The American era in Afghanistan ended much faster than nearly anyone expected. I have been following events in Afghanistan since 1978 and include myself among those who were taken aback by the rapidity with which the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani and the US-trained Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces lost one provincial capital after another. Now the Taliban have entered Kabul, and Ghani has fled. Any hope of the Afghan government regrouping and mustering forces for a counteroffensive is fantasy. It’s time for Washington to turn its attention to a post-American Afghanistan. That will require charting a new course—and it won’t be easy.
An immediate challenge involves the parlous predicament of thousands of Afghans who worked with American civilian and military agencies. Many of these individuals fear, and rightly, that they will be rounded up and imprisoned, or worse, once the Taliban consolidates control. Not surprisingly, they are desperate to leave their country. The United States has an obligation to provide them safe haven within its own borders, and it must not shirk the responsibility by cajoling countries, such as Qatar, to open their doors to them. We won’t be able to resettle in this country every Afghan who worked with the United States, but we should find a way to admit as many as possible.
This has been done before. Consider Operation New Life, the post–Vietnam War program that involved various government agencies, including the State Department and the Defense Department, as well as private organizations, and resettled some 140,000 people from Cambodia and Vietnam in the United States and other countries. Although that initiative can’t simply be grafted on to the circumstances of current-day Afghanistan, it can serve as a guide. Afghans’ eligibility for starting life anew in the United States could be determined by the length of their employment with American agencies and the nature of their jobs: the longer the duration of employment and the more sensitive the job, the higher the priority.
A resettlement program for Afghans would have up-front costs. But they ought to be weighed against the ethical obligation owed to people whose lives are in danger because of their association with the US government, the total expenditure that will be required in relation to $2.3 trillion the United States has spent in Afghanistan since 2001, and these skilled individuals’ potential to earn incomes, pay taxes, and become self-sustaining.
If the Biden administration embraces resettlement, which seems to be the case based on press reports that 50,000 or more Afghans (those formerly employed by the United States plus their dependents) may ultimately qualify for “Special Immigrant Visas,” it would not be surprising if right-wing politicians, pundits, and media seized the opportunity to stoke all manner of fears. The president and his senior foreign policy officials should not play defense in response. Instead, they should get out front and explain to the American public why helping Afghans who helped the United States is the right thing to do and why the benefits exceed the costs.
Afghan professionals who were employed by American organizations won’t, however, be the only people seeking to leave Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of others, if not more, will seek safety in neighboring Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—all of which lack the resources to house, feed, and care for so many refugees. This is not hypothetical; Afghan refugees are already fleeing to Iran and Tajikistan, which has declared its readiness to accept 100,000 of them, and hundreds were gathering along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border even before the fall of Kabul. Over the past four decades, Iran has absorbed some 800,000 Afghans who have fled the various cycles of violence their country has experienced. Pakistan has taken in some 1.4 million and has said it can’t afford to accept any more (though it may have no choice).
Afghanistan’s neighbors cannot reasonably be expected to care for vast numbers of additional refugees without receiving substantial help from other governments. And no country has a greater responsibility to provide assistance, both monetary and material, than the United States, and that duty also extends to the millions of Afghans who have been, or will be, internally displaced. Afghanistan already has some 4 million IDPs, and that figure will spike as more people flee their homes. As Covid-19 cases rise globally, it doesn’t take medical expertise to foresee the horrific consequences if vast numbers of Afghans are packed together in places lacking the bare essentials for keeping infections at bay or caring for the ill.
A foundational assumption that should steer American efforts to shape Afghanistan’s future—now that the nation-building experiment has failed—is that the days when Washington could run the show are over. By virtue of geography alone, several countries have much bigger stakes in what happens there, and they’re increasing their involvement.
The most important among them are China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and India. The first three share a border with Afghanistan. The Pashtuns, the ethnic group that forms the core of the Taliban, have about 25 million kin in Pakistan, more than twice the number in Afghanistan itself, and the long Afghanistan-Pakistan border (nearly 1,700 miles) cannot be sealed shut. Herat province, across from Iran, has a substantial Tajik population, which speaks Dari, a language closely related to Farsi, as well as a Shi’a minority, a group that constitutes the majority in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan. China’s border with Afghanistan, in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, may be short (just under 50 miles) and rugged, but the Chinese government is particularly attentive to Afghanistan’s trajectory given the tensions between the central government in Beijing and the Turkic-Muslim Uyghurs, whose homeland is Xinjiang in China’s Far West. Beijing has been using mass repression to snuff out what it regards as dissident Uighur nationalism.
