Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Upholding Civil Society in Afghanistan Against the Taliban Regime
Upholding Civil Society in Afghanistan Against the Taliban Regime

Upholding Civil Society in Afghanistan Against the Taliban Regime

Bottom Line

  • America’s chaotic troop evacuation in August 2021 was a key tipping point that opened the door for the Taliban to take control of a weakened Afghan state.
  • Resolutions, especially the Doha Agreement, have allowed the Taliban regime to accumulate power and propagate human rights violations.
  • The United States may benefit from adopting a minimal engagement strategy and partnering with European allies.

Following a twenty-year war shrouded in bloodshed, the United States military pursued a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. This abrupt troop evacuation, coupled with the Afghan government’s unsuccessful ceasefire and the 2020 Doha Agreement, has empowered the Taliban to exploit a weakened Afghan state. Afghanistan’s current Taliban-dominated regime jeopardizes women’s rights, democracy promotion, and global counterterrorism efforts. In the face of these tensions, can the United States employ its levers of influence to protect human rights in Afghanistan? What complicates the current US positioning?

Withdrawal and Women’s Rights 

The birth of post-evacuation Taliban control follows a common historical pattern: abrupt military evacuations create power vacuums that are prone to extremist exploitation. US policy tools typically aim to dismantle terrorist networks, thwart attacks, or stop individual radicalization. The downside of reactive policies like these is that they create fragility in states when troops evacuate. According to the United States Institute of Peace, “these responses, even when successful, do little to prevent, and at times even lay the groundwork for, further extremist eruptions.”

Islamic extremist groups like the Taliban seek to replace the existing, rules-based international order with an absolutist and totalitarian structure dictated by a radicalized, distorted interpretation of sharia law. In light of the 2021 US troop withdrawal, the Taliban regime has systematically rolled back women’s rights by enforcing more than forty edicts on the matter. Most notable is the decree to ban university education for women nationwide by instructing all universities to refuse female student entry under the guise that an “Islamic environment” was not present. Other edicts prohibit women from accessing contraceptives, traveling without a male relative, attending parks or gyms, or being formally employed. Violation of such edicts bears severe repercussions, including arbitrary jailing, torture, and murder. By effectively banning women’s engagement in social, economic, and public spheres of life, the Taliban has extinguished Afghan women of their basic humanity.

The Current State of US Influence in Afghanistan 

A crucial question is whether the United States can protect human rights in Afghanistan. Despite ending its military presence in the country, the United States still controls important levers of influence, such as holding Afghan financial reserves, leading humanitarian assistance efforts, and maintaining a powerful voice at the United Nations Security Council regarding the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) imposing sanctions against the Taliban.

According to the State Department, the United States has engaged in significant humanitarian and economic efforts to assist Afghan civilians. Washington has led the international response to humanitarian assistance, operating through UN agencies and non-governmental organizations to provide almost $1 billion in aid. In an effort to avoid economic collapse, the United States has boosted financial sector liquidity and helped Afghan banks retain access to the international financial system without benefitting the Taliban.

 Despite progress in these areas, US credibility was significantly undermined by the 2020 Doha Agreement, which sought to (1) prevent Afghan soil from being used to recruit members, raise funds, train adherents, and plan/attempt attacks that threaten US security; (2) set a timeline for the withdrawal of US and coalition forces; (3) establish a political settlement from intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiations between Taliban; and (4) guarantee a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire. Essentially, the US withdrawal was contingent on Taliban security assurances that Afghan territory would not be used as a launch pad by al-Qaeda or the Islamic State for attacks against the United States. However, the Doha Agreement has become a tool for regional and global dependence on the Taliban regime, as countries seeking similar security assurances will likely need to recognize Taliban legitimacy in order to prevent terrorist spillover.

