Return to Kabul
By Martin N. Stanton
A bit over two years ago, the United States experienced its greatest foreign policy defeat since Vietnam when the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) that we had brought to power in Afghanistan after 9-11 collapsed and the Taliban – whom we had deposed a full generation before – returned to power. The disgraceful rout was hailed as a “well-organized evacuation” and a “logistical miracle” by the administration and the media. (The tens of thousands of Afghans who had worked for us that were left behind could not be reached for comment). Since then, we have maintained an Afghan interest section in Doha Qatar that still speaks with Taliban representatives. However, we have no diplomatic representation in Afghanistan itself.
It's time to review the wisdom of this arrangement.
An Epic Missed Opportunity
In all the negotiations leading up to the Doha agreement, the Taliban were very consistent in their insistence that our military presence be withdrawn. However, as the GIRoA was collapsing in the spring / summer of 2021 the Taliban also consistently expressed their desire to maintain diplomatic relations with the United States once our troops departed. The Taliban wanted our embassy to stay. There was small danger from the Taliban of a “Tehran-in-1979” type takeover of the US embassy in August of 2021. Such an action would have been against their purpose. The question is, why didn’t we take them up on it?
It would have been a relatively simple matter for the US State Dept to have left a few dozen people as a Counselor section in the massive sprawling US Embassy compound in Kabul. They could have set themselves up so far inside the huge grounds that even a truck bomb at the wall wouldn’t have harmed them. The diplomats could have allowed thousands of Afghans waiting for their SIV visas to shelter in the abandoned embassy billeting (on the embassy compound and therefore US soil) and contracted food and supplies for them on the local economy. The handful of diplomatic security personnel among them could have coordinated outer perimeter security with the Taliban.
Such a move would have been a Roman display of confidence. With this simple act, the U.S. could have shown the world that we could take a diplomatic and policy setback with equanimity. That we would not abandon our principles or the Afghan people. We could have left a presence prepared to work with the Taliban to help alleviate the suffering caused by the war while at the same time remaining true to the human rights standards we had always advocated.
Instead, we ran like frightened mice.
It’s never too late.
Fast forward two years, the Taliban’s invitation remains open. Although there are pockets of hold-outs, there is no viable organized opposition to the Taliban in all Afghanistan. The Afghan economy is staggering along, and Afghanistan’s neighbors are becoming increasingly comfortable with the Taliban back in power. Most ironically of all, for reasons of their own the Taliban are engaged in a bitter fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham Khorasan (ISIS-K).
It seems surreal. Preventing Afghanistan from being a base from which terrorists could threaten the United States and its interests was the strategic justification for our multi-decade Afghan campaign. We just finished fighting the Taliban in a decades long effort to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base for groups like ISIS-K. Then why are the Taliban fighting ISIS-K? They’re fighting them because ISIS-K is a threat to their governance. ISIS-K is trying to overthrow the Taliban as well. So, the Taliban are going after ISIS-K, rather aggressively too.
Now, the Taliban aren’t fighting everyone we’d like them to go after. They steadfastly refuse to go after Al Qaida, but this refusal likely comes from more familial than ideological reasons. Many of the AQ guys are married into Taliban families and have been there for decades. The Taliban refuse to hand them over but are also adamant they won’t let them do anything from Afghan soil.
Could the Taliban be lying about this? Sure. But in terms of threats to the US AQ isn’t nearly as potent as ISIS-K and the Taliban are fighting ISIS-K. Making AQ a sticking point that prevents us from re-establishing a consulate in Afghanistan is counterproductive. I would suggest we at least take the Taliban at their word (on ensuring residual AQ members in Afghanistan do no operations against the US and its interests from their soil) and see how things work out. If the AQ members leave Afghanistan for any reason, we can always act against them then. If AQ tries to control operations from Afghanistan, we will find out – then we can confront the Taliban about it and see what they do. If they refuse to take action, it’s a simple matter to close our small consulate and take whatever subsequent measures are appropriate. On the other hand, if the remnants of AQ stay in Afghanistan but make no moves against us or our interests, is it really a problem?
What about Taliban human rights violations?
Scarcely a week goes by without another story in the western media about Taliban restrictions on women and other human rights violations in Afghanistan. Women’s rights were a particular point of emphasis during America’s 20-year campaign in Afghanistan. To see the Taliban undoing most of our social initiatives is painful, but to keep our perspective we need to acknowledge several things. First, we need to recognize that acceptance of the social change we were trying to accelerate in Afghan society was shallow. Too many of our diplomats and US government personnel fooled themselves into believing that the people they met in cosmopolitan Kabul were indicative of popular attitudes in Afghanistan as a whole. Afghans in general went along with our various social initiatives because we were the moneybags doling out largesse, but they didn’t really believe in them that strongly. The fact that there was no popular rising of Afghan men rallying to arms in the spring / summer of 2021 to prevent a return to (what we see as) “Taliban barbarism” should tell us that maybe all these societal reforms that we in the West pushed for 20 years weren’t as quite as popular with the general Afghan public as we thought. Next, we should also recognize that Afghans aren’t necessarily opposed to harsh justice so long as it is perceived as (relatively) fair and impartial justice and that many Afghans perceived the Taliban as less capricious and corrupt than the GIRoA. Finally, we overlook how welcome an end to the war was in Afghanistan. Even Afghans who were nervous about the Taliban’s return welcomed the relative peace that followed their victory and got on with their lives, making the best of things.
The bottom line is this: The Taliban’s governance, with its return to a stricter interpretation of Islam that curtails women’s rights and other liberal social reforms instituted at our behest by GIRoA is more of an issue to Western intelligentsia than it is to the average Afghan. Our policymakers would do well to remember these lines from Kipling.
At the end of the fight
There’s a tombstone in white
With the name of the recent deceased
And the epitaph drear
There’s a fool laying here
Who tried to hurry the East
The most useful lesson we (the US and its policy community) can take out of Afghanistan is there is no point in trying to artificially accelerate social evolution in another country. Period. Full stop.
But won’t our diplomats be in danger?
Most assuredly they will be. Probably not from the Taliban though. ISIS-K and a sundry of other groups will present a real threat. So what? They’re a threat all over the Middle East. The consulate RSO can coordinate security with the Taliban and life will go on. The degree to which the Taliban cooperate with us on the consulate’s security will be another good way of gauging their sincerity about desiring us to re-establish our presence. Being a diplomat entails certain risks and the members of our diplomatic corps are aware of what they signed up for. Most do not ask for the ridiculous security restrictions that have been imposed upon them by successive risk averse administrations. I don’t think there would be any shortage of volunteers.
So, what’s the way ahead?
For the past two years we have engaged in what can only be described as “diplomatic and strategic sulking” that does neither our nation’s interests nor the Afghan people any good. It’s time to get over it and move on to the next chapter. We should offer to re-open a consular office on the old embassy grounds in Kabul and work with the Taliban in areas in which we can find a common interest (humanitarian relief, the emigration of those Afghans who worked for us that wish to leave the country and – possibly - counter terrorism). The presence of an American consulate in Kabul will not constitute approval of Taliban government policy or formal diplomatic recognition. It would simply acknowledge the reality that the Taliban are the power extant whom we will have to deal with for the foreseeable future. It would facilitate our interests and those of the Afghan people. It would certainly be an improvement over what we have now.