U.S.-Afghanistan Relations After the Rise of the Taliban

On August 30, the United States officially ended its involvement in Afghanistan nearly 20 years after its initial invasion in 2001. As the U.S. and its NATO allies rushed to withdraw their troops, the Taliban, swiftly advanced into Kabul, the capital. As a result, the Afghan security and military forces collapsed, as did the Afghan government. Now, after quickly regaining power, the Taliban has quite a job ahead of them: they must now govern. The Taliban, which has signaled that they will soon announce their new government, faces several challenges that include setting up a functioning government, providing essential services, a looming economic crisis, and avoiding yet another civil war. The Taliban has realized in recent weeks that cooperation with the U.S. government may prove critical to their governing efforts.

In light of this realization, the Taliban has publicly stated their intentions to build cooperative ties with the United States. Two decades on, the Taliban has adopted a more moderate tone compared to their rule in the mid-1990s and is now calling for friendly relations with the United States. “The Islamic Emirate wants a good and diplomatic relationship with the Americans,” the Taliban spokesman stated on September 1. The Biden administration recently noted that U.S. relations with the Taliban depend on behavior. “The United States and the Taliban could cooperate on priorities that are in America’s vital American interest,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken elaborated. While the Biden administration’s position is that a relationship with the Taliban is contingent on behavior, cooperation with the Taliban may be a course of action that the U.S. can’t avoid, regardless of their behavior.

A Mutual Threat

One factor that promises to challenge Taliban rule in Afghanistan is the existence of the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K. Just as the Taliban was fighting U.S. coalition forces in its quest to retake power of Afghanistan, the group was also engaged in a parallel war with ISIS-K, its Islamist adversary. ISIS-K was rose to prominence in 2015 after the Islamic State, or ISIS, seized territory in Iraq and Syria in 2013 and 2014. ISIS-K, a group of disgruntled former fighters from the Taliban and militants from South and Central Asia, including Pakistan, invited Islamist fighters to create a chapter in the Khorasan province, a region that historically includes parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and the former Soviet states in Central Asia.  

It is precisely the growth of the Taliban’s Islamist rival that makes it an attractive international partner today. While the U.S. grapples with whether to diplomatically recognize the Taliban as the governing body of Afghanistan, the United States will have to factor in the fact that the U.S. and the Taliban mutually view ISIS-K as a threat. If the United States wishes to contain ISIS-K, the Americans may be forced to coordinate with the Taliban. At the same time, should the Taliban, who is struggling to consolidate control over all of Afghanistan, wish to limit the reach and power of ISIS-K, they too may have to rely on their former American adversary.    

Peer Pressure

While the United States is still unsure of what its future relationship with Afghanistan under the Taliban will look like, regional powers are willing to work with the Taliban. In fact, the regional consensus appears to be keeping Afghanistan in an operational state, even if that includes the dysfunction that comes along with Taliban rule. Turkey and Qatar are among those countries. Both maintain close ties to regional Islamist movements. Moreover, Turkey as a member of NATO, played a central role in meditating. Qatar hosted talks between the United States and the Taliban and has interest in seeing a stable Afghanistan under Taliban rule. In July, China invited Taliban leaders to meet with the Chinese foreign minister in Beijing with hints of legitimacy and in hopes of suppressing any extremist agitation in its western Xinjiang province. Iran, too, has engaged with and provided weapons and money to the Taliban in recent years, despite fundamental differences in ideology. Russia, for its part, began negotiating with the Taliban several years ago, despite classifying the group as a terrorist organization.

Even the United States’ closest Arab allies – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have noted that they will accept the Taliban’s again, as both were two of the only countries in the world to recognize the Taliban during its reign in the mid-1990s. Lastly, Pakistan, notorious for its support of the Taliban, is already calling for the world to recognize with the Taliban to prevent a return the civil war which enveloped Afghanistan under the Taliban regime in the 1990s. While the United States may not be prepared to recognize the Taliban quite yet, the U.S. may be pressured to coordinate with the Taliban based on regional dynamics to preserve regional stability.

The Afghan Allies

Over the course of the rushed evacuation, the United States moved more than 120,000 people, including 6,000 U.S. citizens and tens of thousands of Afghan allies who worked with or for the U.S. government and military through the 20 year war, out of Afghanistan. In this effort, the United States coordinated with the Taliban to allow for safe passage of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies into the Kabul airport for safe departure and as protection against ISIS-K. However, there are roughly 100 to 200 Americans who wish to return home and thousands more Afghans in danger of Taliban retaliation due to helping the U.S. military still in Afghanistan. If the United States is going to fulfill its promise to evacuate all American citizens and Afghan allies who want to leave the country, then coordination with the Taliban will be inevitable.

