The case for normalizing relations with the Taliban

Make the best of a bad situation

President Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

The Taliban now controls Afghanistan — but for them, the hard part is just beginning. Defeating the U.S.-backed government was, in the end, quite easy. Now they must govern a very poor country whose economy is heavily based on foreign transfers, whose institutions are in ruins, which is in the grips of the worst pandemic in a century, and where continuing unrest at least is likely throughout much of the country. A more difficult political task is hard to imagine.

The Biden administration should seek to normalize relations with the Taliban. The president should offer concessions in the form of diplomatic recognition and a return of the economic aid Afghanistan previously depended on if the Taliban will agree to a minimum standard of decency and responsibility. Only a consolidated, stable Taliban rule has a prayer of avoiding a terrible disaster.

Here's the situation. The U.S. currently has possession of Afghanistan's central bank reserves (a pitiful $9.4 billion), and the flows of foreign aid that previously accounted for a giant share of Afghan GDP have been frozen. This is causing an accelerating economic crisis in the country, with rising unemployment and prices. The Taliban is currently scrambling to try to address the crisis, and requesting help from America. "The Islamic Emirate wants a good and diplomatic relationship with the Americans," said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed.

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It is blackly funny to contemplate given the last 20 years of war, but the fact is right now there is a considerable potential commonality of interest between the Taliban and the United States.

On the one side, the Taliban would like to avoid a shattering economic crisis and a civil war, and certainly doesn't want another U.S. invasion. On the other, the U.S. would presumably like to avoid the most extreme possible version of Taliban rule (ruthless suppression of women, the infamous beard police, destruction of priceless artifacts, and so on) as well as a humanitarian calamity that would lead to mass deprivation, death, and emigration, and hence yet another zone of unbridled political chaos where anti-American extremists might organize.

All this suggests a possible room for compromise. The Taliban might agree to, say, ruling with at least a modicum of toleration and forbearance, keeping a lid on anti-American extremists, ending reprisals against government workers, allowing the few Americans left to evacuate, and so on. (Indeed, it seems there is already a precedent for some of these objectives.) In return, the U.S. would agree to unfreeze Afghanistan's central bank reserves, restart the flow of IMF aid money, grant the Taliban diplomatic recognition as the legitimate rulers of the country, and so on.

Indeed, this would arguably be a continuation, in some respects, of what we were already seeing in Kabul.

This suggestion will undoubtedly inspire furious accusations from conservatives and the foreign policy Blob that Biden would be "appeasing" the Taliban. In reality, this would be using diplomatic leverage to make the best of a bad situation. Appeasing Hitler was bad because anybody with sense could see he was a ruthless monster, in charge of a major world power, who was bent on world domination at any cost. Offering modest concessions to the Taliban — extremist rulers, yes, but of a feeble, impoverished state halfway around the world, with no capacity whatsoever to conquer the U.S. — to try to coax them to behave and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe is not remotely similar.

Besides, while the Taliban is very repressive, the U.S. tolerates awful behavior from its allies Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada never chopped up a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist and still expected to receive bottomless military subsidies.

Let me also head off an argument that it is hypocritical to call for recognition for the Taliban when leftists like myself have also called for boycotts and sanctions against Israel for their apartheid regime. In reality, there is no hypocrisy — those two strategies are just fitting the different tools of diplomacy to different situations. Israel depends utterly on American subsidies and free use of the American veto on the U.N. Security Council. It would thus be highly susceptible to American pressure to end its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. The Taliban, by contrast, just beat the U.S. in a long war, and are the only imaginable force that could provide basic security in a highly unstable place. America just tried 20 years of the most coercive possible pressure — military occupation — and it failed utterly. Applying more pressure to Afghanistan at this point would just topple the country into nightmarish chaos. As historian Adam Tooze argues, given the history of American occupation, applying sanctions would be either tantamount to a war crime, or a gross betrayal of the Afghans who trusted us:

At their most cynical, sanctions are a deliberate attempt to trigger an ungovernable humanitarian crisis, which will undermine Taliban authority. That would be a crime against the millions who will suffer the effects including millions of children. The only circumstance under which the sanctions serve in a more measured way as a strategic tool, is if the Taliban have discovered that they do not, in fact, want to demodernize Afghanistan, but have an interest in maintaining whatever economic development has taken place. If that is the case, it is all the more perverse for us to be the force crushing the elements of modernity that we ourselves have helped to foster. [Adam Tooze]

Even after official withdrawal, America still holds the destiny of Afghanistan in its hands. Going for some kind of modus vivendi with the Taliban is the only remotely realistic possibility for achieving something like a durable peace in Afghanistan — what a country that has been savaged by an almost unbroken 40 years of war needs more than anything else. Indeed, we probably could have had this bargain in October 2001 if the Bush administration hadn't been so hell-bent on war to exact vengeance for 9/11.

And who knows — being a member of the international community comes with obligations and pressures that are no less effective for being nonviolent. The Taliban might figure that a more moderate Islamic government would be preferable to total isolation and poverty, if that option is available to them. It just might be possible that if they can achieve stable government, Afghans might even be able to set up some farms, mines, or other businesses that would let the Afghan economy stand on its own.

But none of that has a chance of happening if America strangles the Afghan economy to death right now. We are already hearing demands that President Biden sanction the Taliban as punishment for humiliating the American empire, some of them from the same people who cried piteously about their concern for Afghan humanitarian needs five minutes ago. Let's try some hard-nosed realism for once, and recognize that decency and generosity have their place in the foreign policy toolkit.

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