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The Taliban Don’t Need the West

Afghanistan’s new rulers have shown themselves to be skilled—and ruthless—diplomats.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
Members of the Taliban
Members of the Taliban gather after their evening prayers in Kabul on Sept. 20. Bulent Kulic/AFP via Getty Images

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Leaving Afghanistan

After the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan as the United States withdrew, several Western leaders have come out with public statements exhorting the Taliban to respect the rights of ordinary citizens, of women, or of religious minorities, with the implied promise that doing so will lead to the recognition of the Taliban as the rightful government of Afghanistan and to the continuation of Western foreign aid for the country’s civil society. The problem, however, is that the West has no leverage—and the Taliban need neither Western recognition nor aid.

It is true that since their loss in 2001, the Taliban have learned the importance of having allies to call upon in international disputes—and they’ve learned to avoid making enemies. They can be expected to refrain from becoming too entangled with global jihadi networks that would attack other countries, as was the case when they were entangled with al Qaeda in the 1990s, for example. But they will do no more than avoid direct confrontation with the West. And they do not need to do any more than that, given their decent working relationship with other powers.

As most countries were evacuating all their diplomatic personnel during the Taliban advance last month, there were two notable exceptions to the rushed exodus: China and Russia. The Taliban have been cultivating good relations with both states for a number of years now, and Moscow even went as far as publicly warning the West to stop meddling in Afghanistan.

After the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan as the United States withdrew, several Western leaders have come out with public statements exhorting the Taliban to respect the rights of ordinary citizens, of women, or of religious minorities, with the implied promise that doing so will lead to the recognition of the Taliban as the rightful government of Afghanistan and to the continuation of Western foreign aid for the country’s civil society. The problem, however, is that the West has no leverage—and the Taliban need neither Western recognition nor aid.

It is true that since their loss in 2001, the Taliban have learned the importance of having allies to call upon in international disputes—and they’ve learned to avoid making enemies. They can be expected to refrain from becoming too entangled with global jihadi networks that would attack other countries, as was the case when they were entangled with al Qaeda in the 1990s, for example. But they will do no more than avoid direct confrontation with the West. And they do not need to do any more than that, given their decent working relationship with other powers.

As most countries were evacuating all their diplomatic personnel during the Taliban advance last month, there were two notable exceptions to the rushed exodus: China and Russia. The Taliban have been cultivating good relations with both states for a number of years now, and Moscow even went as far as publicly warning the West to stop meddling in Afghanistan.

It is now clear that the Taliban have already been successfully cultivating a network of allies that will shield them from Western censure. Moreover, Beijing has already promised investments into the Afghan economy, particularly in primary resource production, which the Taliban are hoping will offset the impact of the withdrawal of Western aid. A spokesman for the group already declared China as their closest ally, while the Chinese in return have pledged to send in some humanitarian aid.

Beyond that, the new Taliban administration can expect good working relations with Qatar, which hosted the Taliban leadership in recent years; with Iran, an unlikely friendship forged in the fires of joint opposition to the United States; and likely soon also with Pakistan, provided the two sides can settle on a compromise on the governing of the extremely porous border they share.

The new Afghan rulers could well manage even without a United Nations seat—the definitive international identification of statehood. With recognition and support from Beijing and Moscow, two U.N. Security Council members, the Taliban have two vetoes to blunt any possible censure—a tool both capitals have been keen to deploy in the past.

The Taliban are not a ragtag bunch of extremists. They are where they are today because they have proved themselves highly organized, resilient, canny, and sophisticated operators forged in the crucible of a country with constantly shifting alliances. They showed that with their diplomatic coup of ensuring the Ashraf Ghani government was not at the negotiating table in Qatar, then obtaining the U.S. withdrawal from the Trump administration largely on their own terms and securing the release of over 5,000 Taliban prisoners by the United States and the Kabul government over the past year. The final testimony to their diplomatic skills was the swiftness of Kabul’s fall, negotiated through numerous surrenders and changes of side that were clearly set up months in advance.

The speed and completeness of the Taliban victory also ensures that the probability of a credible Northern Alliance-type resistance emerging anytime soon is remote. If the Taliban now want to exact revenge for cooperation with the Western occupation, they can do so at their leisure, and there is nothing anyone in the West will do about it. The pronouncements of Western leaders about human rights and peace in Afghanistan under the Taliban therefore ring entirely hollow. The only restraining factor will be the difficulty every Afghan government has had in securing the countryside.

Yes, technically, the United States got written assurances about this in its negotiated peace deal with the Taliban, so Washington would have a legal casus belli if the Taliban started cracking down on all the individuals and groups who opposed them during the Western occupation. But they know perfectly well that neither the United States nor anyone else would have the inclination to enforce those provisions after 20 years of war and failure in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies will happily leave Afghanistan to its fate for as long as the actions of the Taliban do not have any ramifications for the West. And the new government in Kabul will do as it pleases, with the blessing of Moscow and Beijing.

Azeem Ibrahim is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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