Analysis

Can the West Make the Taliban Moderate?

The United States has leverage over the new Afghan government. Here’s how to use it.

By , an associate professor at Georgetown University’s government department.
A demonstrator shows Pakistani currency notes contributed by the protestors for holy war against America and to help Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia during an anti-US protest rally of a Sunni extremist group Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) in Islamabad on September 28, 2001.
A demonstrator shows Pakistani currency notes contributed by the protestors for holy war against America and to help Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia during an anti-US protest rally of a Sunni extremist group Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) in Islamabad on September 28, 2001. SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Washington’s foreign-policy establishment is usually teeming with analyses of new world leaders. But reports on the Taliban are scarce. Observers are still trying to guess if the group that has now taken over Afghanistan is “worldly and tolerant” or not—and whether the West can now do anything to influence its behavior. Eventually, the Taliban’s actions will definitively answer that question. But until then, insights from political science can help make predictions.

In 2015, I published a book on why some leaders bring about successful economic reconstruction of their countries and others do not. That research highlights three empirical questions that can clarify how the Taliban are likely to behave and whether the West will have any leverage over the group. Together, the answers suggest the United States and its allies have the upper hand—and that they’re starting to realize how to use it.

Leaders tend to prize political survival over everything else, especially in countries under political and economic stress, where the threat of a coup is acute. To consolidate power, leaders need money, and they need it fast. They need to finance patronage networks and military capacity to deter and, if necessary, defeat challengers. They also need to equip their personal security detail, lest their military turn against them. Their easiest source of income is revenue from natural resources that are highly profitable and entail minimal labor (oil) or capital (cobalt) to mine.

Washington’s foreign-policy establishment is usually teeming with analyses of new world leaders. But reports on the Taliban are scarce. Observers are still trying to guess if the group that has now taken over Afghanistan is “worldly and tolerant” or not—and whether the West can now do anything to influence its behavior. Eventually, the Taliban’s actions will definitively answer that question. But until then, insights from political science can help make predictions.

In 2015, I published a book on why some leaders bring about successful economic reconstruction of their countries and others do not. That research highlights three empirical questions that can clarify how the Taliban are likely to behave and whether the West will have any leverage over the group. Together, the answers suggest the United States and its allies have the upper hand—and that they’re starting to realize how to use it.

Leaders tend to prize political survival over everything else, especially in countries under political and economic stress, where the threat of a coup is acute. To consolidate power, leaders need money, and they need it fast. They need to finance patronage networks and military capacity to deter and, if necessary, defeat challengers. They also need to equip their personal security detail, lest their military turn against them. Their easiest source of income is revenue from natural resources that are highly profitable and entail minimal labor (oil) or capital (cobalt) to mine.

The next best alternative for leaders without money from resource rents is aid from donors with a geopolitical interest in the country. Such assistance is similar to resource rents, because donors prioritize propping up the recipient over development or democracy. For example, the United States may have sought to spread democracy during the Cold War, but securing loyalty from aid recipients was more critical. As a result, the United States looked away when loyal aid recipients, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, repressed their people.

America’s post-9/11 wars and counterterrorism campaigns similarly transformed countries across the global south—especially Afghanistan—into strategically important aid recipients. As a result, the aid dynamics of the Cold War returned. Successive Afghan governments since 2001 could eschew politically costly reform, because Washington would not enforce conditions and risk collapse of the government. In short, Washington could not credibly threaten to withdraw its aid. As put in 2008 by a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan: “The argument that we could pull out of Afghanistan if [then-Afghan President Hamid] Karzai doesn’t do what we say is stupid.”

Suppose a leader lacks access to money from natural resources or donors with strategic interests. In that case, the third-best alternative is money from donors without a strategic interest in the government—that is, aid from donors whose priority is democracy or development. Unlike donors of strategic aid, donors of nonstrategic aid can credibly threaten to withdraw if the recipient fails to meet social-welfare goals. For example, with the end of the Cold War, governments across the global south suddenly lost strategic importance to major powers. To secure aid flows, these governments needed to meet the demands of nonstrategic donors—and largely did. In addition to aid, compliance with these goals was expected to attract foreign direct investment. Western assistance is replete with problems, but when donors had incentives to enforce aid agreements in the 1990s, recipients had incentives to comply. With this incentive alignment, aid fostered democracy and economic growth across the global south on a scale unseen before the 1990s.

