The United States still has influence over the Taliban

Since al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a US drone strike at his last hideout in an upscale Kabul neighborhood, it has become clear that the United States needs a mechanism to manage a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. This relationship must be one that avoids giving formal recognition and legitimacy to the emirate 2.0. This would embolden Islamist actors around the world.

It is imperative that the country does not once again become a launching pad for cross-continental jihadist attacks, but there is also an urgent need to contain the Taliban’s own radicalism nationally and regionally.

The West cannot change the nature of the Taliban, but it can try to limit the harmful impact of the movement. If left to their own devices, the Taliban are likely to consolidate their version of Islamist authoritarianism and develop close ties with players like Iran, China and Russia – the list would likely even include some allies the United States.

There has been much talk about how the Taliban violated the Doha agreement between the group and the United States by harboring al-Zawahiri. The reality is that such talk misses the point. The Doha deal was dead on arrival, which I predicted shortly after the Trump administration began talks with Taliban negotiators in late 2018.

Taliban fighters ride in a vehicle as they celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, near Kabul airport on August 31, 2022.
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

The Doha Accord was a short-term diplomatic instrument aimed at creating the formal conditions to end the longest war in American history. The Taliban clearly had no intention of upholding their end of the bargain vis-à-vis al-Qaeda. They made clear their intention to seize power by force, and long before they signed on the proverbial dotted line.

Since the return to power of the Taliban, the United States has not had a well-conceived plan to manage Afghanistan. Last November, the Biden administration signed an agreement with Qatar under which the Gulf Arab state would represent American interests in Afghanistan. While this allows for basic diplomacy, it does not provide the answer we seek.

In addition to this indirect diplomacy, the United States is in discussions with the Taliban on how to release funds frozen in the Afghan central bank to help alleviate the serious humanitarian crisis that has plagued Afghans for a year. But the challenge is to ensure that the money is not diverted to strengthen the regime’s coercive apparatus.

Of course, our adversaries Iran, China and Russia are already a source of encouragement for the Taliban – enabling their goal of creating long-term religious autocracy. Even allies like India – which has long worried about the Taliban – have begun to engage with the jihadist regime, at least in part because of the lack of US leadership or even a plan. Similarly, according to a senior US official currently working on Afghanistan, the UAE supports the murderous and terrorist Haqqani faction. This further exacerbates the deleterious effects of Pakistan’s longstanding support for the group. This emerging situation is completely unacceptable and diminishes America’s ability to influence the behavior of the Taliban.

We obviously cannot change who the Taliban are, but the United States still has a narrow window through which to control the Taliban. This will require a carefully calibrated strategy leveraging incentives – such as the country’s sovereign wealth fund – for the Taliban to heed the demands of the United States and its partners. The Taliban are currently under pressure to prove they are capable of governing a country plagued by economic crises and an ISIL-K led insurgency.

Despite deep divisions between the “pragmatists” and the ideological purists of the Taliban, there is still a chance for the outside world to influence the illegitimate emirate, even if only gradually. The United States has two things the Taliban desperately need: control of over $7 billion in frozen assets and counterterrorism capabilities to fight ISIL-K. (Despite their alliance with al-Qaeda, the Taliban cooperates with US security agencies in the fight against ISIS.)

Between the official diplomatic channel through Qatar, Central Asian states like Uzbekistan and others who are willing to help, a modus vivendi can be established that allows the United States to limit the extent to which the Taliban s engage in radical behavior. Meanwhile, it will fall to U.S. policymakers to counter outside troublemakers — both allies and adversaries — whose support for various Taliban factions is detrimental to U.S. interests.

Kamran Bokhari, Ph.D. is director of analytical development at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington. Mr. Bokhari is also a National Security and Foreign Policy Specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. Bokhari was coordinator of Central Asian studies at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the United States Department of State. Follow him on Twitter at @KamranBokhari.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.