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It’s Time to Engage With the Taliban. Afghan Lives Depend on It.

The West is wasting time Afghans do not have.

By , co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute.
Afghan girls carry water jugs through a dirt graveyard.
Afghan girls carry water jugs through a dirt graveyard.
Afghan girls look for visitors to sell water to in a graveyard at Lake Shuhada in Kabul on Dec. 1. Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Afghanistan is facing what the United Nations warns could be the “worst humanitarian disaster we’ve ever seen.” The catastrophe is “man-made,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and “the international community is turning its back.” An estimated 1 million Afghan children are at risk of dying from malnutrition by the end of this year unless they receive immediate treatment.

This disaster directly results from the Taliban’s sudden takeover of the country in August and the international community’s subsequent freezing of state assets and cuts to aid. A liquidity crisis ensued, prices skyrocketed, the Afghan currency’s value nosedived, and Afghans struggled to get the cash they needed to access food, water, health care, and other necessities. The International Monetary Fund predicts the country’s economy will contract by up to 30 percent this year. The situation is so dire that Afghanistan’s acting minister of foreign affairs—a member of the Taliban—sent a letter to U.S. Congress pleading for the U.S. government to “take responsible steps towards addressing the humanitarian and economic crisis.”

The international community has responded with a lot of hand-wringing and excuses. The crux of the issue is whether—and how—to engage with the Taliban’s interim administration amid complex and overlapping sets of U.S., European Union, and U.N. sanctions as well as fear of being seen as endorsing the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new government.

Afghanistan is facing what the United Nations warns could be the “worst humanitarian disaster we’ve ever seen.” The catastrophe is “man-made,” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and “the international community is turning its back.” An estimated 1 million Afghan children are at risk of dying from malnutrition by the end of this year unless they receive immediate treatment.

This disaster directly results from the Taliban’s sudden takeover of the country in August and the international community’s subsequent freezing of state assets and cuts to aid. A liquidity crisis ensued, prices skyrocketed, the Afghan currency’s value nosedived, and Afghans struggled to get the cash they needed to access food, water, health care, and other necessities. The International Monetary Fund predicts the country’s economy will contract by up to 30 percent this year. The situation is so dire that Afghanistan’s acting minister of foreign affairs—a member of the Taliban—sent a letter to U.S. Congress pleading for the U.S. government to “take responsible steps towards addressing the humanitarian and economic crisis.”

The international community has responded with a lot of hand-wringing and excuses. The crux of the issue is whether—and how—to engage with the Taliban’s interim administration amid complex and overlapping sets of U.S., European Union, and U.N. sanctions as well as fear of being seen as endorsing the Taliban as Afghanistan’s new government.

The West is wasting time Afghans do not have. There is no alternative to engaging with the Taliban. The question is when the West will summon the political courage to act appropriately.


Since the Taliban took power in August, no country has formally recognized them as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. There has been much oxygen wasted debating whether various courses of action will strengthen or legitimize the Taliban—and all of this after the Taliban took power. This is deeply disingenuous on several counts. The United States effectively recognized the Taliban as a political entity when it signed the Doha Agreement with the group in February 2020. Moreover, the United States enabled the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan when it explicitly told the group’s representatives in August that it would not take responsibility for Kabul after the collapse of then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

Recognition could be powerful leverage but should not, morally speaking, be used as a bargaining chip when millions of people face starvation. If we are to talk about recognition, then the international community should, as political scientist Barnett Rubin argues, outline a realistic, appropriately sequenced road map to recognition. Right now, the Taliban do not know what specific actions will secure them international recognition because the United States and its allies have not clearly or consistently communicated this.

A more significant problem may be the United States and its allies are themselves undecided on what precisely the Taliban must do to gain their recognition—and unwilling to grant them realistic pathways in the current political climate. That is an irresponsible waste of what little leverage the West has left. The Taliban want international recognition—their survival via the removal of sanctions may indeed depend on it.

But averting humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan doesn’t require recognizing the Taliban. There is a range of options to address the liquidity crisis and prevent a total financial collapse. Recognition is not required, for example, to create a stopgap measure to allow the Afghan state to access its assets and reserves. Human Rights Watch has urged the United States and other financial authorities to either issue licenses and guidance so the Afghan Central Bank can engage in limited transactions or designate a third-party entity to process essential transactions independent of the country’s central bank. This would also allow U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to access desperately needed cash and meet humanitarian needs.

