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.  

America’s European Allies Criticize U.S. Afghan Withdrawal

U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April that the United States would end its military operations in Afghanistan by September 11, twenty years after the horrific terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people After the attacks, the United States, with the help of its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, invaded Afghanistan to “deal with the folks [al-Qaeda and the Taliban] who attacked us on 9/11.” Very quickly, the United States was able drive the Taliban, who provided sanctuary for al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the horrific attacks, from power. The Taliban retreated to Pakistan, where they regrouped.

Over the next two decades, the United States’ aim in Afghanistan shifted from one of counterterrorism to nation-building. This change is exactly what President Biden took issue with. “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” he emphatically stated in a speech on July 8, confirming that fighting this war indefinitely was no longer in the United States’ interest. About a month after his announcement, as U.S. and allied troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Taliban resurged, pummeling the Afghan military and security forces and causing the Afghan government to collapse. The abrupt withdrawal caused America’s European allies to question if Biden’s promise to restore America’s alliances and U.S. credibility, after four years of the Trump administration’s political and diplomatic mismanagement, were all for nothing.

The Security Side

Throughout the past few weeks, the United States’ European allies offered unprecedented condemnation on the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. For one, European leaders, especially those in Germany, fear a mass exodus of Afghan refugees headed toward Europe. As a result of the Taliban takeover, thousands of refugees fled the country. This new potential wave of Afghan refugees is reminiscent of the migrant crisis in 2015, which saw refugees, primarily from Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, make the dangerous voyage to claim asylum in Europe. European leaders also worry that a new surge of refugees will serve as a catalyst for the anti-immigrant far right and populist parties that have infected European politics for the last several years to become more prominent. Moreover, another concern for European leaders is the return of terrorism to Central Asia, which Western countries have worked to prevent over the past two decades now that the West will no longer maintain a significant presence in the region.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

European allies seem to be angered most over the lack of proper consultation by the Biden administration before withdrawing completely. In fact, leaders from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy – the United States’ closest friends in Europe – complained that there was more of a “diktat than conversation” as the U.S. made its final withdrawal decision. Many European officials feel a sense of betrayal, that the withdrawal was a political decision already seemingly made by the Biden administration without proper consultation with its NATO allies who fought alongside the United States throughout the entire war. The U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan presents a textbook example of this frustration, similar to lapses in U.S. actions in Libya, Syria, and Iraq. For the United States’ European allies, respect and the lack of equilibrium within the trans-Atlantic relationship are central concerns. This is fueling a long-held debate raging in Europe: should Europe, particularly NATO, provide more for its own security instead of simply relying on the United States for protection?

Is the U.S. For Real?

These concerns culminate, however, in perhaps Europe’s primary concern: Was Biden’s pledge to restore America’s alliances, particularly the trans-Atlantic relationship, and restore U.S. credibility in the world, insincere? European leaders express concern that Biden, as was true under the Trump administration, expects the Europeans to simply fall in line with U.S. policy decisions despite how they may affect Europe. In this confusion, the Europeans wonder if the United States is honest in the constant reaffirmations stemming from the Biden administration to show how central the trans-Atlantic alliance is to U.S. foreign policy. Now, NATO allies wonder if the recent debacle will impact alliance operations, causing the United States to take more of the lead while Europe is expected to fall in line. The United Kingdom, which made the greatest contribution to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, has been very vocal on this concern as well. In short, many European allies now question whether the United States is fit to the be the world leader and whether the United States really is back.

Conclusion

America’s European allies have been increasingly vocal and critical about their frustration about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Europeans fear for their security as a new wave of refugees and an increase of Islamist extremism on its periphery loom. Moreover, U.S. allies in Europe feel they were not properly consulted on the withdrawal of a war to which they contributed significantly. Above all, and perhaps the most damaging, this is just the latest episode causing U.S. European allies to question the strength and legitimacy of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

The Post 9/11 Era Is Not Over

On September 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four airplanes in the United States. Two of the planes hit both World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan and another crashed into the side of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, driven off course from its original target. In retaliation, on October 7, the U.S. military, in concert with British forces, began an airstrike campaign against al-Qaeda, the group that orchestrated the deadly attacks, and the Taliban, the Islamic militant group ruling Afghanistan who gave al-Qaeda sanctuary. Then, in March 2003, under the guise of Iraq’s ties to al-Qaeda and that the country possessed a cache of chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons, U.S. forces invaded Iraq.

