It’s Time To Recognize the Taliban (2023)

The United States should diplomatically recognize Afghanistan’s Taliban government. That’s not easy for us to say as a former Afghan ambassador and former CIA regional counterterrorism chief. Doing so will be perceived as a painful betrayal to many, but the alternative—allowing Afghanistan’s dangerous descent into a hermit kingdom and forsaking the insight and means to influence or shape events—would mean more dire consequences for all.

The United States should diplomatically recognize Afghanistan’s Taliban government. That’s not easy for us to say as a former Afghan ambassador and former CIA regional counterterrorism chief. Doing so will be perceived as a painful betrayal to many, but the alternative—allowing Afghanistan’s dangerous descent into a hermit kingdom and forsaking the insight and means to influence or shape events—would mean more dire consequences for all.

The Taliban’s ironclad grip on the country is now an undeniable reality, as is the threat the regime poses to its own people, its neighbors, and the United States. Despite being an uneasy coalition of religious zealots, political pragmatists, and unpredictables, the new rulers have cemented their power, while resisting most attempts at moderation.

Both the Trump and Biden administrations made the disastrous assumption that a reformed Taliban was possible, believing the group would eagerly reintegrate into the world economy for the national good. Not only did that not work out, but the Taliban’s powerful cartel of clerics has also only grown more resolute,leaving no room for dissent.

If Washington hopes to achieve its objectives in the region, it must lead the way and engage with the Taliban to find a practical way forward.Washington has only two viable choices: overthrow the Taliban, which didn’t end well the first time, or work with it. Unfortunately, accepting the status quo of nonrecognition leaves Washington largely blind to developments and powerless to influence change, yet still deeply embroiled with short-term economic, political, and military affairs as the country’s top aid donor.

A recent conference of 21 nations convened by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Doha, Qatar, attempted to craft a pragmatic approach for “constructive engagement” and a “durable way forward,” but the gathering produced no results. While that meeting excluded the Taliban, the group’s sanctioned acting foreign minister, Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi, managed to secure U.N. approval to travel to Pakistan to meet with his Pakistani and Chinese counterparts, whose governments are moving forward with or without the international body on wholesale economic, political and security cooperation.

While no country has granted diplomatic recognition to the Taliban, the act itself, though symbolically significant, is merely a hollow gesture devoid of substantive impact unless accompanied by a process of normalization that entails the establishment of diplomatic channels to facilitate constructive dialogue.

If Washington hopes to achieve its objectives in the region, it must lead the way and engage with the Taliban to find a practical way forward. In a recent op-ed for Al Jazeera, Muttaqi pitched the Taliban’s willingness to work with the United States in return for sanctions relief, noting that the new rulers “believe in dialogue and an exchange of ideas.”

But is such a direct dialogue, however imperfect, possible—and if it is, can it be effective without talking to the Taliban’s real decision-makers in Kandahar, now Afghanistan’s de facto capital city? The answer is a resounding no.

The new rulers have proclaimed their Islamic emirate their “dream emirate,” a God-given responsibility and a religiously validated right that has granted them legitimacy and that requires the strict enforcement of divine commandments. For them, this dream emirate is notjusta matter of political preference or word choice, but a deeply interwoven system of Islamic governance. It mirrors a contemporary form of the Islamic caliphate, where authority is concentrated in the hands of a single ruler—the emir.

That authority presently centers around the Taliban’s secretive and hardline emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, whose conservative views of power and decision-making processes are cloaked in mystery. In Akhundzada’s own words, his vision revolves around three foundational elements: the emir as a paragon of virtue, the mosque, and the administration—working together to enforce God’s laws.

As such, Akhundzada’s grip on power is absolute and his decisions are viewed as infallible and unchallengeable. The Islamic clerics with whom he surrounds himself have no direct say in decision-making, unlike in the medieval concept of Ahl al-Hall wa’l-Aqd, on which the emir’s rule is loosely based. Instead, the clerics act as mere enforcers regardless of their own beliefs,leaving no one to meaningfully challenge or oppose Akhundzada’s decisions.

