Does the U.S. have any real leverage over the Taliban?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Since retaking control of Afghanistan, the Taliban have tried to assure the rest of the world that their new government will be different from the brutal, oppressive regime that ruled the country in the years before the American invasion. They have vowed to respect women’s rights to some degree, forgive those who had allied with the U.S. military and prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a staging ground for attacks. “We want the world to trust us,” a Taliban spokesperson said.

Unsurprisingly, the notion of a kinder, gentler Taliban has been met with deep skepticism. The Biden administration has, however, expressed confidence that the Taliban can be compelled to keep their promises — not out of the goodness of their hearts, but out of sheer self-interest. “The Taliban seeks international legitimacy and support,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday. “Our message is, any legitimacy and any support will have to be earned.”

After 20 years in exile, the Taliban now control a country devastated by war that finds itself in the midst of a deepening economic crisis. It is also home to extremist groups that oppose their rule. Perhaps sensing this precarious position, the Taliban have sought to create friendly diplomatic ties with the U.S. and other major world powers as they work to establish a new government.

Why there’s debate

Optimists say the U.S. has enormous leverage to hold the Taliban to their commitments. For years, the Afghan government has relied heavily on foreign aid in order to function. That inflow of funds has now dried up. The U.S. has frozen $9.4 billion in Afghan central bank assets, and European governments have suspended development aid. Unless America is satisfied with the Taliban’s leadership, some experts argue, the country could soon face a catastrophic economic collapse that may threaten the Taliban’s ability to retain control.

Beyond economic pressure, the U.S. can also use the threat of military reprisal to force the Taliban to keep their promise to root out terror groups, others say. The Taliban may also seek support in combating its own terror threat from groups like ISIS-K, which some experts believe will create another point of leverage for the U.S.

Others are skeptical about America’s ability to keep the Taliban in line. While the group aided the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul, there are already reports of killings and human rights violations in other parts of the country. Many have expressed concern that oppression and violence will once again become the norm once the eyes of the world shift away from Afghanistan.

The Taliban could also seek support from countries like China, Russia and Pakistan, which could limit their reliance on U.S. financial ties and add complexity to American diplomacy with Afghanistan. Others say the Taliban have limited room to moderate even if they want to, since they could risk losing the backing of hard-line factions in the country if they’re seen as being too friendly with perceived enemies like the U.S.

What’s next

The Taliban on Tuesday announced that their new interim government will be lead by Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, one of the movement's founders. The group had previously said it wanted a "inclusive" government, but all of the cabinet ministers named so far have been established Taliban leaders.  

Perspectives

Optimists

Afghanistan’s dire circumstances mean the Taliban will have no choice but to play along

“However fierce in battle, the Taliban seem to understand that governing an impoverished, war-ravaged nation is a very different challenge for which it needs economic and diplomatic support, both of which it is already seeking from the United States.” — Max Fisher, New York Times

The U.S. has enormous power over Afghanistan’s economic viability

“Any Afghan government — especially return acts with an unflattering past — will come to realize that the U.S. is key to financial and economic security.” — Daniel Moss, Bloomberg

Two decades in exile has made the Taliban much more pragmatic

“The Taliban of 2021 are not those of a generation ago. Consistency marks their ideological position today as in the past. But that consistency goes along with a high degree of pragmatism. Now that they have won the war, they can afford to be realistic about how they govern.” — David J. Wasserstein, The Hill

The Taliban know that terror groups pose an existential threat to their rule

“The most important issue, of course, is protection for international terrorists based in Afghanistan. ... The Taliban can probably be trusted on this for several reasons. ... A new terrorist attack on the United States would not lead to a new U.S. invasion, but it would certainly lead to bombardment by U.S. missiles and strong U.S. support for armed uprisings against Taliban rule.” — Anatol Lieven, Foreign Policy

The U.S. has leverage but must be realistic about its limits

“The balance that must be struck now is extremely sensitive. If Afghans compromise too much in believing the Taliban’s excuses, or the United States and its allies make their expectations of the Taliban too idealistic, an emboldened Taliban would drive the country toward dark days. The price of a failing and isolated Afghanistan will be paid by common Afghans.” — Obaidullah Baheer, Washington Post

Pessimists

American leaders will ignore Taliban offenses as long as they stay out of the spotlight

“The Americans are hoping that the Taliban will relieve them of the burden of the Afghan problem: as long as the Taliban is willing to manage the internal affairs of the country, as the Saudis do, the US is happy to focus on its own domestic affairs.” — Nelofer Pazira, Irish Times

The Taliban don’t have the luxury of being too friendly with the U.S.

“If the Taliban embraces a more pluralistic and inclusive political system with fundamental human rights, especially with respect to women, it may face opposition from its more radical factions and rank-and-file members, who have spent years fighting to restore its emirate.” — Niamatullah Ibrahimi and Safiullah Taye, Conversation

The Taliban are just as brutal as they’ve always been

“Those who wish to avoid being force-fed their own testicles should probably not read too much into the kinder, gentler Taliban initiatives currently being implemented in Kabul. The Taliban are cruel, but they are not fools, and magnanimity early in their rule does not mean that they will be any less vengeful than they were at the height of their power.” — Graeme Wood, Atlantic

The Biden administration is naive for thinking it can control the Taliban

“U.S. officials have staked the success of their Afghanistan withdrawal strategy on the premise that they can convince the Taliban to live up to commitments they have made in public and private on letting people leave the country, human rights, and other thorny issues. The Biden administration’s approach has long sounded credulous to just about anyone without a vested interest in spinning President Biden’s chaotic withdrawal effort as a strategic triumph.” — Jimmy Quinn, National Review

Other world powers could undercut America’s leverage

“The administration’s repeated threats to turn Afghanistan into a ‘pariah state’ if the Taliban commits human rights abuses could be undermined if Beijing and Moscow don’t cooperate and if a Taliban-led government strengthens ties with Pakistan and Iran.” — Michael R. Gordon and James Marson, Wall Street Journal

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

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