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The U.S. Needs to Find the Middle Ground on Afghanistan

Both maximalist and minimalist strategies have utterly failed.

By , a program manager at ORF America.
Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the airport in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021.
Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the airport in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021.
Afghan people climb atop a plane as they wait at the airport in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

On Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban seized Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul as President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Now, nearly a year later, it seems that the world has largely forgotten Afghanistan, leaving some 30 million Afghans to suffer restrictions on their fundamental human rights and freedoms as the country faces economic collapse.

Ukraine is naturally a priority, but Afghanistan desperately needs international support if it is to find its way back to a path of political and economic stability—rather than posing dual threats of irregular migration and transnational terrorism. Historically, the U.S. approach to Afghanistan has been to do too little (as in the 1990s) or too much (after 2001). Today, both come with dangers. The best solution lies in between and involves active U.S. engagement with Afghanistan to ensure the best outcomes with the least risk.

After the U.S.-backed mujaheddin forced the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, the United States dramatically scaled back its engagement with Afghanistan. Although the United States maintained limited counterterrorism surveillance and strike capability in the region, it closed the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and made its embassy in Islamabad the de facto mission for Afghanistan. The United States and the United Nations also placed sanctions on the Taliban for harboring terrorist groups.

On Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban seized Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul as President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Now, nearly a year later, it seems that the world has largely forgotten Afghanistan, leaving some 30 million Afghans to suffer restrictions on their fundamental human rights and freedoms as the country faces economic collapse.

Ukraine is naturally a priority, but Afghanistan desperately needs international support if it is to find its way back to a path of political and economic stability—rather than posing dual threats of irregular migration and transnational terrorism. Historically, the U.S. approach to Afghanistan has been to do too little (as in the 1990s) or too much (after 2001). Today, both come with dangers. The best solution lies in between and involves active U.S. engagement with Afghanistan to ensure the best outcomes with the least risk.


After the U.S.-backed mujaheddin forced the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, the United States dramatically scaled back its engagement with Afghanistan. Although the United States maintained limited counterterrorism surveillance and strike capability in the region, it closed the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and made its embassy in Islamabad the de facto mission for Afghanistan. The United States and the United Nations also placed sanctions on the Taliban for harboring terrorist groups.

This “minimalist engagement” strategy proved to be totally insufficient, neither helping the Afghan people nor preventing the 9/11 attacks. While the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the lack of proper U.S. and Western attention to Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, and especially after the Taliban took over in 1996, contributed to the causes of the tragedy of 9/11 and the bloodshed that followed.

The next phase of the U.S. approach can be described as a “maximalist engagement” strategy, where the United States embarked on a heavily resourced military effort to eradicate all remnants of al Qaeda and the Taliban while also attempting to build a modern Afghan state. Among the many mistakes that were made, two stand out: excluding the Taliban from the 2001 Bonn conference, which drove the group toward renewed insurgency, and focusing counterinsurgency operations primarily on al Qaeda and the Taliban inside Afghanistan rather than on their sanctuaries, funding, and support in Pakistan.

In 2017, when then-U.S. President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from Afghanistan at any cost by the end of 2020, another misstep was made. The Bilateral Security Agreement, signed in 2014 with the Afghan government, was ignored, and the U.S. withdrawal agreement was negotiated and signed solely with the Taliban, fatally undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan government and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The Taliban’s leaders effectively utilized direct negotiations with the United States to boost the morale of their fighters by comparing the U.S. withdrawal plan to that of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the Ghani government to the communist government of Mohammad Najibullah, doomed to defeat as their foreign patrons withdrew. The eventual withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces, and importantly the contractors who were enabling ANDSF operations, was the final blow that led to the disintegration and mass surrender during July and August 2021.


Superficially, it may seem sensible to disengage. Since the maximalist engagement strategy of building a viable Afghan state did not work, the natural alternative is to return to a minimalist engagement strategy. But such a minimalist strategy will inevitably fail again, leading to regional instability and possible renewed international terrorism. There is a middle ground, however—a strategy for Afghanistan that is less than military invasion but more than the current inattention. This is an “active engagement” strategy.

The first step of such a strategy would be for Washington and its partners to engage the Afghan people, especially the thousands of recently departed Afghans in the United States, Europe, and all around the region, to develop a comprehensive political and economic road map for the future of Afghanistan. This is a crucial first step because major Afghan factions, including women and youth leaders, are now based outside Afghanistan. While some of them are supporting the resistance, the majority are seeking to find a peaceful way out of the current crisis. Hence, engaging these Afghans to unite around a new political road map will generate significant political force inside and outside Afghanistan to ensure the success of the strategy.

The second step would be to engage the Taliban much more actively, including on the implementation of an important element of the U.S. withdrawal agreement: the formation of an inclusive, post-settlement Islamic Afghan government. This should include the announcement of a large and generous multiyear international assistance program to directly help the Afghan people out of their current economic difficulties and prevent the gains of the past 20 years from being lost.

Following the announcement, senior international officials should start traveling to Kabul, and even Kandahar, to meet with the Taliban’s leaders, including Haibatullah Akhundzada. The Taliban must realize that their current Islamic emirate is internationally unacceptable, as it will never be recognized as a legitimate government, their terrorist designation will never be lifted, their travel ban will stay, and the possibility of supporting the resistance will be explored by the West—unless, that is, they start meaningful negotiation with other Afghans and establish an inclusive Islamic government.

Once the Taliban are ready to sincerely negotiate with other Afghans, a Bonn-2 conference should be organized under the auspices of the U.N., where prominent Afghans, especially women, and the next generation of educated Afghans could sit with the Taliban, negotiate, and agree on a new political order for Afghanistan moving forward. Simultaneously, a U.S.-led initiative could bring together all the regional countries, especially India, Pakistan, and China, to solidify the necessary regional and international consensus on the new political order coming out of intra-Afghan negotiations at Bonn-2.

An active engagement strategy would allow for Afghanistan to be recognized by the international community. Such recognition would facilitate greater diplomatic presence on the ground in Kabul and much greater international assistance for the Afghan people. This would also allow the United States and its allies to detect and prevent possible future threats emanating from Afghanistan at minimum cost. Moreover, a new and inclusive Islamic Afghan government will more likely be interested in cooperating and acting jointly to eliminate security threats from inside Afghanistan. Lastly, it would ensure Afghanistan is a stable and responsible member of the international community, which would contribute to regional and international stability and economic prosperity.

Sadiq Amini is a program manager at ORF America, overseeing external relations and outreach. He was previously a political assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and worked at Afghanistan’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. The views expressed here are strictly his own.

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