One year after our catastrophic withdrawal from Kabul, a dramatic shift in the U.S. posture toward the region is more important than ever.
For 20 years, the United States military ensured the security of our homeland against the terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, a guarantee that has rapidly deteriorated since the catastrophic withdrawal last August.
Today, multiple terrorist organizations operate with impunity inside the Afghan government and across greater Afghanistan. Ensuring that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri will never harm another American was a necessary action, but the recent strike has raised serious questions about America’s ability to address terrorism from “over-the-horizon.” Al-Zawahiri’s presence on a rooftop in the Afghan capital demonstrates the Taliban and Haqqani network are providing a safe haven for al-Qaeda, the terror group responsible for 9/11, far away from our reach. Over the past twelve months, ISIS-K fighters have flowed into the country at alarming rates, conducting at least 26 terror attacks in and around Kabul.
Beyond the worsening security situation, the Taliban’s return to power has eroded the hard-fought gains of Afghan women and girls, who are (once again) not allowed to work, attend secondary school, or travel independently. Now, they are forced back into wearing full-body coverings, like the burqa. Going forward, the Biden administration’s overtures to the Taliban in Qatar must be cut off and an alternate course pursued.
First, the U.S. must make serious and meaningful investments in diplomatic outreach and security to Afghanistan’s northern neighbors. As is too often the case, the Biden administration’s focus in the region leads back to Iran — the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism. The fanciful pursuit of an Iran deal has been prioritized over making inroads for significant security cooperation with Afghanistan’s other border states.
Previous administrations have engaged — and succeeded — in both diplomatic engagement and security cooperation to Afghanistan’s north. In the days following 9/11, the U.S. prioritized overflight access to Afghanistan via Uzbekistan, securing both the airfield and a four-year status-of-forces agreement, which authorized basing for U.S. military personnel and weapons systems. Successive administrations continued to invest in the partnership, first establishing the C5+1 engagement concept, a diplomatic agreement of the five Central Asia countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan with the United States. Cooperation peaked during the Trump administration, which pioneered the Central Asian Investment Partnership in early 2021, a commitment to economic collaboration between the United States and our Central Asia allies along Afghanistan’s border.
The Biden administration has not built on these efforts. Instead, Biden used the C5+1 to force our partners into nonbinding climate agreements. Placing John Kerry’s progressive climate posturing over economic and security cooperation demonstrates the abject neglect of the region by our commander in chief, a choice that has proven costly.
Without over-the-horizon surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities based close to Afghanistan, America’s security will be significantly hampered by long overflight windows and limited options. The United States must continue to monitor terrorism threats originating in Afghanistan and work with neighboring allies to identify, deter, and disrupt violent extremism.
Furthermore, President Biden must recognize his failure to protect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan and adjust accordingly. The administration declared to domestic human-rights groups, Congress, and multinational organizations that it had the means to preserve the rights and education of Afghan women and girls. On this account, they have failed.
In November 2021, a Biden National Security Council spokesperson promised that unless Afghan women and girls’ rights were recognized, Afghanistan under Taliban control would remain a pariah state. Months later, a hollow quid pro quo was offered to the Taliban: the exchange of some form of diplomatic recognition for the return of girls to secondary school. On March 23, 2022, hours before schools were to open again, the Taliban reneged on their agreement — turning girls away at gunpoint. The Taliban’s reprehensible behavior is underscored by their hypocrisy; some of the daughters of Taliban and Haqqani leaders now attend school in Pakistan. Official diplomatic engagement and access to funding without guaranteed liberties for women and girls legitimizes Taliban rule and further subjugates women to a brutal regime.
Finally, any consideration of normalization — releasing held currency, or facilitating the Taliban’s access to international organizations — cannot take place while the Taliban regime remains in power. Many senior leaders in the Taliban’s de facto government are sanctioned by the United Nations (U.N.) and are designated global terrorists by the United States. Despite continued overtures from the Department of State or careless release of taxpayer money through the U.S. Agency for International Development, no financial incentive or offers of institutional legitimacy have produced sustainable reforms on behalf of the Afghan people. The elevation of hardline Taliban members to the leadership of Afghanistan directly threatens the national-security interests of the United States. We must demonstrate global leadership at the U.N. and with our allies to apply pressure, maintain isolation, and weaken the Taliban’s tenuous grip on the country.
Continuing unconditional engagement with the Taliban denies the clear and present danger they impose locally, undermines U.S. national security in and beyond the region, and risks the blood and treasure our military and diplomats invested over the past 20 years. The Biden administration must shift from a posture of appeasement to imposing maximum pressure; rapid change is necessary for continued American security and credibility.