Western policy is not working in Afghanistan

Two years after the fall of Kabul, unstable Taliban factions could destabilise the country even further

August 10, 2023
Troubling divides: two Afghan women waiting to receive food rations in Kabul this May. Image: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi
Troubling divides: two Afghan women waiting to receive food rations in Kabul in May 2023. Image: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

At a terrible time for Afghanistan, with the closure of all education for girls and women and a ban on women working for international aid organisations, 18-year-old Marwa staged a one-woman protest. Standing mutely outside the closed gates of Kabul university, she carried a banner bearing only one word, “iqra”, Arabic for “read”, written in beautiful calligraphy. Although she was covered from head to toe in black, as they demand, the Taliban shouted obscenities and pushed her away. She said on social media that all she was doing was “demanding a right that God has given us.”

For Marwa and millions of Afghans for whom life has become progressively worse since the arrival of the Taliban in August 2021, the west’s policy of soft engagement has failed. While the Taliban regime is not recognised by any country, there remained after the fall of Kabul a hope that if the door was kept open and humanitarian aid flowed, then engagement and persuasion would ameliorate their harsh rule. The US, UK and a number of other countries have large Afghan interests sections based in their embassies in Qatar, where they meet Taliban leaders on a regular basis. The UN has kept some liquidity in the economy by sending around $40 million a week. By early 2022, the EU had reopened its mission in Kabul, with a small presence to facilitate humanitarian aid. But it is increasingly difficult to justify this approach. 

Since the Taliban confirmed a ban on women working for the international organisations in the spring of 2023 the UN has been operating outside its mandate, which demands equal employment opportunities. The “softly, softly” approach has not worked. Instead, the opposite has happened—the Taliban have become more repressive, with a playbook written during their time in power in the late 1990s. As well as bans on education and jobs, women cannot go to public parks or gyms. In the latest madness, women’s beauty parlours have been ordered to close, throwing 60,000 more women out of work. Bonfires of musical instruments have been lit across the country; football has been banned—it is said to be “too stimulating”—as has the macho sport of buzkashi, where riders jostle for control of the carcass of a small calf. Football stadiums are again being used for executions and public flogging of men and women.

And while aid has been limited to humanitarian support, it is now clear that the Taliban have found ways to secure the money for themselves. Millions of dollars have been siphoned off for Taliban supporters, both through the establishment of hundreds of NGOs that are Taliban front organisations, and through misdirection of aid to sympathisers rather than those with the greatest need. 

The most visible sign of the failure of western policy is that Afghanistan is once again a crucible for international terrorism. The killing in July 2022 of the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had been living in a house in central Kabul under the control of the acting interior minister, showed the hollowness of the Taliban promise to sever links with al-Qaeda, made in return for the withdrawal of US troops in 2021. 

International jihadi terrorist groups have set up new bases across the country. The former head of Afghan intelligence in the pre-Taliban government, Rahmatullah Nabil, says global terrorist groups have now achieved “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. He estimates that among the groups active under the protection of the Taliban, that there are up to 4,500 al-Qaeda fighters; 5,000 to 6,000 fighters in the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban; and hundreds in regional groups, the anti-China East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Nabil said that there were 1,200 al-Qaeda fighters among the 5,000 prisoners that the US had ordered the Afghan government to release in the summer of 2020 as part of their deal with the Taliban. And he should know: as head of intelligence he put them in prison in the first place. The one-sided nature of that deal, which legitimised the Taliban and cut out the democratically elected government, is still seen as a bitter betrayal in the country.    

Support for international terrorism has now become a far more important business for the Taliban than when they were last in power. A UN report in June found that al-Qaeda is “rebuilding operational capability” from its base in Afghanistan, and its links with the Taliban are “strong and symbiotic”. While older Taliban leaders are focused on imposing their dark will on Afghanistan, younger fighters have a more internationalist view. And because of their links with international jihad, the Taliban have found it harder than groups in a similar position in other countries to transition to government. Organised as a violent insurgent force, they have no capacity to organise a government, but only to fight. 