The advent of these two wars defined the post-9/11 era, shifting U.S. foreign policy to a new grand strategy rivaling that of the Cold War: counterterrorism. Yet, two decades on, the post-9/11 era lives on. The Global War on Terror stretched beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, sending U.S. forces across the Middle East, as well as North and West Africa, to defeat Islamist militancy. In spite of this, the Biden administration has tried in earnest to reorient U.S. foreign policy away from the Middle East, specifically the forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, into a new era focused primarily on countering China and other global threats ranging from cyber to climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the post-9/11 era is far from over.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan has descended into chaos as the United States withdraws its troops. In July, President Biden confirmed that the withdrawal would be complete by August 31. As a result, the Taliban positioned itself to retake control of Afghanistan. Once it struck, the militant group defeated the Afghan security and defense forces quickly and the Afghan government collapsed. Now, The United States and its allies are in a mad dash to evacuate their own citizens and Afghans allies before the self-imposed August 31 deadline, a feat that is looking more and more bleak. U.S. and European officials just warned about the possibility of major attacks during the evacuation.

The United States may have decided to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Yet, removing its troops does not mean the post 9/11-era is over. The United States started the war in Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. The U.S. did succeed in killing al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, in 2011 and the terrorist group is a shell of its former self. However, the Taliban never really left as they regrouped in Pakistan and, as the U.S. troop withdrawal ramped up, quickly regained power. Beyond the Taliban, the most significant, and perhaps immediate, threat to the United States and its allies is the Islamic State Khorasan, a group of former Pakistani Taliban fighters that has already carried out several attacks in Afghanistan. The terror threat in Afghanistan is far from over.

Iraq

In July, just three months after he announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Biden revealed that the United States will wrap up its combat mission in Iraq by year’s end and that the U.S. military would continue to assist the Iraqi security forces in fighting the Islamic State. Former President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops in 2011 after eight years of fighting in Iraq. As the threat posed by the Islamic State grew larger in both Iraq and Syria, the Obama administration sent troops back in 2014 in a training and advisory capacity.

Since then, American troops have mostly assisted in the collection of intelligence and advising the increasingly capable Iraqi forces as they fight the Islamic State. Even before Biden took office, the main U.S. focus has been assisting Iraqi forces, not fighting on their behalf. Thus, the mission has not changed; U.S. troops will continue to assist Iraq in its fight against the Islamic State. Moreover, any remaining U.S. troops will face continued threats from Iranian-backed Shiite militias that continue to terrorize Iraq. In short, the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq as well as the continued threats from both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed militias prove that the 9/11 era is not over.

Guantanamo Bay

Near the beginning of the war, the United States, under the George W. Bush administration, opened a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the U.S. housed enemy fighters captured in the war on terror without allowing the detainees their due process rights or protections under the Geneva Conventions. The legal foundation for the founding of the prison was Congress’s authorization for use of military force in 2001 to pursue whomever was responsible for the September 11 attacks. Approximately 780 individuals have been detained since the opening of the prison in 2002.

Guantanamo Bay’s existence has been quite controversial due to the interrogation methods many consider to be torture. Upon taking office, President Obama promised to close the prison. However, his efforts were curbed by members of both parties in Congress. In February, the Biden administration launched a review of the prison, resurrecting efforts to close Guantanamo Bay. The Biden administration also repatriated a detainee to Morocco, leaving 39 detainees in custody. However, therein lies the problem: Guantanamo Bay is still open.

Conclusion

Despite Biden administration efforts to move the U.S. into a new era of foreign policy focused on countering China, the United States must still contend with the remnants of the Global War on Terror. The Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan while the Islamic State Khorasan poses a significant threat. U.S. troops remain in Iraq, facing threats from Islamic State and Iranian-backed militias. Lastly, Guantanamo Bay remains open. The post-9/11 era, defined at first by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and then by the continued Global War on Terror, is not over.