It has been nearly two months since the Biden administration’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, and while the United States ‘unceremonious exit from the United States’ “longest war” has fallen far beyond sight. From the public, officials behind the scenes in Washington are still wondering what to do, precisely, about the country and its new rulers.
Last month, the United States quietly engaged the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, to begin talks on a range of issues, from resuming much-needed humanitarian aid to the country to the need for the Taliban to move forward. refrain from allowing terrorists to reestablish a foothold in the country, as they had done in the past. The United States, of course, has reiterated its demands for the Taliban to respect human rights, especially women’s rights, in the country. And while administration officials were quick to reassure observers that the talks “were not about granting recognition or conferring legitimacy,” the question remains an elephant in the room. Yet as this volatile and confrontational relationship unfolds, the United States is likely to discover that it has less leverage than it takes to force the Taliban to change course.
There is an inherent tension between two main goals of the Taliban. On the one hand, the group hopes to gain international recognition and legitimacy, so that its second attempt at governance does not resemble its first, in the 1990s, when it was called an outcast by the world community. On the other hand, the Taliban remain determined to build their Islamic emirate in accordance with its religious ideals, which they see as having contributed to its battlefield and political successes.
In recent weeks, we have seen this tension manifest in the Taliban’s demand to speak at the United Nations General Assembly, which has been ignored. Much of the world, especially the United States and the West, has made it clear: Unless the Taliban revise their perspective on human rights, there will be no such acknowledgement. And without this recognition, the chances of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to gain economic prosperity and survive long into the future are greatly diminished.
But the Taliban show little interest in compromising their vision. Since the group took power in Kabul, we have seen women banished again from Afghan schools, universities and municipal governments. Executions have also resumed, as the Taliban once again impose their draconian version of Islamic law on the people of the country. And all this despite the significant US influence over the group, including control of $ 9.5 billion of Afghanistan’s gold and foreign exchange reserves, as well as a sanctions regime. biting – leverage that Washington has tried to use to get the Taliban to moderate its position or in the face of international isolation.
The intransigence of the Taliban is not only ideological, however. This reflects a wise recognition by the group that they now have more bargaining power on the world stage than in the past.
China is one of the main reasons for this. Much has already been said about the emerging relations between the Chinese and the Taliban. There were reports of secret talks in 2018, and last summer China hosted a delegation of Taliban leaders in Beijing, a warning sign that the People’s Republic of China was not ready to follow suit. of the West in the search for isolation from the group.
Indeed, such a partnership makes strategic sense for Beijing. China is eager to join forces with Islamic regimes willing to ignore the systematic genocide of its Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. Moreover, the Chinese government, now engaged in global expansion through its signature Belt & Road Initiative, would love nothing more than to extract the more than $ 1 trillion of rare earth metals discovered in Afghanistan by the navy. and the US Geological Survey in the late 2000s and early 2010s. These resources would dramatically increase China’s already strong control over the global supply of key components for the high-tech equipment needed for the 21st century economy. century.
Extracting these elements would require significant investment in Afghan infrastructure, which the Taliban are likely to welcome. By relying on China, the Taliban would be able to seek international recognition and economic prosperity without sacrificing their core religious values, however twisted they may be.
China is also not the only potential contender of the Taliban. Central Asian states, now focused on deepening regional integration, are keen to establish greater cooperation with Kabul, even though it is under Taliban control. In recent months, Central Asia has seen a plethora of high-level summits aimed at increasing trade and collaboration among countries in the region. Afghanistan has the potential to be an integral part of these discussions, something neither Central Asian states nor the Taliban have likely missed.
The Taliban therefore have long-term survival options that do not include the United States. Washington, meanwhile, has less leverage over the group’s behavior than it would like to believe, especially if it wants to remain an actor in regional geopolitics and avoid a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan in the process.
Albert Barro is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.