So even if the Taliban wanted to change, and there is no sign that they do, they would face internal pressure. They need to promote themselves as a violent jihadi movement to compete for recruits with other Islamist groups, including a local franchise for the Islamic State group, who are now resurgent in Afghanistan, threatening stability across the region. Their willingness to continue violent attacks against the Shia Hazara minority has turned them into an effective competitor for recruits with the Taliban. 

President Joe Biden continues to insist that the Taliban are cooperating with the US in preventing terrorist groups emerging in Afghanistan. On 30 June, he said in an unscripted aside at the end of a press conference, “Remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said al-Qaeda would not be there. I said we’d get help from the Taliban. What’s happening now?...I was right.” 

If they are talking then it is not working. Soft engagement has failed and prominent Afghan opposition voices are urging a rethink—more stick and less carrot. If the Taliban will not change through persuasion and offers of more aid if rights improve, then pressure should be applied. Some radical voices urge an end to all aid, despite widespread starvation and lack of access to health care, because that would force the Taliban to take responsibility. As a middle path, an MP in the former parliament, Fawzia Koofi, said that aid should go only through known women-led groups. She also wants travel bans reimposed on Taliban leaders, and further targeted sanctions against individuals and pressure on countries who support them. 

Koofi was a member of the doomed government negotiating team who tried to talk to the Taliban in the last months before they seized control, after America had, to all intents and purposes, handed over the country. She said, “The more we engage with the Taliban, the more they take us for granted.” The lavish lifestyle of Taliban leaders cannot come from legitimate business since the economy has collapsed. “My family in Afghanistan tell me they are getting all these luxury, expensive cars, and paying for second marriages. Where do they get the money from?” 

There are signs that western language at least is becoming tougher. After the Taliban imposed a ban on women’s access to university in December, G7 foreign ministers issued a statement warning that the move may amount to a “crime against humanity”. But the Taliban know that this will not be followed up with action. Attempts to hold the Taliban to account for war crimes failed during the twenty years of American-led intervention. Back in 2003, two years after the fall of their government, it was said to be “too early”. The next concerted attempt was in 2018, when of course it was “too late”. There was little enthusiasm for war crimes trials then because, after decades of civil war, the Taliban would not be the only group in the dock. Many of the former warlords from the pre-Taliban civil war had become rich in the years of large American aid flows and did want investigation into their past, and America blocked any international scrutiny of its activities.    

It would be hard to secure agreement among western powers for a tougher line because the Biden administration does not want its withdrawal to face further questions. The Doha peace deal was done in the last year of the Trump administration but, wanting to get troops out, Biden stuck by its terms. Senior State Department officials dealing with Afghanistan recently held talks in Doha with Taliban leaders, where the special envoy for Afghan women’s rights, Rina Amiri, outraged the very people she is supposed to represent by claiming that Afghan women activists had been asking her to engage with the Taliban. A coalition of Afghan women’s groups called on her to apologise as they oppose engagement. There was similar outrage to the Panglossian tones of the head of the commons defence committee, Tobias Ellwood, who, after a visit to Kabul, called on Britain to reopen its embassy, saying that “women’s rights may well serve as a negotiation tool for shared understanding.” Afghan women said that their rights were not up for negotiation.    

Influential American voices, including US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the deal, have insisted, against all the evidence, that the Taliban will change their mind and allow women to be educated and to work. “The majority, even in the leadership, is opposed to this decision,” he said of the ban on women NGO workers. “Within the Taliban, this is a minority view.”

There are several ways of categorising divisions in the Taliban, but the simplest is to see them in three parts—firstly southern Kandahar traditionalists, secondly those who did the Doha deal and thirdly the eastern Haqqani network. The supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada heads the “Kandaharis”—a man so extreme that he was proud of sending his son to be a suicide bomber, and his writ runs. The harshest repression is on his orders. 

