Work with, or isolate, the Taliban is a tough choice for US

Washington’s outrage with the Taliban risks clouding policymakers’ judgment

Taliban fighters stand guard in Kabul on Nov. 2, after at least 19 people were killed and 50 others wounded in an attack on a military hospital.   (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)
Taliban fighters stand guard in Kabul on Nov. 2, after at least 19 people were killed and 50 others wounded in an attack on a military hospital. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted November 3, 2021 at 10:30am

The Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan after 20 years of the United States pouring its blood, sweat, tears and many billions of taxpayer dollars into the country has left the psyche of Washington’s national security community scalded and reeling.

But Washington’s outrage with the Taliban risks clouding policymakers’ judgment when what is now needed are cold-blooded calculations about what U.S. national interests truly are, according to recent congressional testimony and interviews with experts.

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Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are demanding that the Biden administration financially isolate the Taliban through enforcement of existing sanctions. And many Republicans are pressing for new sanctions designations in spite of what that would mean for the roughly 40 million Afghans the Taliban rule over.

As the economic picture in Afghanistan grows increasingly dire by the day — United Nations food agencies warned last month that nearly 23 million Afghans are at risk of starvation this winter — U.S. agencies, lawmakers, sanctions experts and humanitarian workers are desperately trying to figure out how to prevent the total economic collapse of the country while not enabling the success of the Taliban as de facto rulers.

It’s a challenge some experts have likened to threading a needle while others have argued it is impossible.

“I think what we have right now is a ‘some of each’ policy: some effort toward engagement, and some isolation, which is what a continuation of sanctions is,” said Laurel Miller, who was the State Department’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the second half of the Obama administration. “It’s difficult to see what that all adds up to at the moment in terms of a clear policy direction. There are some very difficult dilemmas that cannot, in my view, be avoided or resolved. They require choices, and not choosing is a choice.”

Asset freezes and humanitarian exemptions

When the Taliban in August took control of Afghanistan, the administration responded by freezing access to some $9.5 billion in Afghan government reserves held in U.S. banks. And at Washington’s behest, the International Monetary Fund halted plans to transfer $370 million in coronavirus-related economic loans to the country and further blocked access to another $440 million in emergency financial measures called special drawing rights.

“I see under no situation in which we would allow the Taliban to have access to the reserves that belong to the Afghan people,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo testified before the Senate Banking Committee in October. “We believe that it’s essential that we maintain our sanctions against the Taliban, but at the same time find ways for legitimate humanitarian assistance to get to the Afghan people.”

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The Treasury Department has issued two general licenses to support humanitarian work in Afghanistan and other business transactions related to providing basic human necessities. The licenses provide an exemption to sanctions the United States has in place on the Taliban. And last week, the State Department announced it was providing an additional $144 million this year in humanitarian aid for the Afghan people that will be administered by UN agencies and trusted relief groups.

“We feel confident that we can allow the flow of assistance to get to the Afghan people without having to provide undue benefit to the Taliban,” said Adeyemo, who recently concluded a lessons-learned review of Treasury’s sanctions programs that was ordered by Secretary Janet Yellen.

But many experts and lawmakers are dubious it is possible to prevent the starvation of millions of Afghan people without tacitly working with the Taliban and thus indirectly stabilizing their rule.

“This administration may be tempted by a false choice that resources can somehow safely be channeled to halt a humanitarian catastrophe,” said Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., at a separate October Banking Committee hearing on sanctions policies in Afghanistan. “But this wishful thinking, I feel concerned, will result in yet another national security catastrophe when the Taliban inevitably redirect those funds to their own purposes.”

Though there are lessons to be learned from places like Yemen, Syria and Somalia, where sanctioned terrorist groups controlled access to territories dependent on humanitarian aid, the United States has never faced a sanctions dilemma of this scale before, says Adam M. Smith, who held senior sanctions policy roles at the Treasury Department and the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

Smith, now a lawyer in private practice, is in the camp of experts who believe it is possible for the Biden administration to use creative legal and financial measures to keep sanctions on the Taliban in place while also allowing enough humanitarian aid into the country to prevent a catastrophe. For such a strategy to work, it would require the U.S. government to be pro-active in how it provides assurances to banks, businesses and nongovernmental organizations on what types of foreign assistance activities are permitted under U.S. sanctions.

“Even though we would like to make sure the Taliban doesn’t get enriched by their takeover, there may need to be certain transactions ... that need to take place because we want to support the people of Afghanistan,” Smith said in an interview, pointing to Venezuela as an example where the Treasury Department issues general licenses for certain essential economic transactions but still keeps sanctions on the Nicolás Maduro regime.

Choosing between US priorities

Setting aside the question of whether it is possible to keep Afghanistan from becoming a failed state while still enforcing sanctions against the Taliban, there is still the question of whether that is even the right policy goal for the United States.