Given the historical patterns, the first question to ask about the Taliban is whether they have access to rents from lucrative natural resources. If they do, they can ignore foreign demands and fall back on their resource rents to finance their political (and physical) survival. Afghanistan may have as much as $1 trillion in mineral wealth, but much of it is still in the ground and thus not straightforwardly available. Rents from opium and the informal economy in general, however, could shield the Taliban from lack of foreign support, at least in the short term.

The second question is whether Afghanistan is strategically important to major powers. What’s undeniable is that the Taliban are geopolitically valuable to Pakistan. As a result, the Taliban receive significant funding, intelligence, and military expertise from Pakistan. But this seems to be the extent of the Taliban’s foreign support. The West views Afghanistan as a strategic trap and, apparently, so does China. Although China included Afghanistan in its Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese investments failed to yield expected returns, because Afghanistan was too unstable. Knowing that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires,” China may calculate that investment is not worth security costs. Russia may assist and pressure the Taliban to defeat the Islamic State in northern Afghanistan, near Russian regional interests. Russia may also try to compel the Taliban to slow drug trafficking, a long-standing concern for Moscow. But Russia may not involve itself more deeply given its history in Afghanistan. In short, beyond ensuring Afghanistan is not a base for international terrorism, no major power has a clear strategic interest in the country.

The bottom line is that the Taliban currently seem to be in a similar geopolitical and economic situation as during their first period of rule in the late 1990s: relying on an informal economy and Pakistan. However, that support structure was insufficient for their political (and physical) survival in 2001, which raises my third question. To what extent do the Taliban view their original political survival strategy from the 1990s as a mistake to avoid repeating?

If the Taliban do not view it as a mistake, the group is likely to return to the rule the West abhors. But if the Taliban do view the original strategy as a mistake, the West should have significant leverage. To put it bluntly, the Taliban would need the West more than the West needs them.

If Western donors decide to engage with the Taliban, the policy conditions attached to the aid should be creative and practical, building on the Taliban’s governance during the war. Over the last decade, the Taliban have been pragmatic. Experts point out that their “[p]olicymaking has been driven by military and political necessity.” In some communities, the Taliban allowed girls to continue schooling and permitted nongovernmental organizations to offer basic services, all because doing so helped the group win local support.

Donors should identify policies that advance rights and that the Taliban can plausibly justify to their supporters. Those conditions are not likely to be discovered within Western theories of modernization, liberalization, democratization, or good governance. They are likely to be found in exchanges between the Taliban and local communities. For example, many Afghan women prefer female to male doctors. When male doctors replaced female doctors in a community under Taliban control in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the Taliban “objected … because women would not be able to access the clinic unless another woman was recruited,” according to a report from the think tank ODI. The Taliban may therefore be open to educating women to become doctors. Aid conditions should reflect such opportunities.

But getting the content of conditions right is not enough. Donors should boldly signal that they will automatically withdraw their support in the face of noncompliance by the Taliban. Any continued disbursement after noncompliance would weaken the credibility of future threats to withdraw aid. Moreover, weak enforcement would undermine the Taliban’s incentive to comply in the first place.

The West already has the upper hand in bargaining with the Taliban. The U.S. Treasury froze Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, and Canada’s prime minister said his government had “no plans” to recognize the Taliban officially. NATO halted its aid, the International Monetary Fund put on hold emergency reserves it had committed to Afghanistan, and the World Bank suspended its aid. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has sought a joint policy from Western powers to sanction the Taliban if they violate human rights or host international terrorism. U.S. President Joe Biden agreed, saying, “It depends on the conduct.”

Suggesting further that the West has the upper hand, the Taliban told commanders to govern responsibly as they seized power because they were being “watched”—presumably by Afghans under their control, by those not yet under their control, and by foreign actors who would be in a position to decide whether to recognize and possibly support the group. Similarly, after seizing power, instead of declaring a one-sided government, the Taliban met opponents, such as Karzai, the former president. Instead of massacring civilians, the Taliban have been trying to reassure them. Instead of killing former government officials, the Taliban have granted them amnesty and asked them to return to work.

Western powers should approach the Taliban with skepticism but remain highly aware of their leverage to encourage a moderate, more “inclusive” Taliban.

Desha Girod is an associate professor at Georgetown University’s government department.

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