group from the AUMF and Nuland’s assertion that there was no evidence of systematic Taliban retribution against former Afghan government or military officials, despite multiple reports to the contrary.
Whether this opposition will be enough to prevent such a policy shift remains to be seen. Should the Biden administration go through with it, the wider implications would go beyond damaging the already shaky efforts by Afghan opposition groups and human rights defenders to maintain international support for their cause. Although that is important enough, there is more at stake. Undermining U.N. experts’ reports on sanctions undercuts a key U.S. policy tool often used to hold Russia, North Korea, Iran and other U.S. adversaries accountable. The argument that the Taliban are no threat to the U.S. ignores the fact that their impact extends beyond Afghanistan’s borders, serving as an inspiration to other extremist movements. Normalizing relations with the Taliban as a realpolitik recognition of their hold on power undercuts important U.S. policies on condemning coups and promoting democracy. And the idea that the U.S. should “work with bad guys to fight worse ones” is a dangerous illusion in the long run, even when it offers temporary success.
The U.S. has important interests at stake in Afghanistan, but these should be advanced on the basis of ensuring the Taliban’s respect for human rights and its verifiable rejection of terrorist groups, not appeasement.
Annie Pforzheimer served as deputy chief of mission in Kabul and acting deputy assistant secretary of state for Afghanistan during her 30-year career as a U.S. diplomat. She is currently a volunteer advocate on Afghanistan human rights issues, a policy expert with the Center for a New American Security and Center for Strategic and International Studies, and an adjunct professor of international relations at the City University of New York and Pace University.