• Ben Brodt

What is Next for the US in Afghanistan?


 

By Ben Brodt

Over the past few months the US has officially withdrawn US forces from Afghanistan. In the ensuing chaos, the Taliban managed to retake control over Afghanistan, the Ghani government fled the country, and a mass exodus left the US public shocked and heartbroken. Approaching the twenty year anniversary of the initial invasion of Afghanistan, many Americans are mourning-- fearing that the catastrophe of Afghanistan was a waste of blood, treasure, and time. While it is understandably difficult for the US to process these events, it is time for the US to look ahead at what lies next for itself in Afghanistan.

Now that the Taliban are back in power, their priority is keeping it. While they certainly have more experience fighting than governing, governing is now their mission. As evidenced already in their brief time in power, the Taliban are very different from the Taliban in 96-01. They are more pluralistic, monumentally more inclusive and non-violent (relatively), and they no longer enjoy the legitimacy of terrorist networks within their borders. Unlike in 2001, when the Taliban protected al-Qaeda, the Taliban are now opposed to ISIS-K. In fact, the two sides are engaged in a bloody conflict for control of Afghanistan.

This is where the US’ window of opportunity is. Currently, the US and Taliban interests are aligned more than either side would like to admit, and the US’s interests are even more aligned now than they were with some US backed Afghan administrations. The Taliban want to stay in power, and the fact that they have become more inclusive shows that they are open to change and learning. In 2001, the Taliban’s two fatal mistakes were letting terrorist organizations operate from Afghanistan and allowing those same organizations to attack the US to the point of regime change. This new iteration of the Taliban has learned these lessons and will do everything in its power to prevent these mistakes from being made again. The Taliban must continue fighting terrorist organizations in order to ensure their own survivability by preventing another US invasion. The US can assist them in this mission.

The Taliban need to eliminate the threat of ISIS-K so that they can consolidate power over all of Afghanistan and prevent an attack that could be used as justification for a US invasion. Obviously, the US also does not want a terrorist attack coming from Afghanistan. Both the US and Taliban have the resolve to stop ISIS-K from gaining a presence, but both actors have vastly different capabilities US has military power and the Taliban have access to internal radical networks where ISIS-K operates. The US should support the Taliban in these operations to eliminate shared threats, and can even find areas where they can cooperate in security domains.

Because of the Taliban’s fear of another US invasion, they are predisposed to fall under Washington’s indirect sphere of influence. While the US does not have a positive relationship with the Taliban, the Taliban are monitoring the situation in the US closely. The US can capitalize on this fear-driven influence and crowd out its competitors in the region. Russia, China, and Iran have been attempting to use the Taliban takeover to hit reset with their Afghan relationships. With the US in a unique position over the new Taliban administration, it can swing the Taliban into stronger diplomatic, economic, and security ties with the US and its allies. While the Taliban will likely never be considered a US ally (nor should it be), there is no reason that the US cannot have the new Afghanistan in its sphere of influence.

Considering the optics, cooperation with the Taliban would be impossible in the post-withdrawal US political climate. After grieving the loss of a 20 year war and with the US’s longest continuous enemy back in power, there is little doubt that America is not willing to work with the Taliban. Any kind of cooperation would need to be extremely clandestine. US intelligence sharing, financial targeting, and airpower would give the Taliban a significant advantage over ISIS-K, but would never be allowed by the American public. The challenge for the US foreign policy community now is walking the line between a mourning America and the immediate threat from Afghanistan.

While the future of Afghanistan and the US’s relationship with it may seem bleak, this is a crossroads ripe with opportunity. The Taliban has been able to consolidate control over Afghanistan better than any US-backed administration in the last twenty years. If the US can finish grieving, look toward the future, and recognize the shared interests it has with the Taliban, then the last twenty years will not have been a waste. The US must be a beacon of freedom and democracy around the world, and therefore should continue to condemn the Taliban’s human rights abuses. America’s grief will cause it to lose out on crucial time and momentum it cannot afford in its competition with adversaries. The US dream of a free Afghanistan has only been laid to rest for a few weeks, but the US needs to move past the denial stage of grief and into acceptance.