“The dilemma is ... what is it that you can actually get out of a sanctions-isolation-distancing policy in terms of achieving U.S. national security interests?” Miller, who is now the Asia program director at the International Crisis Group, which works to prevent wars, said in an interview. “Like, what are you going to even plausibly get out of that? And what of what you can plausibly get out of that is worth the cost of what the UN has warned is a million children dying next year and the risk of universal poverty in Afghanistan?”

As Miller sees it, the United States has competing interests in Afghanistan and must choose between them. It is clearly in U.S. national security interests to keep Afghanistan from becoming a failed state that international terrorist groups could use as a training ground and safe haven. There is also the risk of an internationally isolated and impoverished Taliban becoming reliant on heroin sales for income, turning the country into a narco-state.

Washington must decide if these possibilities are more unpalatable than having to engage with the Taliban, she says.

But that kind of thinking is fairly rare on Capitol Hill at the moment.

“While we want to, of course, assist the Afghan people, we have to be robustly resolute that the Taliban does not get access to these funds, especially when we have sanctioned individuals in their government,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said last month, referring to frozen Afghan government reserves. “Otherwise, our sanctions regime is meaningless at the end of the day.”

Such statements are emblematic of the dominant strain of thinking among Democrats though many Republicans are pushing an even more hawkish line.

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, and 29 other GOP colleagues have filed a bill (S 2863) that would require sanctions on individuals indirectly or directly engaged in terrorist-related activities, drug trafficking and human rights abuses in Afghanistan. The bill would also order an end to many types of development assistance to countries that provide material support to the Taliban.

Other Republicans want to go even farther. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has a bill that would order the State Department to designate Afghanistan as a state sponsor of terrorism while it is under Taliban control and would further order Foggy Bottom to designate the Taliban as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).

Sanctions particularities

The Taliban is already sanctioned under a separate blacklist kept by the Treasury Department called the Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) list.

Experts differ as to whether the Taliban must legally be designated as a foreign terrorist organization and what the humanitarian impact would be of such a designation.

The Haqqani Network is on State’s FTO list. The al-Qaida-friendly group is enmeshed in the new Taliban-led Afghan government and its leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is now the country’s interior minister.

“I think as a matter of fact, if the Haqqani Network is a foreign terrorist organization, and it is and has been since 2012, then the Taliban should be,” testified Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, who has studied the Taliban for years, before the Senate Banking hearing. “The Haqqanis run, have a controlling interest in the Taliban.”

But there are complications to taking such a step, humanitarian experts argue. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Houthis in Yemen as an FTO at the end of the Trump administration, there was an international outcry that it would imperil the ability of UN agencies and aid groups to work in Yemen. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wound up undoing the designation in one of his first actions as secretary in recognition of “the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.”

“If the issue is, do we have enough control or sort of coercive authority on them right now, I would argue we do,” Smith said in testifying alongside Joscelyn. “The SDGT designation is significant. It limits U.S. persons from engaging with them and U.S. banks or otherwise, but the FTO designation I don’t think is needed, and I think does have that added risk.”

Moreover, labeling Afghanistan as a state sponsor of terrorism would create additional policy challenges. For one thing, it would seem to imply recognition of the Taliban as the legal government of Afghanistan, something that Republicans and Democrats are united in not wanting to do.

And it would make it much more difficult to provide humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.

“If we were to designate them as a state sponsor of terrorism ... it would prohibit a whole range of assistance under the Foreign Assistance Act. No funds can go to a state sponsor of terrorism,” Sue Eckert, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who specializes in the provision of humanitarian aid in conflict environments, told the Banking Committee. “We don’t need additional sanctions at this point in order to complicate the situation even more.”

Eckert has called on the administration to establish a “unique safe payment mechanism” that would enable humanitarian groups to conduct transactions through banks into Afghanistan without running afoul of U.S. sanctions.

“There are places that banks are not going to take the risk of transferring funds,” she said. “In order to encourage them once the financial situation in Afghanistan stabilizes, because right now we do have this liquidity crisis . . . we’re going to need to provide some level of encouragement.”

But even if the administration were to pursue all of the innovative workarounds to its sanctions on the Taliban that experts have urged, it’s still not clear that it would be enough to make up for the ruinous impact that U.S.-led isolation of the country will have on the Afghan people.

“I am skeptical that there are really clever solutions at scale,” Miller said. “We haven’t seen them elsewhere. Do we have any example of where there is a failed government without a failed state? I mean these things go hand-in-hand.”

As Miller sees it, Washington has two basic interests in Afghanistan: preventing the country from becoming a terrorist safe-haven and trying to limit a total reversal of the gains achieved over the last two decades for the Afghan people in living standards, human rights and education. She doesn’t see how it’s possible to achieve either of those goals through a policy of isolating the Taliban.

“If you are going to prevent state failure in Afghanistan, if you are going to prevent universal poverty, the total collapse of the economy, there is at the end of the day no way to do that other than to accept that you are going to be working with the Taliban rather than working against them,” she said.