Overall, Akhundzada’s approach is strikingly constructivist: He views Islamic nationalism as a tool to legitimize the ruling clerics’ demands for authority. This vision is further underpinned by tribalism and a singular national identity to restore national self-respect. In this context, the clerical rulers believe the centralization of power allows for swift, decisive decision-making, ensuring long-term political predictability in Afghanistan and fostering stable relationships with other countries. However, little is known about Akhundzada’s mysterious persona and opaque decision-making or the true distribution of power.

This lack of insight into the regime’s halls of power and its inner workings has left the West in the dark about the true extent of Akhundzada’s power and the forces surrounding him. An official U.S. presence, or liaison mission, in the country will provide direct communication with those holding power, awareness of the facts on the ground, and an infrastructure for intelligence collection.

While some see him as a prophetic figure akin to the Taliban’s founder,Mullah Omar, Akhundzada has yet to make any public appearances and communicates primarily through recorded audio messages. Only a select few have direct access to him. Among his close circle of Islamic ulemas (scholars) and trusted advisors, what little is known about Akhundzada’s decision-making suggests he listens to the first and last person he meets, which could be the same person, but ultimately acts on his own counsel.

He interprets policy directives using an “originalist” approach with ruthless pragmatism, prioritizing the Taliban’s re-Islamization agenda to establish a Sunni Hanafi state, guided by the teachings of Imam Abu Hanifa, the foremost interpreter of the largest Sunni Muslim denomination. Ultimately, Akhundzada’s efforts represent a profound cultural battle for hearts and minds that transcends mere military confrontation; it involves an ideological clash that has the potential to reshape the entire fabric of the society.

ButAkhundzada’s approach isolates him in managing intra-Taliban tensions, controlling the unpredictable rank and file, andcounteringanti-Taliban groups. He relies on a handpicked team in Kabul andprovincialgovernorstomanagedomestic social and security policies, as well as foreign and businessaffairs. To stay true to his Islamic principles, he has devised the broader contours of a proclaimed non-interventionist foreign policy and a resistance economy mirroring Iran’s. He maintains control over the rank and file through selective patronage, offering positions of influence and protecting Sharia law violators from punishment.

Despite potential opposition from some Taliban leaders over policy issues, the majority have accommodated Akhundzada’s position out of necessity, patronage, or fear of isolation. Dissenting Taliban leaders are in a weak position to challenge the emir, and there is no internal consensus on a future replacement if Akhundzada were to be removed or die. The emir’s constituency represents a clear statistical majority within the Taliban, and there is no disagreement between him and other senior Taliban players currently in power significant enough to prove dangerously unmanageable.

Haqqani is shrewd and ambitious, and his group, essentially an international criminal cartel, has a vested interest in reintegrating with the world economy.

However, the Taliban’s acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is likewise head of the powerful Haqqani network that predates the Taliban, gave several speeches with clips disseminated on social media interpreted as an implicit criticism of the emir. Without referring to Akhundzada, Haqqani observed that “monopolizing power and hurting the reputation of the entire system are not to our benefit,” adding that the Taliban now had “more responsibility,” requiring “patience and good behavior and engagement with the people” to act in a way that does not cause Afghans to hate the Taliban and its religion.

Haqqani is shrewd and ambitious, and his group, essentially an international criminal cartel, has a vested interest in reintegrating with the world economy. We have studied him closely while also, frankly, hunting him.

Between 2015 and 2019, Haqqani emerged as practical, patient, and calculating with a strong base of support in Afghanistan’s north and east. Ruthless, but not reckless, Haqqani remained largely loyal to the Taliban throughout the 20-year conflict; but he is not bound by the Taliban’s inflexible ideological tenets when it comes to dealmaking, even with one-time foes. There was no love lost between Haqqani and his Pakistani masters throughout the conflict, for example. He did not always dance to their tune but collaborated closely and rendered the occasional favor, owing to Haqqani clan interests such as the need for sanctuary, material support, and protection from U.S. intelligence threats. The authors would not be surprised if Haqqani’s critical comments concerning the emir were meant to test Akhundzada’s red lines or were cleared in advance.

