Editor’s Note: With the United States defeated in Afghanistan and the Taliban in power, it is tempting to minimize the impact of the disaster by contending that, this time around, the Taliban will no longer be the terrorist-supporting, human rights-abusing nightmare that they were before 9/11. Haroro J. Ingram, Andrew Mines and Omar Mohammed of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism argue that such assumptions are fundamentally at odds with the Taliban’s goals and the realities of Afghanistan today. The authors call for keeping the Taliban regime at a distance while trying to address the humanitarian disaster facing Afghanistan.
The people of Afghanistan are once again trapped under the Taliban’s tyrannical rule, but rather than facing condemnation and ostracism, much of the world seems ready to embrace the new regime. Indeed, the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan has been largely met with not just acquiescence justified in the name of counterterrorism but concerted efforts to whitewash the jihadists, often with counterfactual claims.
This practice is a product of more than just the wishful thinking of its proponents. It too-often reflects an enthusiasm to continue a dangerous shift in U.S. foreign policy toward a posture that is more insular (despite the rhetoric), less predictable for allies and more willing to abandon democratic values for the sake of expediency. The governments of the United States and other countries must accept that the Taliban are tyrannical jihadists and decide how to engage with them to ensure the provision of aid to the Afghan people. To prevent a humanitarian catastrophe for Afghans this winter, what matters most is getting U.S. and international aid to Afghans immediately, free of diplomatic grandstanding or conditions that would further legitimate the Taliban. Even as it provides aid, the United States should lead its allies in rebuking recognition of the Taliban regime as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and holding it accountable for human rights violations. And as the United States creates a policy to move forward, it needs to reflect on its actions with a comprehensive, accurate accounting of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan over the past 20 years—including the most recent period of Taliban whitewashing.
Whitewashing the Taliban
Whether promoted by politicians, academics or the Taliban themselves, efforts to whitewash the group have been characterized by claims that, to varying degrees, the Taliban have moderated their stance on women and minorities, adopted a more inclusive approach to governance, will prevent al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations against the United States and its allies, and will be a viable counterterrorism force against the Islamic State in Khorasan province (IS-K). According to this perspective, the new Taliban 2.0, unlike previous iterations of the group, can be pressured to commit to developmental goals and support counterterrorism efforts. Leaders from both the former and current U.S. administrations have attempted to present the Taliban as a responsible diplomatic party, as evidenced by the proposal to invite Taliban leaders to Camp David and optimistic (if highly caveated) claims that the Taliban are keeping their word. After all, the latest round of U.S.-Taliban peace efforts were initiated in February 2019, resulting in an agreement signed a year later by the Trump administration and then fulfilled by the Biden administration. It was in U.S. and allied interests to suggest the Taliban had changed.
These talking points about a new, reformed Taliban have featured in media reporting and been promoted by the Taliban themselves in the pages of major U.S. news publications. For example, the New York Times published an op-ed in 2020 by Sirajuddin Haqqani—the wanted terrorist, and now Afghan minister of the interior—showcasing the full suite of whitewashing claims. More recently, in the aftermath of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, the Times published a video that looks like a Taliban propaganda film, in which militants lament the corruption of Afghan officials while touring warlord Abdul Dostum’s abandoned mansion.
Whether motivated by political expediency or naïveté, the claims that underpin the Taliban 2.0 myth are wrong. The Taliban see their extraordinary success as the result of their religious fervor and ruthless insurgency campaign. Earlier this year, the Taliban engaged in a vicious campaign of threats, intimidation and violence against female journalists across the country. It was hardly surprising given the Taliban’s history of terrorizing Afghans, including massacres of Hazara men, sexual violence against women, and the execution and mutilation of surrendered Afghan security personnel—a history that has continued as the group has seized power this past year.
Since taking Kabul in August, the Taliban have appointed a cabinet filled with wanted terrorists and hardened battlefield commanders, restored the feared Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, resumed public executions, and carved away girls’ access to education. In mere weeks of having power, the Taliban have demonstrated that they will proudly desecrate women’s rights, not simply ignore minorities but actively persecute them, and implement their barbaric system of criminal justice. The Taliban’s new interim government is an all-male, mostly Pashtun assortment of veterans from the brutal years of Taliban governance in the 1990s and leaders in the war against the U.S.-led coalition. This all bodes badly for the plight of ordinary Afghans once global attention shifts.
Then there is the myth that the Taliban will be a viable counterterrorism force against the two jihadist organizations that pose the greatest regional and international threats—al-Qaeda and IS-K. The Taliban’s deep historical ties and strategic alliance with the former makes it unlikely they will meaningfully challenge or constrain the group. In the short term, even if al-Qaeda refrains from attacking the United States and its allies, it will almost certainly consolidate and expand the resources necessary to train, coordinate and direct its various regional operations and affiliates. Over time, al-Qaeda has the capacity and strategic vision to then pose a renewed threat directly to the United States and allied homelands, and in the event of an attack, the Taliban would likely deflect and deny that it originated from Afghanistan.
When it comes to IS-K, the notion that the Taliban will be able to provide anything more than short-term, tactical gains against the group is optimistic. Although the Taliban may succeed in rooting out some IS-K cells in the next few months, the history and current trajectory of the Islamic State-Taliban rivalry suggests that a much longer, protracted war between the two organizations is likely if the Taliban are left alone to manage IS-K. Civilians will bear the brunt of the costs. Boosted by thousands of jailbroke fighters, new leadership, and a revamped messaging campaign that paints the Taliban as illegitimate puppets of the United States and the international community, IS-K recently embarked on a lethal campaign of attacks in its former stronghold of Nangarhar province to challenge Taliban rule. With likely support from Salafist sympathizers, veteran jihadists, younger Afghans and others, IS-K has already begun to implement the same method of insurgency as its namesake in Iraq and Syria, including the assassination of prominent members of the “moderate middle” in IS-K’s target recruiting pool in order to weaken its opponents.
