Revisiting U.S. Policy in Afghanistan: A Pragmatic Approach to Peace, Human Rights, and Counterterrorism
On the seventh of October, 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan with two primary objectives: destroy Al-Qaeda for carrying out the September Eleven attacks and topple the Taliban government for aiding them (“Operation Enduring Freedom”). By accomplishing the latter, coalition forces implicitly took on the arduous nation-building process to leave Afghanistan better than they had found. Twenty years and one precarious withdrawal later, the Taliban are firmly back in power, and Afghanistan has backslid on numerous measures of national progress (“Afghanistan’s Performance”). While U.S. efforts did improve the lives of countless Afghan women and minority groups during the coalition’s occupation, they ultimately failed to establish stable institutions, endear the U.S. to the Afghan people, or ensure a peaceful transition to self-governance. The fault lies not only with the Foreign Service, which deserves recognition for its modest successes but also with successive political administrations that, perhaps for electoral considerations, repeatedly misdirected the diplomatic bureaucracy. U.S. officials misjudged local actors when establishing institutions and fundamentally misunderstood the Taliban’s centrality to the peace process. Even as the U.S. has recently adopted a “pragmatic engagement” policy with Afghanistan, internalizing the lessons from the occupation will be necessary for productive engagement with the Taliban to secure guarantees against human rights abuses and terror proliferation.
After the swift deposition of the Taliban government in November 2001, increasingly complex and open-ended questions arose about how the new Afghan administration might take shape. Decades of civil strife and armed struggle against foreign powers had created entrenched patronage networks centered around warlords, many of whom opposed the Taliban for their political or economic interests (Malejacq). When U.S. officials placed these warlords at the apex of the new administration, they failed to consider the opportunities they had created for the now-legitimized actors to engage in corruption and perpetrate human rights abuses (“What We Need to Learn” 73). Within Afghan security forces, leadership roles and promotions were denied to competent locals in favor of connected individuals who misappropriated funds for Afghan soldiers’ equipment and supplies (Vittori). Money stolen from the Afghan rank-and-file is one issue, but the Foreign Service’s support for warlords who perpetrated human rights abuses is far more concerning. Gul Agha Sherzai, one such warlord who was a provincial governor under the US-backed government, tortured Taliban prisoners of war and falsely accused tribal rivals of pro-Taliban sentiments to enlist the help of U.S. troops in killing them (Gossman, “US-Funded Abuses”). In 2002, Sherzai lied to U.S. officials about Ishaqzai tribal elders who had renounced the Taliban and pledged allegiance to the US-backed administration of Hamid Karzai (Gossman, “They’ve Shot Many”). U.S. special forces subsequently raided Ishaqzai villages for illusory terror suspects, killing a senior elder who had long persuaded his peers to support Karzai’s government. However, Foreign Service officials continued to back Sherzai and other Afghan strongmen. U.S.A.I.D. entered into contracts with Sherzai’s provincial government as late as 2012 to upgrade a local hydroelectric dam, and ex-Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher considered Sherzai’s prolific corruption a tolerable evil since at least some U.S. aid trickled down to Afghans in need (Mahboob; Whitlock). U.S. officials repeatedly picked the wrong friends in Afghanistan. They failed to demand accountability, thereby enabling misconduct and human rights abuses that undermined the locals’ trust in institutions and leaders backed by the Foreign Service.