Haqqani’s principal political rival is Mullah Omar’s eldest son: acting Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid. Yaqoob similarly appears to be driven more by ambition than ideology. He professes a more progressive outlook and a greater connection to the Taliban’s younger generation, particular those military commanders who stayed and fought rather than seeking refuge in Pakistan.

While occasionally acting with youthful impetuousness, Yaqoob routinely sought and embraced the counsel of elders faithful to his deceased father but rarely rocked the boat. Yaqoob got along well with Haqqani during the war, but knowing whether they are now competing or collaborating will influence Western strategy. Questions such as these, concerning the true nature of Haqqani’s and Yaqoob’s ambitions and influence, require more engagement, and a presence on the ground that would yield considerable diplomatic and intelligence benefits.

For now, there appears to be a gaping divide separating Taliban and non-Taliban Afghans, with each side deeply ashamed of the other. Afghans remain similarly split on fundamental issues such as religion’s role in politics, human rights, and the nature of a future state. Those who disagree with the Taliban lack the resources, widely accepted leaders, or semblance of a plan; and the Taliban has increased its staying power by silencing internal opposition, outlawing criticism, and quickly quashing dissent.

But the Taliban survived for three decades by not being built around or reliant on a single leader, with an ability to adapt through internal consensus and compromise. Knowing whether the current emir would choose compromise over failure, as well as determining whether the voices of former adversaries such as Haqqani and Yaqoob are genuine, requires direct engagement with the Taliban’s real decision-makers—ideally Akhundzada and his inner circle.

The United States needs to confront this radical reality with an equally radical response. A rapprochement means neither friendship nor endorsement of the Taliban’s policies, but it would offer more opportunities than the minimal leverage the United States now has allows. Such an engagement with the Taliban’s true powerbrokers in Kandahar should require conditions, perhaps beginning with those that allow both sides to meet basic political and security requirements.

These should include guaranteeing the safety of foreign personnel who work on the ground with the Afghan people, delegating control of humanitarian aid disbursement to neutral parties, cooperating against the Islamic State, and taking credible actions to constrain, if not expel, al Qaeda. In return, the U.S. government could tie the easing of sanctions to improved behavior.But the United States would be on shaky ground demanding that Kandahar meet conditions about women’s rights and democratic ideals as a first step, given Washington’s record in overlooking such matters with partners such as Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

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Going forward, the United States cannot afford to overlook Akhundzada’s tightening grip, his innovative tactics to enforce his will, or the changing demographics of Afghanistan. The United States should certainly continue dialogue with credible anti-Taliban resistance and opposition elements as useful leverage with the Taliban and a reflection of Washington’s oft-stated interest in a peaceful national dialogue among all constituencies to negotiate a grand bargain.

But the White House should be wary of pursuing the romantic yet highly unlikely notion, pushed by some within and beyond the U.S. government, that providing material support to anti-Taliban resistance groups could equip them to pose a credible challenge to the Taliban.

Painful as it might be, the United States must directly engage the Taliban’s emir and his chief lieutenants. Washington needs to get back on the ground in Afghanistan, if it wants to effect changes in the country’s domestic policies, external relations, and internal stability.

Extending diplomatic normalization with the prospect of incremental sanctions relief commensurate with constructive Taliban actions on international security and human rights concerns might not persuade the group’s more isolationist core. But doing so will certainly fuel pressure from those such as Haqqani and Yaqoob for compromise, which even Akhundzada and his hardliners might find hard to reject if the emir seeks to maintain the group’s cohesion.

Without an engaged U.S. government, the new rulers of Aghanistan will establish a hierarchical system benefiting only their chosen and that answers to no one but themselves. Ignoring the problem is not one Americans, the Afghan people, or neighboring countries can long afford.

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