In the aftermath of Afghanistan’s earthquake last week that killed at least 1,000 and rendered tens of thousands homeless, the Biden administration should take the Taliban up on its request for international assistance and look to find a more general modus vivendi with a government that, like it or not, now runs the country. The very survival of a large share of the Afghan population is at stake. America’s counterterrorism interests would also be well served by such an understanding.
Since last summer’s fall of the previous government, and with it the departure of most foreign assistance, as well as the reimposition of Western sanctions and freezing of most of the country’s modest foreign assets, Afghanistan is in crisis. The situation has partially stabilized in recent months but only at a far lower standard of living than existed before — and Afghanistan was always poor. Over the past year, Afghanistan’s economy has declined by perhaps 30 percent; 22 million of its 41 million inhabitants remain short on food and 8 million acutely so; the health system is in tatters. The dramatic improvements achieved since 2001 in rates of child survival (with death rates reduced about a third), average lifespan (with average longevity increased about six years), and other metrics of human welfare are being lost.
To be sure, no deal can or should be unconditional. The Taliban remains an organization with harsh proclivities in terms of how they govern their nation.
Thus, if the Biden administration were to lead an international effort to cut a deal with the Taliban, it should insist on at least minimal standards for women and minority rights, as well as some travel and press freedoms, in exchange for diplomatic recognition and some limited degree of economic assistance. The Taliban’s impediments to high school, higher education and numerous government positions for women must be removed, and reports of mistreatment of political opponents investigated when they occur. There must also be dialogue and information sharing on the terrorist threat from Afghanistan, even if the Taliban will not actively cooperate with us against extremists.
The politics of this idea may be unappealing to a Biden administration still reeling from the August troop withdrawal debacle, captured by television for all the world to see, in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan. But this is a manageable risk. After all, whether rightly or not, most Americans agreed with President Biden’s decision to pull out US (and therefore all NATO/foreign) forces before the withdrawal occurred.
For all the problems, things could be much worse in Afghanistan — suggesting a certain degree of Taliban restraint that perhaps can be built upon. Former leaders such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai still live safely in the country, though at least for a time Karzai was reported to be under house arrest. There have been no reports of mass killings and relatively few reports of extrajudicial killings. Some limited UN presence, including notably the World Health Organization, is on the ground. There are restrictions on women’s movements and dress, but such is also the reality in conservative Muslim societies. All this may be damning with faint praise — in fact, it is not praise at all. The Taliban remains hugely problematic as a governing regime. But like it or not, they are now that regime.
The Taliban needs help, as they have again affirmed in requesting assistance after the recent earthquake. They also do not seem eager to pick a military fight with the United States again, as their imperfect but still considerable collaboration with us in permitting a massive evacuation effort from the country in August attests. This suggests a basis for a certain detente.
As such, the basic outlines of a deal can be imagined:
- Food and health care must be made available to all without prejudice based on gender, religion, or politics;
- Girls and women must have basic educational and legal rights, as must minorities — including access to higher education and to employment opportunities;
- If there is to be some version of Sharia law, it should be instituted only in consultation with other conservative Sunni countries where such legal codes and punishment systems have been moderated over the years;
- There must be no active collaboration between the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the Taliban must accept that if they cannot control ISIS-K on their territory, we may take direct action against it ourselves at time;
- In exchange, the international community will recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan, allow access to some fraction of the country’s foreign holdings each year, and provide significant humanitarian assistance for years to come, as needed (even if substantially less than the aid amounts previously provided). The Biden administration is reportedly already considering a deal on foreign currency assets; it should be expedited and expanded.
To make all this work verifiably, the Taliban must accept an international observation mission to monitor these promises. The mission must be empowered to investigate any acts of violence that could violate the Taliban’s promises of amnesty to former enemies, and to monitor courts and prisons. The operation could operate under UN auspices and be composed mainly of troops from Muslim-majority countries (not to include Afghanistan’s neighbors). Such missions are inexpensive and abide by the three doctrinal rules of peacekeeping: consent, impartiality and the use of force only in self-defense. They have a good track record around the world of holding parties to ceasefires or peace agreements accountable through transparency, cajoling and, where necessary, the withholding of financial aid. They help deter fresh rounds of civil war as well.
This kind of agreement would turn Afghanistan into a foreign policy success for the United States and would not the broader global community. But it could help preserve the basic safety, sustenance and human rights of 41 million Afghans who have no option of looking away from the plight of their country today — even if many in Washington would like to do just that.
Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, and author of several books, including “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: US Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint” and ”Defense 101: Understanding the Military of Today and Tomorrow.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOhanlon.
Lise Howard is professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and president of the Academic Council on the United Nations System. She is the author of ”Power in Peacekeeping.” Follow her on Twitter @TeamLise.