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.
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.
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.