After 20 years of war and nearly three decades of the Taliban’s existence, there is enough collective experience to know what works and what doesn’t in dealing with them. Unfortunately, experience suggests much of what the international community has done to date is exactly what will not work. Issuing rebukes via social media and making demands that are opposite from current Taliban practices (or anything they indicated they might consider) have not been effective. Western governments may feel they must publicly make such statements to satisfy domestic audiences, but they won’t help Afghans.

Quiet, pragmatic negotiation at the international and especially local level tends to work far better. That is what appears to have reopened at least some girls’ secondary schools in recent weeks. Discreetly supporting NGOs that are able to strike these deals is essential. Human rights are vitally important, but unfortunately, the United States and other Western countries are not the best placed to directly influence this. Privately encouraging Muslim-majority nations that have played a valuable role with the Taliban in recent years, such as Indonesia, to take the lead would be more credible and persuasive. The Taliban have, after all, insisted they will preserve “Islamic rights,” but they have not clearly articulated what this means or what the implications will be for women and religious minorities.

The risk of misperception and miscommunication between the Taliban and Western states is dangerously high and can only be reduced through direct, well-informed, and concerted engagement, particularly inside Afghanistan. Western states must reestablish embassies and deploy staff if they have any hope of understanding—and navigating—the new Afghan government. Most governments (the United States being the exception) need not recognize the Taliban government to establish diplomatic representation in the country.

Experience demonstrates that dialogue and incentives work far better than threats, exclusion, or sanctions alone. The idea of seeming to reward the Taliban may be deeply uncomfortable and politically unpopular, but it is necessary. The good news is the Taliban are not a monolith, and it is possible to engage with and use the provision of incentives to empower more politically pragmatic interlocutors.

However, experience also tells us that any desired change on the Taliban’s part—if it happens at all—will be incremental. The Taliban govern by consensus and avoid internal confrontation at all costs, which means controversial decisions are avoided or repeatedly delayed. Right now, they are plagued by infighting, in over their heads, and unlikely to make any big decisions until the crisis recedes. Time frames for measuring progress on Western policy priorities must be years or decades away, not weeks or months.


When presented with a given course of action or policy, donors and governments must ask themselves whether the option, on balance, helps or harms the most vulnerable Afghans inside the country right now. Engaging the Taliban is a means to helping Afghans, and Afghans (not the Taliban) must be the focus.

A foreign policy guided by “do no harm” would lead to a radically different approach than what we see now. Doing no harm means reducing aid dependency because that is partly what created such an unprecedented humanitarian crisis when funds were cut. Unfortunately, donors’ desire to avoid—and perhaps even punish—the Taliban has led to proposals to work around, rather than with, the Afghan government. World Bank donors are discussing the transfer of $280 million from a frozen government trust fund to UNICEF and the World Food Program, but that would only be a stopgap measure. Various other schemes have been announced to bypass the state, including a U.N. Development Program (UNDP) trust fund dubbed the “people’s economy” that will distribute cash payments and grants (despite the UNDP’s corruption-ridden track record of running Afghan trust funds).

Funding the United Nations and NGOs to supplant state services in Afghanistan, such as education, might sound like a good idea, but it would effectively destroy the public systems the West spent billions of dollars to build. These systems belong to and serve the Afghan people, not the Taliban. Moreover, pledging millions of dollars to U.N. trust funds matters little (and looks suspiciously like a public relations exercise) if the money cannot reach Afghans because none of the sanctions and banking issues are resolved. And those issues cannot be resolved without first engaging with the Taliban.

There are far worse fates than a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Forget, for a moment, the millions of Afghan mothers and children that will almost certainly die of malnutrition and entirely preventable causes this winter. If the Taliban’s government disintegrates or the country enters a new phase of civil war, it will be far more deadly and brutal than anything witnessed during the past two decades. At the moment, there is no clear political opposition to the Taliban that could govern. If the Taliban disintegrate and splinter, and if the Islamic State-Khorasan grows in strength, Afghanistan will absolutely become a haven for terrorists. That will be a far greater threat—and far more difficult for the international community to manage—than a Taliban government.

Ashley Jackson is co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute. Twitter: @a_a_jackson

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