Russia doesn’t adjoin Afghanistan, but Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan do—their combined borders with Afghanistan total nearly 1,400 miles—and Central Asia’s stability has always been a preoccupation of the Russian Federation, which regards the region as its southern strategic flank. Russia has a military base in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, and has been beefing up the troops it has stationed there. Russia also recently held military exercises in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that included troops from both countries.
The United States has, to put it mildly, a tense relationship with Iran, China, and Russia. Yet no attempt to fashion a political settlement aimed at reducing Afghanistan’s chaos and bloodshed will work if these countries are excluded. More to the point, they can’t be shut out.
But can the Biden administration look beyond the current acrimony and work cooperatively with them in Afghanistan? It should certainly try, because there’s actually some common ground. Neither the United States nor China, Iran, or Russia want an Afghanistan that plunges into mayhem, and none can avert that outcome single-handedly. Working with China and Russia may prove feasible, but the idea of cooperating with Iran will spark outrage from many in Congress and the media as well as various foreign policy and religious organizations. But it would be foolish for the administration to not engage in substantive negotiations with Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran to develop a coordinated strategy and a division of labor based on shared interests. India and Pakistan should also be brought into the fold, even though the two have a long-standing rivalry in Afghanistan and despite India’s troubled history with the Taliban, with which Pakistan has long had close ties.
And, of course, any multilateral effort will have to include the Taliban, not least because it has now entered Kabul. The Taliban will be deeply suspicious of diplomatic initiatives undertaken by the United States alone—another reason to attempt a coordinated strategy.
There are many items that could be placed on the agenda for a discussion on Afghanistan’s future, but three are essential.
The Taliban will need external assistance for economic reconstruction, and no matter how objectionable its ideology may be, the poorest Afghans will suffer the most if it is denied the aid needed to rebuild and sustain the infrastructure for essential services. What’s more, other countries will provide funds, and the United States will accomplish nothing by standing on the sidelines. One point for discussion ought to be what the triage of needs looks like, what will be required to meet high-priority demands, and who will serve as the conduit for providing the funds.
Countries will inevitably use their aid as an instrument to undercut each other’s position in Afghanistan, so it may be best to create a fund that they (and other states) can contribute to but that is managed by a partnership between UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations with experience in Afghanistan. That will not preclude bilateral assistance, but it will prevent it from becoming the sole source.
A second item should be the conditions under which money and material assistance for reconstruction will be provided. Along with the standard provisions aimed at curbing waste and fraud, there should be others pertaining to the treatment of minority religious and ethnic groups, women and girls, and educated Afghans. There may be no way to prevent the Taliban from imposing its particular version of Islamic precepts on the people it rules—it didn’t fight 20 years for nothing—but there’s a big difference between that and persecution, violence, and mass killings. Opposition to the latter three practices can serve as a minimal standard on which the states willing to coordinate policies their policies on Afghanistan should be able to agree.
It’s almost inevitable that the Biden administration itself or members of the House and Senate will react to the Taliban’s victory by floating the idea of sanctions. Here again, it’s important to keep in mind who will be hurt the most by dishing out economic punishment and whether doing that and pursuing diplomatic engagement with the Taliban on matters of interest to the United States are compatible.
A third point that countries involved in cooperative diplomacy in post-American Afghanistan ought to find (relatively) easy to agree on is the Taliban’s stance on Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Now that the Taliban has regained power and faces the multitude of problems connected with governance, it will not want to become a lightning rod by playing host to terrorist groups. Moreover, the Taliban’s leadership will have certainly anticipated that its external interlocutors will raise the matter of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. That, too, creates an opportunity for linking political engagement and economic help to the Taliban’s dealings with terrorist groups.
There will be plenty of obstacles to a multilateral strategy for a post-American Afghanistan. The Biden administration will have to cope with a barrage of blame for “losing” Afghanistan, never mind the fact that it was Trump who laid the groundwork for a full American exit. A proposal to join hands with China and Russia, even if for a specific and mutually beneficial purpose, will provoke an outcry, and the reaction from the right-wing media to the idea of including Iran will be vituperative. It will be hard to reduce the mistrust between the Taliban and the United States. Still, the collapse of Ghani’s government and the unraveling of the US-trained Afghan military has created a completely new context—and that calls for a wholly different policy.