Not only did the U.S. endorse bad actors that hindered the peace process, but the Foreign Service also failed to pursue diplomatic engagement with the Taliban for much of the occupation. After the successful ground invasion in November 2001, various pro-US Afghan factions ratified the Bonn Agreement a month later to lay the groundwork for a new system of government (“Afghanistan’s Bonn Agreement”). Francesc Vendrell, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Personal Representative to Afghanistan at the time, advocated that the conference in Bonn take place in October, allowing the Taliban to come to the negotiating table with a basic level of dignity like the US-supported factions (Vendrell). His petitions were brushed aside as diplomatic pressure from the U.S. produced an agreement that empowered warlords and excluded the Taliban from the peace process. For the first decade of the occupation, the U.S. vision for peace blatantly ignored any power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. Taliban leaders in late 2001 who attempted to negotiate with Karzai, then chairman of the interim government established by the Bonn agreement, were promptly arrested by U.S. forces (Brooking 9). This aversion to negotiation was not unique to the presiding Bush Administration. Despite souring public perceptions of the war in 2009, the Obama Administration carried out a troop surge, contradicting President Karzai’s conciliatory messaging for “Taliban brothers to come home and embrace their land” (“Karzai Vows Clean, Inclusive Government”). A Taliban co-founder known for advocating diplomatic engagement with the U.S. and Kabul was captured in a joint US-Pakistani raid despite having held talks with Karzai’s government earlier that same month (Coll and Entous). If the Foreign Service had pushed policymakers to explore diplomatic resolution, a reasonable power-sharing agreement could have ended U.S. involvement in Afghanistan long before the twenty-year mark. In the end, the Trump Administration, facing overwhelming public pressure to end the war, came to the negotiating table with a tipped hand. U.S. desperation to exit Afghanistan led to the 2020 Doha Agreement with the Taliban that excluded the coalition-backed government and provided no guarantee for its preservation (Coll and Entous). Ideally, a U.S. withdrawal would have left behind a capable Afghan government to manage its affairs and agreements with the Taliban to share power with Kabul and control terror groups like ISIS-Khorasan. Sadly, today’s Taliban has only acted to curb the spread of extremist ideologies outside its influence (Rajabi).
As the U.S. grapples with its Afghanistan intervention legacy, its foreign policy goals must evolve beyond regime change or nation-building. Instead, the U.S. must focus on securing human rights for vulnerable Afghan women and minorities and curb the spread of terrorism. The Biden Administration’s policy of “pragmatic diplomacy” reflects these sobering realities of relations with the Taliban (“U.S. Delegation Meeting”). Recently, a U.S. federal judge ruled against plaintiffs seeking to claim frozen Afghan central bank assets for victims of the September Eleven attacks (Daniels 2). The Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest expressing concern with the Court’s constitutional ability to entitle the plaintiffs to the assets and, by implication, recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan (Boynton et al. 3). Legitimacy remains a significant objective for the Taliban, as is the lifting of sanctions and the unfreezing of foreign assets. Leveraging these incentives will be vital to cajoling the Taliban into social reform and counterterrorism guarantees. Taliban leaders, likely seeking respite from their country’s many economic woes, have also expressed a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. and its Western partners to lift sanctions (“IEA MoFA Calls on U.N.S.C.”). The rationale for good-faith negotiation to open the Afghan economy is compelling. In an op-ed for Al Jazeera, Afghan foreign minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi pointed out that further military or economic destabilization of the Taliban regime would only breed regional instability (Muttaqi). Objectively speaking, more unilateral interventions by the U.S. would only prolong hardship for the Afghan people and generate spillover conflict in the region. Therefore, as unsavory as it might seem, the Foreign Service must be prepared to facilitate dialogue with the Taliban to open up the Afghan economy in exchange for human rights and counterterrorism guarantees. While the U.S. could bypass the Taliban in aiding the Afghan people by, for example, directly paying foreign electricity suppliers to Afghanistan’s power grid with the seized central bank assets, such measures would only undermine the sense of legitimacy sought by the Taliban and stall productive negotiations (Byrd).
In addition to opening bilateral channels, the Foreign Service should also adopt a multilateral approach by enlisting the international community’s help in encouraging accountability from the Taliban and conducting compliance monitoring with any future agreements. For example, as US-China competition intensifies, Afghanistan and its neighbors cannot become hapless proxies in an increasingly bipolar geopolitical environment. If anything, the region could offer more significant opportunities for cooperation with China, given Beijing’s vested interest in deterring terrorism near its borders (“Countries Neighboring Afghanistan”). Securing peace and human rights in Afghanistan could also be a platform for the U.S. to renew diplomacy with neighboring Pakistan. Despite having harbored the Taliban and other extremists at the turn of the century, today’s Pakistan faces significant security challenges from regional terrorism; thus, further destabilization of Afghanistan could spark a refugee influx that Pakistan is ill-equipped to handle, thereby emphasizing the need for multilateral cooperation among the U.S., Afghanistan, and other regional actors (Ali). The U.S. must remain open to negotiation with even its bitterest adversaries to continue the peace process in Afghanistan and secure human rights. After all, peace represents diplomacy’s greatest triumph and conflict's starkest failure.
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