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Now America Must Help the Millions of Afghans It Left Behind

Engaging with a Taliban government will be painful. Washington will have to do it anyway.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
An Afghan child walks near abandoned military uniforms in Kabul.
An Afghan child walks near abandoned military uniforms as he waits to leave Kabul’s airport on Aug. 16. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Since the Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15, U.S. focus has rightly centered on evacuating Americans and vulnerable Afghans, and more than 100,000 were flown out of Afghanistan in a historic effort. Many more Afghan allies remain behind, at risk of reprisal from the Taliban, and U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to bring them to safety. When he and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talk of the “enduring” U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, they are primarily talking about finishing the evacuation.

For every Afghan who made it out, there are countless others left behind. The United States’ enduring commitment must include work to ensure those left behind are not forgotten, by pushing Afghanistan’s new rulers to deliver for their people. That will take a level of engagement with—and even support for—the Taliban that will be unpalatable yet critical for a stable Afghanistan. And a stable Afghanistan is not only a moral imperative but a strategic one, from the point of view of the United States and most countries in the region.

It will not be easy to engage the Taliban after fighting against it for 20 years, even though the United States worked closely with the group to evacuate as many Americans and Afghans from the country as possible in the final days of its military presence. The Taliban has offered encouraging statements about human rights, freedom of movement for women, and education for girls; and it has declared amnesty against retribution for all Afghans and promised them the freedom to travel. But it has also belied these promises with wanton brutality and a return to the kind of harsh, Islamist regime that ruled the country in the late 1990s. Part of that is due to a division between the more moderate Taliban that has spent the past two years negotiating with the United States and Kabul in Qatar, and the more militant, battle-hardened fighters who swarmed violently over the country in the last four months.

Since the Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15, U.S. focus has rightly centered on evacuating Americans and vulnerable Afghans, and more than 100,000 were flown out of Afghanistan in a historic effort. Many more Afghan allies remain behind, at risk of reprisal from the Taliban, and U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to bring them to safety. When he and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talk of the “enduring” U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, they are primarily talking about finishing the evacuation.

For every Afghan who made it out, there are countless others left behind. The United States’ enduring commitment must include work to ensure those left behind are not forgotten, by pushing Afghanistan’s new rulers to deliver for their people. That will take a level of engagement with—and even support for—the Taliban that will be unpalatable yet critical for a stable Afghanistan. And a stable Afghanistan is not only a moral imperative but a strategic one, from the point of view of the United States and most countries in the region.

It will not be easy to engage the Taliban after fighting against it for 20 years, even though the United States worked closely with the group to evacuate as many Americans and Afghans from the country as possible in the final days of its military presence. The Taliban has offered encouraging statements about human rights, freedom of movement for women, and education for girls; and it has declared amnesty against retribution for all Afghans and promised them the freedom to travel. But it has also belied these promises with wanton brutality and a return to the kind of harsh, Islamist regime that ruled the country in the late 1990s. Part of that is due to a division between the more moderate Taliban that has spent the past two years negotiating with the United States and Kabul in Qatar, and the more militant, battle-hardened fighters who swarmed violently over the country in the last four months.

Soon, the reality of governing a country devastated by four decades of war and beset by interlocking political, security, and economic crises will sink in. The new government will face mounting challenges, including a plummeting currency, soaring inflation, and widespread food insecurity. Restarting the motors of the state—from opening the banks and the airport to providing basic services like electricity—has become even more difficult because many government employees have either fled the country or are in hiding, fearful of reprisals despite the Taliban’s promises of amnesty.

The world can’t afford to ignore this perfect storm.

The Taliban is aware it won’t be able to run the country or attract the enormous foreign support it will need to rebuild without establishing legitimacy among everyday Afghans and the international community, all of whom are skeptical the group has shed its bloody, repressive past. That gives the United States and the international community potentially enormous leverage. But that leverage must be used for more than transactional deals in order to secure further evacuations of Afghans from the country.

First, the United States, its allies, countries in the region, and the Taliban all have an interest in fighting terrorist groups such as the local affiliate of the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for last week’s suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that killed more than 100, including 13 Americans. For anyone who says the United States doesn’t have strategic interests in Afghanistan, just look at Yemen, where similar conditions have now made the country the epicenter of the terrorist threat against the United States and created the one of the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophes, which is helping fuel a global migrant crisis.

Imagine that on steroids, in a region with three nuclear powers. Islamic State-Khorasan, the local Islamic State affiliate, is a sworn enemy of the Taliban and has already started to melt into the local population and recruit disaffected members of the Taliban rank and file, who are growing impatient with political leaders they view as too moderate. The weaker and more ineffective the Taliban government is, the more welcoming the country will be as a haven for terrorists, potentially even transnational terrorists of the sort who have turned Yemen into a launchpad. Even if the Taliban is willing to fight them, it can’t do so alone.