Some of the “Doha group” and the Haqqanis have publicly criticised the measures against women. The Doha group in particular gave assurances on women’s rights when they were negotiating the deal. In this looking glass world it is not useful to see one group as “extreme” and others as “moderate”. Haqqani leaders may want girls to go to school, but they were responsible for some of the largest mass killings of civilians in urban bomb attacks in Kabul. Any Taliban government minister with an American price on his head for being a terrorist can hardly be defined as moderate.  

As well as repressing women, the Taliban have failed to respond to the other main international demand, that they form a more inclusive government. All Taliban factions are drawn only from the Pashtun community, the largest minority in a country of many. The only balance of power is between competing Pashtun interests. A handful of non-Pashtun commanders who initially joined the Taliban have now turned against them. 

This is a deeply unstable situation, potentially made more dangerous by the Taliban’s successful ban on poppy growing. They have not banned the drugs trade, and when the loss of supplies begins to have an impact over the next year, there is likely to be conflict over control of the smaller market. Amid worsening insecurity and the collapse of the economy, even the small number of countries who thought they could work constructively with the Taliban have changed their minds. China has big ambitions in Afghanistan, not least to mine the world’s largest known untapped copper deposits. But hundreds of Chinese workers left the country after an attack on a Chinese guest house in Kabul last December. Russia too is considering its options after a suicide attack on its embassy a year ago, one of the few that was open; the Taliban were not invited to a Moscow conference on the future of Afghanistan. Iran is now looking for other options to the Taliban. And even Pakistan, which has been working for a Taliban government for almost thirty years, has lost faith in their protégé because the Taliban have given sanctuary to the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP, dedicated to bringing down the government in Islamabad. There are regular exchanges of fire between the Taliban and Pakistani troops along their shared border. 

So the Taliban are increasingly isolated and at the same time facing growing armed opposition to their rule. While western countries consider the dilemma of how to engage with the Taliban, one veteran Afghan observer says, “There is engagement with the Taliban—in the mountains of Panjshir.” That’s where the most prominent anti-Taliban militant group, the National Resistance Front (NRF), has been fighting guerrilla hit-and-run battles with Taliban forces, aided by rugged terrain and strong local support. 

The danger is that internal Taliban tensions and local insurgencies will destabilise the country further, deteriorating into civil war. The Afghan nightmare is a return to the early 1990s, the years after Russian troops left and the Taliban first came to power, when the country collapsed in deadly spirals of violence between different ethnic groups. 

Some more organised national armed opposition is being planned. The most prominent potential leader is General Sami Sadat, who is considering his options. He held the Taliban back in Helmand province in the summer of 2021, while the rest of the country collapsed. “Raising an army in Afghanistan isn’t hard,” he says. “Every youth is born to be a warrior.” He is constantly called by other former members of the Afghan national army, who believe they were betrayed by the US and their own government and want to take the country back. He says he would fight to restore democracy and the Afghan constitution, only too aware that after twenty years of corruption and government failure, “democracy” has a bad name in Afghanistan. But recovering the country is a daunting task without significant funding, which would always come with strings attached. 

After 20 years of failed military intervention, the west will not send troops again and is for now closing its ears to the prospect of conflict. But as a military solution looks increasingly likely, wilfully ignoring the prospect could be as bad as the failure of the policy of soft engagement. 

And there is not much time. While the west lost the Afghan war, the intervention did succeed in creating a different society, one where young men and women had different choices from their parents. The Taliban did not initially impose their harshest measures because, in many ways, Afghanistan was an alien country to them, having been through radical social shifts, particularly in opportunities for women and girls. But if the only education available is now for boys in fundamentalist madrassas, then those gains could soon be lost. A new generation will emerge with different perspectives. 

While trying to engage the Taliban, the west has failed to support Afghan civil society, in particular women’s groups and the media, who need to be resilient enough to face the shocks of Taliban rule. Without far more support for Afghan civil society, all of the cards are in the hands of the Taliban.

There are no good options, but the west is also unwilling to face the fact that current policies have failed, conflict may be inevitable and there is a pressing need to engage constructively to encourage coherent opposition to the Taliban with a will to return to democracy, and prevent Afghanistan collapsing into factional fighting.