Foreign policy almost always requires choosing the least bad among a series of bad options, and when it comes to safeguarding U.S. national interests in Afghanistan moving forward, there really are no good options left.
The punitive option of trying to engineer the failure of the Taliban government by denying it recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, flexing diplomatic muscles to ensure others do the same, and using U.S. influence over international organizations to deliberately starve the Taliban of desperately needed resources, may be emotionally satisfying, but it is counterproductive to US.. national interests.
Successive administrations have argued that the main strategic priority moving forward is to ensure that Afghanistan does not once again become host to radical Islamist groups plotting attacks on the United States. The best way to avoid this is cooperate with relevant powers in the neighborhood — Pakistan, Iran, Russia and, possibly, China. None has any interest in permitting the country to become an incubator of radical Islamist groups; but more importantly, the Taliban are ideological enemies, not allies, of ISIS and its affiliates; indeed, the recent ISIS-K bombing of Kabul airport killed twice as many Taliban as U.S. troops.
The pragmatic way to eradicate groups like this from Afghanistan is to support a strong and stable government (ISIS thrives where chaos reigns) and to equip the Taliban with the necessary tools to do the job. Unfortunately, this morally distasteful “enemy of my enemy” option appears to conflict with a second U.S. interest at stake in Afghanistan, which is protecting the few gains made over the last 20 years. Gains with respect to rights and liberties, particularly as they relate to women and girls, will almost certainly be reversed, but the Taliban cannot undo the education received by a generation of girls, and it has no incentive to roll back some non-negligible socioeconomic achievements.
Life expectancy for the average Afghan is 10 years longer than it was when U.S. troops arrived, infant mortality rates have more than halved, and so on. These are tangible gains that merit protection because they are all we have to show for $2 trillion, about 2,500 troop deaths and 20 years of effort.
If we treat the Taliban as an international pariah and seek to strangle it economically at birth, these gains will evaporate in short order, and we will be punishing the Afghan people for the sins of their government. Recognizing and cooperating with the Taliban government may be a morally distasteful option, but it is currently the least bad of the options available.
Liam Anderson, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Wright State University.