The Taliban aren’t likely to be America’s friends. But they don’t have to be our enemy either.
In the cascade of stunning images that documented the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, none were more powerful than those showing victorious commanders lounging in deposed president Ashraf Ghani’s office just hours after he fled. A couple of them spoke briefly to a video crew. One mentioned that he had been imprisoned for eight years at the US military base in Guantanamo, Cuba. He said he and his comrades would rule with “serenity” and seek “no revenge.”
That Taliban commander personifies the dilemma facing President Biden as he decides what kind of relationship the United States should have with Afghanistan’s new government. Instinct may push him to consider it hostile. After all, for nearly 20 years the Taliban fought American forces on unforgiving battlefields. We killed thousands of each other’s warriors. Each of us finds the other’s national culture dissolute and immoral. Once fully established in power, the Taliban may reimpose harsh restrictions on women, seek to crush civil society, and deal brutally with critics. Then it could begin making common cause with America’s enemies in Central Asia and the Middle East. It is hardly a regime we would be drawn to support.
For decades the United States has taken a scorched-earth approach to regimes we dislike. We have spent generations working relentlessly to weaken Cuba and Iran. One of our envoys to Syria said his job was to “make life as miserable as possible for that flopping cadaver of a regime.” Now there are calls to add Afghanistan to our list of eternal enemies. “To have our generals say they are depending on diplomacy with the Taliban is an unbelievable scenario,” Nikki Haley, who was President Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, warned in an outraged tweet. “Negotiating with the Taliban is like dealing with the devil.” That was a sharp reversal for Haley. In 2018, while serving under Trump, who negotiated the Afghan withdrawal agreement, she asserted that “the U.S. policy on Afghanistan is working” because “we are closer to talks with the Taliban.”
Instinct and emotion might lead us to take a harsh approach to the new Afghan government: Isolate it, offer it no aid, and pile on sanctions every time it does something bad. We’ve been conditioned to consider the Taliban an incarnation of barbarism, so treating the new government as a pariah would not require any psychological adjustment. In our fantasies, relentless pressure might even force the Taliban government to bend to our will, or to collapse. But this approach has failed everywhere it’s been tried. It impoverishes nations without producing political change. We should not repeat the same mistake in Afghanistan.
The United States has some moral obligation to help rebuild what we helped destroy. Perhaps more important, a peaceful Central Asia is in our interest because it will keep us from being dragged back into conflict there. If ever there was a case for reaching out to one of America’s longtime enemies, the Taliban present it.
Wounds are too fresh for a diplomatic initiative now. No one knows what Taliban rule will look like — probably not even Taliban leaders themselves. Afghanistan, though, relies heavily on foreign help. The Taliban will not want to lose it. Reconstruction aid could be a basis for future reconciliation. So could contacts between US and Taliban officers that have begun in recent days. “As we continue to work the logistics of evacuation, we’re in constant contact with the Taliban,” President Biden said last week. “We’ve been coordinating what we are doing.” Biden then dispatched CIA director William Burns to Kabul, and on Monday he met with Abdul Ghani Baradar, the putative Taliban leader.
Taliban commanders presumably mistrust us as much as we mistrust them, so aid programs would have to be designed carefully and directed under international rather than American supervision. That’s fine, because Biden could not offer aid now without setting off a political firestorm in Washington. But we shouldn’t wait a generation, as we did with Vietnam.
During peace talks in the mid-1970s, President Nixon offered to provide $3.5 billion in reconstruction aid to Communist Vietnam. The Communists responded by inviting American banks and oil companies to begin operations in their country. Anti-Vietnam passion in Washington, however, proved too intense. Instead of aiding Vietnam’s new government, we punished it by imposing a trade embargo. Few then imagined that the United States and Vietnam would one day become close economic and geopolitical partners. Could US-Taliban relations evolve the same way?
If the Taliban show interest in relations with the United States, and in discussing aid programs, we should put aside our anger and respond without imposing unreasonable conditions. We should also support efforts by nearby countries to stabilize Afghanistan, even though that would mean accommodating the interests of Iran, Russia, and China.
Twenty-two years after the US withdrew its last troops from Vietnam in 1975, the two countries finally resumed diplomatic relations. Our first ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Douglas Peterson, was a former prisoner of the Vietnamese; he had been an Air Force flier, was shot down, and spent six years in a POW camp. The Taliban commander who spent eight years at Guantanamo is his historical twin. If that commander truly believes in “serenity” and “no revenge,” he might be a good ambassador to Washington. We should welcome him.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.