The world can’t afford to ignore this perfect storm. Every party interested in a stable Afghanistan must come together around a set of basic principles that puts the interests of the Afghan people at its center: addressing humanitarian needs; stabilizing the economy; and uniting Afghans behind a political agreement, enshrined in a new constitution, that protects human rights, secures the gains of the past 20 years, and avoids further conflict. The United States has potential partners in the region: Pakistan, India, Qatar, Russia, China, and even Iran (which helped oust the Taliban from power once before, during the early days of the U.S. intervention in the country).

Each country has financial carrots and sticks as leverage, and the additional bargaining chip of diplomatic recognition. Washington can unfreeze Afghan monetary reserves held in U.S. bank accounts and allow the Taliban access to the global financial system and marketplace. China is eager to make investments in Afghanistan’s infrastructure and vast minerals and establish trade routes for its Belt and Road initiatives. Turkey can once again help operate the airport and provide technical support, while Pakistan can use its historically close ties with the Taliban for constructive purposes. India, historically one of the largest donors to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development, also has a role to play.

Afghanistan’s needs are vast—from rebuilding the country’s decimated infrastructure, to fighting COVID-19, to dealing with drought brought on by climate change. By conditioning future investments on tangible measures taken by the Taliban, the world can speak with one voice to put pressure on the group not to return to draconian rule, thus avoiding plunging the country back into full-fledged civil war.

But the United States must realize it alone no longer has the clout to coordinate a constructive diplomatic response among regional players with so many competing agendas. Russia and especially China are already taking steps to engage with the Taliban and block U.S. efforts to reach for punitive measures.

But perhaps the United States’ biggest asset when stabilizing Afghanistan will be the Afghan people themselves. Afghanistan is a different country than when the Taliban last ruled, and the Taliban know it. The population has almost doubled, from about 20 million in 2001 to 40 million today, the majority of which are young people who have never known Taliban rule. They grew up in a society that was transformed by media, digital connectivity, and access to the outside world—an Afghanistan that granted minority rights, empowered women, and educated children, including girls. They will have a plethora of demands and won’t easily give up the modern life they’ve grown accustomed to.

Yet hundreds of thousands of Afghans are trying to flee the country at any cost. Many of them are Afghanistan’s best-educated, most highly trained professionals seeking a new start, even if they are not at imminent risk from the Taliban. The Taliban rightly fears a brain drain—not only because the mass exodus of the country’s best and brightest is an appalling political black eye, but because it also hampers the group’s ability to run the state.

The Afghan people will not just roll over and accept a return of fundamentalist rule.

To encourage further exodus by suggesting the fates of the 38 million Afghans left behind is sealed, that they are condemned to either a death sentence or a life of misery, is a demoralizing message, especially to those Afghans determined to stay and fight for their hard-won rights and rebuild their country. School enrollment has grown 10-fold since the U.S. intervention, and more than one-third of students are girls; those 3.5 million girls cannot be left untaught. Afghans weaned on one of the region’s freest media landscapes won’t see the world through blinkered eyes again.

As Saad Mohseni, the CEO and founder of Afghanistan’s largest independent television network TOLO put it, the country’s media revolution has forever altered the way Afghans see themselves and each other and how they engage with the wider world. A generation of Afghans grew up in the shadow of the Arab Spring, in which people across the region fought for more accountability from their leaders.

There are already plenty of small but significant acts of bravery that suggest the Afghan people will not just roll over and accept a return of fundamentalist rule. In the Taliban’s first official news conference since retaking Kabul, journalists (women chief among them) did not pull any punches. When Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the group had granted a blanket amnesty for Afghan citizens, one journalist asked whether the Afghan people would forgive it for the deaths of so many innocent civilians. Later that week, hundreds of Afghan women took to the streets in honor of their flag and their country.

If Biden is serious about returning human rights to the center of U.S. foreign policy, as he reiterated this week, those Afghans who remain in their home country must be supported. The United States’ enduring commitment can’t begin and end with the clamshell ramp of a C-17 transport plane.

The Taliban is not the United States’ friend, and it doesn’t need to be trusted. But the United States has every reason to at least try to stabilize Afghanistan by helping the Taliban move away from draconian rule and encouraging it to give Afghans a stake in a brighter future. That would be a fitting way to honor the thousands of American servicemen and women who lost their lives in Afghanistan, the thousands of Afghans who fought and died alongside them, and the millions of Afghans who are now left behind.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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