President Joe Biden may wish to forget about Afghanistan, but there’s never been a more urgent need for the U.S. to stay involved. A military withdrawal should not mean diplomatic disengagement, no matter how politically embarrassing the episode was for the White House. The crises that are consuming Afghanistan threaten to exacerbate the very problems Washington intervened to deal with in the first place. Biden does not have to formally recognize the Taliban, but neither can he wish away their control of the country. Working closely with international partners, the U.S. should ensure aid gets to those who need it most — even if that means dealing with the people they battled for 20 years.
Afghanistan’s problems never stay within its landlocked borders. The desperate economic and humanitarian situation could reignite conflict within the country, potentially destabilizing the wider region while creating space for international terrorist groups to plan new campaigns. Colin Kahl, the U.S. undersecretary of Defense, warned this week that the Islamic State in Khorasan Province and al Qaeda could be able to launch attacks on the West in anywhere from six months to two years.
Europe’s leaders could soon find themselves contending with a fresh refugee crisis and the flow of narcotics from the world’s largest source of heroin. Already, large numbers of Afghans are attempting to cross any border that is open to them, driven there by fear and hunger. They may be forced to make the journey northward, along the same route used by drug smugglers, passing through Iran and Turkey. On a continent where even centrist leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron have grown hostile to new refugees, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Afghans on their shores could dramatically alter the political landscape.
There are clear opportunities to stave off these forbidding outcomes and create a viable future for the Afghan people with modest international assistance. There is a temptation to view Afghanistan only through the prism of the war of the past two decades and the Taliban’s triumph that brought it to an end. But this perspective overlooks the tremendous gains that were built and are now under threat. There has been a generational transformation that has seen basic literacy levels rise from below 20 percent two decades ago to now, when as many as two-thirds of Afghans under 25 can read or write. Infant mortality plunged, the media flourished, women became central to public life, infrastructure and public services reached the most remote parts of the country.
Tens of thousands of talented Afghans have left their country over recent weeks, but there are millions more who have no choice but to remain there. These include the brave young women who continue to protest on the streets for their rights, the journalists who defy restrictions to report on them, the educated women who want to return to work, and the young girls who are anxious to return to the classroom and follow their path. They all deserve a future, too.
For the U.S., there is a narrowing window to secure not only its interests but the welfare of the Afghan people. The Taliban are in power, but they know they need international support to hang onto it. Afghanistan’s neighbors have swept into the vacuum created by the West’s withdrawal but have rival concerns and lack the resources to lift the country out of its deepening crises. Daunted by the scale of the challenges, there’s a sense of buyer’s remorse settling in among the Chinese, Iranians, Russians and Pakistanis — creating openings for greater U.S. involvement. There is a need for a robust multilateral approach on common concerns, including counterterrorism, the humanitarian situation and human rights.
Right now, there is a ruinous standoff. The Taliban have only partially let girls return to school, in about a third of Afghanistan’s provinces, and women face restrictions on work in the public sector. In response, the U.S. and its allies have withdrawn the crucial assistance that funded those schools and paid those teachers’ salaries. But if the humanitarian situation worsens, it won’t be the Taliban who pay the price. It will be the Afghan people who have suffered so much, for so long. The Taliban can simply turn the human catastrophe to their advantage, cite it as proof of the West’s cold indifference and stoke anti-U.S. sentiment, as happens in Iran.
There is no alternative but to engage with the Taliban, but engagement is not the same as recognition. The U.S. and its partners still have a chance to rediscover their relevance and offer incentives with clear benchmarks to the Taliban — a path that ultimately could offer international recognition once firm guarantees on counterterrorism, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and a broad-based, inclusive government are established. The key is to find a balance, where assistance to the Afghan nation continues without the Taliban being able to declare outright legitimacy through this assistance. It starts by making sure no Afghans feel forced to sell their children to feed themselves this winter.