Conclusion

As the Taliban resumes control over Afghanistan, the Islamist group has not been shy about its efforts to coordinate with the United States. And this may be a course of action the United States cannot avoid. Both parties view ISIS-K as a critical threat. Most regional powers – including some of the United States’ closest allies and primary adversaries – are already moving forward in working with the Taliban. Lastly, the Untied States, in order to be able to safely remove the remaining American citizens and Afghan allies from Afghanistan, will have to coordinate with the Taliban. After a 20-year war aimed at removing the Taliban from power, the United States has come full circle again, facing the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan once again.  

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

On July 26, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House. During this meeting, the two leaders announced that the United States would formally end its combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year. Yet, not all 2,500 U.S. troops located in Iraq would return home as an undetermined number would remain to continue assisting Iraqi security forces in battling the Islamic State, but in more of a training and advisory capacity.

Credit:  DVIDSHUB

While Mr. Kadhimi’s government silently supports U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, he is under intense domestic pressure from members of a government that have fallen under the influence of Iranian-backed militias and those with close ties with Iran to rid the country of any U.S. military presence. Those with close ties to Iran believe the true intention behind an American military presence in Iraq is to counter Iran. The recent announcement does not really change the current situation and instead more accurately depicts the reality on the ground: U.S. troops have primarily been serving in training and advisory roles for the last several years as Iraqi security forces fight the Islamic State. It does underscore, however, Mr. Kadhimi’s most prominent challenge: balancing its two most important allies, which have left Iraq in the middle of the of its tug of war. 

A Generation Later

On the one side, there is the United States. President Biden’s decision to end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq comes on the heels of the United States’ full withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, marking the end of the post 9-11 era. The U.S., under the George W. Bush administration, invaded Iraq in 2003 under the false presumption that Iraq under Saddam Hussein developed weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. toppled Saddam, removing him from power, and then settled in for years of nation building to restore the decimated Iraqi institutions and set up a power-sharing agreement along the sectarian and ethnic lines that define Iraq.

Then, in 2011, after a largely failed attempt at putting Iraq back together, President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, eight years after the initial U.S. invasion. While some troops remained under the authority of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the advent of the Islamic State in 2014 and its spread across both Iraq and Syria led to the Iraqi government’s request that the U.S. send more troops back to aid in its fight against the growing and increasingly violent terrorist organization. The cold fact is that Iraq relies heavily on U.S. support and the presence of its troops to keep the country from decaying into civil war, putting Iraq right in the middle of the United States’ power struggle with Iran.

Blood is Thicker Than Water

And on the other side, there is Iran. The Islamic Republic, through its proxy militias and close ties to members of the Iraqi government, wields considerable power in Iraq. Iran also shares close ethnic and sectarian ties with some of Iraq’s population, which contributes to its degree of power. Most of these militia groups are Shiite Muslims, which represent a majority in Iraq, and the most powerful groups are stood up by Iran, which is a Shiite-majority country.

Moreover, Iran, through its tentacles that permeate the Iraqi government, is applying pressure on Iraqi officials to force the United States out entirely. In this vein, Iran is carrying out attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq all the while denying any responsibility. These militias, under the command of Iran, are working to push U.S. troops out of Iraq entirely and permanently by pressuring Mr. Kadhimi and the Iraqi government to solidify its own power in the region. This is how Iran is putting Mr. Kadhimi and Iraq square in the middle of its wargames with the United States.

A Delicate Balancing Act

Lately, Iraq’s efforts to balance its two allies, who are engaged in retaliatory airstrikes but are also working toward a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief, has come to a head as Iranian-backed militias have targeted U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the assassination of Major General Qassim Soleimani, along with an Iraqi security official, at the hands of an American airstrike in 2020. The United States has responded with airstrikes aimed at the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. Both efforts are a major political headache for Mr. Kadhimi, who has done his best to check the power of the Iranian-backed militias and halt American retaliatory airstrikes while also keeping close partnerships with both Iran and the United States.

Conclusion

Iraq is caught right in the middle of the tug of war of war between the United States and Iran. Despite the havoc that the United States’ military presence and its often detrimental ties with Iran are wreaking in Iraq, for now, very little is likely to change any time soon. Unable to stop Iran’s attacks on its U.S. partners or prevent U.S. retaliation on the militias backed by Iran, Iraq is now facing the “biggest threat to its stability since the Islamic State.”

Secretary Blinken on U.S. Adversaries

The previous post discussed how Secretary Blinken, whom the Senate confirmed on January 26 as the next Secretary of State, would recalibrate the United States’ strained relationships with its key allies. This post is the second in a series of how Secretary Blinken would address U.S. allies and adversaries. 

U.S. Adversaries

The United States’ adversaries were another central theme throughout the hearing. During the Trump administration, the former President was often accused, beginning early in his term, of praising strongmen and admiring U.S. adversaries while treating U.S. allies poorly. The Biden administration plans to correct that. What policies toward U.S. adversaries can we expect to see over the next four years with Secretary Blinken leading the State Department?

