One year ago, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in part because the U.S. had hoped for the best after withdrawing its forces from the country, without adequately preparing for the worst. In dealing with the Taliban today, President Joe Biden's administration can afford no such illusions.
The past 12 months should've dispelled any optimism about the new regime. In its second turn in power, the Taliban again seems willing to host foreign terrorists, including former al-Qaida chieftain Ayman al-Zawahri, killed by a U.S. drone strike in the heart of Kabul. Those Taliban leaders who favor less barbaric social policies — such as allowing girls to attend school — aren't willing to challenge their more conservative counterparts over them.
The Pashtun-dominated movement shows little inclination to accommodate the country's minorities or prevent revenge attacks on former enemies. If their enforcers haven't yet replicated the horrific brutality they displayed in the 1990s, they're nevertheless on their way to making Afghanistan one of the most repressive societies on Earth.
Importantly, even those Taliban leaders who desire sanctions relief and international recognition aren't willing to compromise in any significant way to achieve them. Despite a cratering economy and continuing attacks from the local branch of the Islamic State, the regime appears mostly secure in its position. There's little chance the movement will fracture or implode in the near term — and even less of a viable opposition forming.
With those realities in mind, the U.S. needs to take a pragmatic approach to further engagement. Its top priority should be preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a base for terrorist attacks. The Biden administration should advise the Taliban that the U.S. can and will take out more targets there if necessary — and that continued hosting of extremist groups will preclude international recognition of the regime. The White House should also leverage exposure of ongoing ties between al-Qaida and the Taliban to seek greater counterterrorism help from countries such as Pakistan.
It's also in U.S. interests to avert a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, which rightly or wrongly would be blamed on the West. Billions in international aid prevented a feared famine last winter. But the Afghan economy shrank by as much as 30% in the past year. Up to 70% of Afghans can't afford food and other necessities. Although the U.S. should be mindful of strengthening the Taliban with additional aid, it can't ignore a looming crisis. It should focus for now on rallying donors to meet the United Nations' humanitarian funding appeal, which is far short of its target.
Finally, the U.S. should recommit to bringing Afghans who qualify for so-called Special Immigrant Visas to the U.S. as quickly as possible. While recent efforts to streamline the complicated process are welcome, the backlog of applicants is still far too high, and key consulates abroad need personnel and resources to process visas for other vulnerable Afghans fleeing the country. Congress should also pass legislation that would allow Afghans already in the U.S. to apply for green cards before their temporary immigration status expires.
Such an agenda is admittedly limited. But after spending 20 years and $2 trillion in Afghanistan only to return the country to the Taliban last year, the U.S. must be realistic about what it can accomplish. Simply forestalling the worst would be no small achievement.