The Taliban have obvious incentives to target and eliminate their main jihadist rival, and past Taliban efforts have demonstrated some efficacy in limiting IS-K expansion efforts. However, the Taliban also benefited tremendously from coalition operations targeting IS-K, which successfully captured or killed hundreds of IS-K leaders and thousands of the group’s fighters. While the Taliban may be able to prevent IS-K from holding territory for now, territorial control is not currently a priority for IS-K and there’s no guarantee that it will be in the future. Regardless of its efficacy, a Taliban campaign to deny IS-K a haven would result in significant levels of death, destruction and displacement afflicting tens of thousands of Afghans, further exacerbating the existing economic, humanitarian and other crises the Taliban are ill prepared to address. History matters, and accepting Taliban claims that they can tackle IS-K independently would ignore just how much the Taliban benefited from U.S. and Afghan efforts to combat the group these past several years.
The Taliban’s limited ability to take on IS-K prompts questions about what role the United States should play. But even narrow, case-by-case tactical cooperation with the United States is likely to stoke internal Taliban divisions, delegitimize the Taliban’s claims to sovereignty and legitimacy, and push Taliban hardliners into IS-K’s ranks. And from a U.S. perspective, American over-the-horizon counterterrorism capacities are markedly limited. In fact, one expert put U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance counterterrorism capabilities at just one-fourth of last year’s levels, which were already in sharp decline from previous years.
Compounding Sense of Betrayal
Afghans now living under Taliban rule are distrustful of the new leadership and worry that the United States and other Western governments are continuing to undermine them even after the withdrawal. We interviewed Afghans for a forthcoming special episode of the “Mosul and the Islamic State” podcast. Our interviewees were from a range of different backgrounds, but none was supportive of the Taliban. They lamented how efforts to normalize the Taliban had intensified their feeling of betrayal and revealed the duplicity of the two decades of promises made by Western governments. As Omar Mohammed, who remains in Kabul, told us, “The international community should be cautious of, first of all, [giving] recognition to the Taliban because that will provide them [with] legitimacy. What we observed in three weeks is that their words do not match their behavior.” This raises complex issues related to recognition and its implications for the Taliban’s legitimacy, as well as to the delivery of aid. Most Afghans we interviewed conceded that while all efforts should be made by states not to legitimize the Taliban through formal recognition, conditional economic and humanitarian aid will be essential for the well-being of Afghan civilians living under Taliban rule.
Afghanistan’s women invested and risked the most in the promises of democracy. For example, a recent UNESCO report highlights the extraordinary advancements in female education in Afghanistan, with girls constituting four in 10 primary school students and about 90,000 enrolling in higher education before the Taliban takeover. Female literacy has nearly doubled in less than a decade, and improvements in girls’ education had led to greater female participation in Afghanistan’s economy and society. These achievements were reached from a baseline of basically zero women’s education and economic participation under previous Taliban rule and, almost overnight, have now been reversed.
Many Afghan women have courageously protested for their rights, directly confronting the Taliban to demand equality. The Afghan women we spoke to said that Taliban whitewashing, especially from Western government officials, had been particularly demoralizing because they had seen firsthand that the Taliban had not reformed.
As Farkhondeh Akbari told us, “[The United States and Western allies] needed to whitewash the Taliban to make it more digestible …. But on the other hand, the Taliban themselves did not change an inch from who they are …. For them to change means to lose their identity, their fighters, their rank-and-file, so they could not really change themselves to fit with the narrative.” She went on to say, “This is the Taliban who fought us, they committed suicide bombings, they killed civilians, including civilian employees of the international community, and now they’re being painted as people that want peace.”
Averting More Catastrophes
The task of securing and delivering humanitarian aid to struggling Afghans should now be the top priority of the United States and its allies. This can and should be done without formally recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan or as a U.N. member state. The Taliban organization remains a violent, totalitarian jihadist group with designated terrorists among its cohort. Humanitarian aid should be delivered independently of political objectives and without conceding to Taliban demands for recognition and legitimacy. This appears to be the initial U.S. stance based on recent discussions with the Taliban, in which the United States stated that it will give humanitarian assistance directly to Afghans and provide facilities for humanitarian organizations to deliver aid without recognizing the Taliban. After all the damage that has been done so far, saving Afghan lives and averting a human catastrophe must be the short-term priority.
Moving beyond these immediate needs, the United States needs a congressionally mandated, comprehensive accounting of its engagement in Afghanistan. At its core should be the voices of Afghans, veterans, diplomats and others who spent the past two decades on the frontlines of American involvement in Afghanistan. A similar commission has been proposed in an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022; this is promising, but the commission’s declared scope must be broader. How Americans form national narratives and a national memory of the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan must be built on the voices of Afghans as well as Americans.
In any accounting for the failures of the U.S. withdrawal, the bipartisan efforts to normalize the Taliban, from the beginning of U.S.-Taliban peace negotiations to the U.S. and allied withdrawal and beyond, should also be a subject of scrutiny. Whitewashing the Taliban reveals far more about the proponents of these claims than it does about the jihadists it tries to excuse. Many of its proponents have insisted that the West cannot fight for democracy, human rights and women’s equality everywhere. Yet, in doing so, they merely highlight a growing willingness by established democracies to accept despotism in places where Western governments are (at least partially) responsible for the malaise. Normalizing the takeover of Afghanistan by a tyrannical, jihadist regime is symptomatic of not only a growing abandonment of democratic values but also the hypocrisies of democracy’s supposed defenders.