China

China, in particular, garnered quite a bit of attention. Secretary Blinken took a hardline in his analysis of China, noting that “there is no doubt that China poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state in the world to the United States.” In providing his views on the world’s second largest economy, Secretary Blinken stated, “I also believe that [former] President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach on China.” However, he opined, “I disagree with many of the ways he went about it.”

Xi Jinping

Credit:  nznationalparty

The United States must approach China from “a position of strength.” This “position of strength,” he affirmed, included “a unified position among our democratic allies,” U.S. cooperation and coordination through international institutions, and standing up for “our values.” Despite his hardline analysis, Secretary Blinken also acknowledged that there are issues on which China and the United States can cooperate, including climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Arctic Circle.

Secretary Blinken touched on the specific, more contentious issues in U.S.-China relations. Chief among those are China’s treatment of the Uighurs, a Turkic minority group in the Xinjiang province. Before leaving office, former Secretary Mike Pompeo classified China’s treatment of the Uighurs as genocide. When asked whether he agreed with this assessment or not, Secretary Blinken replied in the affirmative.

Relatedly, Secretary Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s comment to Taiwan, stating that he would review former Secretary Pompeo’s late decision on loosening the rules which regulate how the United States can engage with Taiwanese officials. Taiwan is a particularly thorny issue in the U.S.-China relationship, and Secretary Blinken echoed seemingly bipartisan support for Taiwan in the face of pressure from Beijing.

Russia

Questions about how the Biden administration would handle Russia arose. On Russia, Secretary Blinken said the threat posed by Russia was “very high on the agenda,” signaling a sense of urgency for the new administration. Secretary Blinken promised an approach to Russia different from that of the Trump administration, which is often accused of being too lenient on Russia. This begins, Secretary Blinken observed, with seeking an extension to the New Start Treaty, that expires in early February.

Putin

Credit: World Economic Forum

Secretary Blinken also raised the recent detainment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was arrested upon returning to Russia from Germany after recovering from aa failed poisoning attempt last summer, with all fingers pointing to the Kremlin as the likely guilty party. Secretary Blinken expressed his support for Mr. Navalny, and drew attention to what he calls Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fear of the opposition leader: “It’s extraordinary how frightened Putin seems to be of one man. I think that speaks volumes.”

With respect to Russia’s larger regional and global threat, Secretary Blinken stated his strategy to continue supporting “the arming and training of Ukraine’s military, the continued provision to Ukraine of lethal defensive assistance and indeed, of the training program as well,” noting that he felt this program had been “a real success.” Secretary Blinken told the Senators that “I spent a lot of time on Ukraine when I was last in government” and concurred with the Senate’s desire of trying to help Ukraine and standing up to Russia in the face of the annexation in Crimea and the deteriorating situation in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine.

Iran

Much of the disagreement” [between Republican Senators and Secretary Blinken] centered on the Biden administration’s plans surrounding Iran and the Iran nuclear deal, from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. Republicans on the Committee worry that President Biden will abandon the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Rouhani

Credit: World Economic Forum

Secretary Blinken stressed how the U.S. withdrawal from that agreement has actually left the United States in a weaker position and noting that Iran is closer than before the deal to acquiring nuclear weapons, highlighting that Iran has “increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and fired up its centrifuges to produce higher-grade uranium.”

Secretary Blinken pointed out that Iran “represents a greater threat if it [Iran] wields nuclear weapons or reaches the threshold of using nuclear weapons.” He echoed President Biden’s plan to reenter the nuclear deal and that he would seek a “longer and stronger” agreement with Iran.

The United States is more likely to curtail Iran’s support for terrorism and proxy militias and regional antagonism, the Secretary claimed, if the nuclear weapons issue is no longer the primary issue. However, Secretary Blinken admitted that the Biden administration is “a long way from” any terms of a deal with Iran as it is too early to know what terms Iran will be willing to accept.”

North Korea

Secretary Blinken recognized North Korea as a strategic challenge for the Biden administration. He did not offer much in the way of the Biden administration’s plans or policies toward North Korea and its nuclear weapons. Secretary Blinken shared that the Biden administration would conduct a full review of the United States’ approach to North Korea in search of ways to get its leader, Kim Jong-Un, to agree to further negotiations.

Kim Jong Un

Credit: Prachatai

Simultaneously, Secretary Blinken vowed to watch the worsening humanitarian situation. “We do want to make sure that in anything we do, we have an eye on the humanitarian side of the equation, not just on the security side of the equation.” What’s more, Secretary Blinken said that any actions taken on the North Korean issue would begin with close consultation with U.S. allies in Asia, specifically Japan and South Korea.

Conclusion

Similar to his perspective on the United States’ allies, the Secretary also has an in-depth and comprehensive understanding of the challenges facing the United States, particularly in its complicated and strained relationships with its adversaries as each adversary presents a unique challenge. However, Secretary Blinken’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee highlighted his capability, readiness, and enthusiasm to lead the State Department and return U.S. foreign policy to a more traditional and unified foreign policy.