American credibility has been further undermined by its failure to enforce the Global Magnitsky Act, which empowers Congress to “impose sanctions with respect to foreign persons responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, and for other purposes.” According to a recent CNAS report, Washington’s inability to enforce protocols “calls into question [the United States’] commitment to the act’s purpose of sanctioning human rights abuses that threaten national security, despite the clear threat posed by the Taliban’s espousal of gender apartheid and extremist indoctrination of Afghan youth.”

Thus, American influence in Afghanistan can best be described as complicated. While US influence has played a large role in bolstering the Afghan economy, encouraging dialogue with Taliban representatives, and providing humanitarian aid, the United States has struggled to exert leverage against and bargain with a well-positioned extremist group. Additionally, US officials have so far been unwilling or unable to strongly enforce adherence to the Doha Agreement and the Global Magnitsky Act.

US Influence Is Complicated

There is a fiery debate in Washington on whether it is wise or even moral to engage with the Taliban. Proponents of engagement cite geopolitical strategy as a reason to continue high-level engagement. This geopolitical strategy considers three important factors: (1) national security, (2) competition with Russia and China, and (3) counterterrorism efforts. Specifically, failure to engage may provoke greater chaos, threatening civilian safety and broader security.

There is also a growing concern about Russia’s and China’s increasing influences in the region. Recent events have seen China building up diplomatic capital nearby in the Middle East, “filling a void that the United States left.” A prominent example is China’s facilitation of diplomatic dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran, restoring a degree of peace between two actors that have engaged in years of open hostility and proxy conflicts. Such a huge advancement attests to China’s strategic accumulation of economic and political power. Recent events provide more indicators that China may be interested in cultivating ties with the Taliban government. In May 2023, Pakistan facilitated a dialogue between the Chinese and Taliban foreign ministers that appears to have led to agreements to formally add Afghanistan to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and reopen direct flights between China and Afghanistan. Proponents for engagement fear that if China and Russia continue to accumulate greater strategic “clout,” they will directly diminish America’s existing diplomatic capital in the region and its ability to retain influence. Finally, engagement would strategically place the United States in the middle of counterterrorism conversations, especially regarding the activities of terrorist organizations.

Opponents of engagement argue that in maintaining these geopolitical interests, the United States would be threatening human rights protection in the region. The mission to achieve tactical advances against the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) risks legitimizing Taliban leaders—designated as terrorists by the United States and United Nations—and providing a strategic boost for extremism. This risk is exacerbated by the existing allyship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Proponents tout that abstention from engagement would allow al-Qaeda to take advantage of the Taliban’s power and rebuild its base in Afghanistan.

An ideal strategy would extend multidimensional aid to Afghan civilians independent of the Taliban. However, would it even be possible for the United States to circumvent the Taliban’s governance when offering humanitarian aid and protecting basic services? The Center for American Progress predicts that “the risk of corruption and cooptation by an illegitimate Taliban regime remains exceedingly high, and the group has insisted on control of foreign aid money on multiple occasions.” While it seems unlikely that financial aid could avoid a Taliban checkpoint, there are certain recommendations that accomplish a minimal engagement strategy. This includes (1) empowering diplomats of the former Afghanistan regime to support exile communities by reopening the Afghanistan embassy in Washington; (2) opening an office addressing Afghan political opposition; (3) repealing the Doha Agreement, which most Afghans view as legitimizing the Taliban; (4) requiring administrations to report on Afghanistan with a focus on its centrality to United States’ global policies; and (5) developing common platforms and advocacy strategies for governments of the countries where refugees reside.

Further recommendations have highlighted the merit of a dual-regional approach. According to the CNAS Report on Supporting Civil Society and Human Rights in Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan, “the United States will have the greatest chance of impacting human rights inside Afghanistan if it works closely with European players committed to protecting Afghan women and preserving civil society gains.” The European Union’s proximity to terrorist, drug, and migrant flows affected by conditions in Afghanistan, alongside the European Union’s pre-established human rights and gender equality objectives, could set the United States up to greatly influence the discourse on Afghanistan’s political climate.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

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