The ancient Chinese strategy game of weiqi, or Go, involves a competition in which the player who occupies the most board space wins. Logic would dictate that in Afghanistan, a Go strategy by the Taliban would have resulted in a decisive victory, but that would be absolutely wrong. Had the Taliban pursued a Go strategy, holding the countryside, where some three-quarters of the Afghan population lives, it would not have succeeded as spectacularly as it did in seizing power following the U.S. withdrawal earlier this month. Such a strategy would have left the Afghan national government in control of most of the major cities, plus the capital Kabul, which would have been enough to produce a stalemate – the best possible outcome for Ashraf Ghani’s national government, the Americans and their allies, and the Afghan people.
The creation of a stalemate in the 20-year war in Afghanistan would have been a win because nation building, the expansion and consolidation of democratic norms, and the promotion of good governance would have continued. The status quo, while expensive, would have been maintained. Most importantly, accepting a stalemate would have avoided a total Taliban victory. By not accepting the real and present advantages of a stalemate, U.S. President Joe Biden, instead, opted for a complete loss for the U.S. and its allies, as well as the people of Afghanistan. By continuously reiterating that he wanted to end a war and not saddle another U.S. president with an “endless war,” his decision has created a dilemma of how to handle the newly-founded Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
Many observers have raised the question about the possibility of a Taliban 2.0, a new and more moderate version of the regime that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Yet experience dictates that softer, more moderate versions of radical groups don’t exist. We need only look at other hard authoritarian regime types, such as the military junta in Myanmar, to disprove this idea. Just days ago, the Taliban would have been considered a non-state armed group. Today, they are merely state sponsors of terrorism. History dictates that those who come to power by outbidding their opponents and destroying moderates only become more extreme because of their lack of popular legitimacy.
Consequently, they affirm their grip on power by taking more and more extreme positions. This has recently been the case in Myanmar, Belarus, Cambodia, and Syria, where a combination of rewarding loyalty and dishing out repression has compensated for regimes’ lack of legitimacy. Fear and violence are their ready handmaidens. Those who have negotiated agreements with the Taliban under the assumption that moderation would be beneficial to all concerned have witnessed these agreements violated. This makes Biden’s assertion that he was bound by the conditional Trump negotiation absurd.
The West can learn lessons from recent events in other parts of the world in contemplating what to do about the Taliban. The first is that while international isolation has not been successful in ousting other hard authoritarian rulers from power, it has eroded the external legitimacy they seek. Targeted sanctions and international isolation have cut the margins of the Myanmar junta’s state-owned conglomerates and have forced international partners like India and Japan to reconsider their investments in the country. The new Taliban government has already gained legitimacy from China, Pakistan, and Russia, the former seeking to exploit, along with their Taliban partners, Afghanistan’s untapped mineral and oil wealth.
Second, the West should take a page from China’s playbook regarding Taiwan by challenging and preventing the recognition of the Taliban regime as a sovereign state. In this regard, China has been unfortunately successful in having a democratic entity factored off the world stage. United Nations membership represents the codification of sovereignty and legitimacy. Accomplishing a similar task with Afghanistan, which has been a U.N. member state since 1946, would involve forming a broad coalition among U.N. member-states to counter legitimizing actions by a similar coalition led by China and its allies. China’s rising influence in the U.N. cannot be underestimated. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has already suggested that the Security Council not recognize any government that obtains power through force and that the U.N. should not recognize the restoration of an Islamic Emirate, as reflected in prior Security Council statements. Efforts to legitimize the Taliban on the world stage would compromise what limited leverage the international community possesses.
Smart economic sanctions should be immediately considered, although this is a major challenge, as much of the Taliban’s illicit wealth is not invested in international financial systems. Some of these sanctions have already begun, as the United States immediately froze $9.5 billion in central bank assets, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) blocked access to more than $460 million. International aid, which was the engine of development in Afghanistan over the past twenty years, will soon dry up.
It is uncommon for authoritarian regimes to be adept at social media. Most are more interested in digital surveillance and repression. However, the Taliban have proven to be not only proficient, but prolific in the use of social media to shape opinion and recruit new soldiers to their cause, using sophisticated images and messaging to inform their audience. To unschooled and unsophisticated viewers, they appear legitimate and appealing. The international community must ensure that a Taliban government is denied a platform on major social media networks and applications. In the meantime, it is imperative that disinformation is countered with a competitive and competing narrative.
Ultimately, most of the burden must be carried by the new Afghan diaspora. Even though Western actors have largely failed them, they will need to work with human rights and civil society organizations to put pressure on states advancing toward cooperation and recognition of the Taliban regime. Once again, Myanmar provides a noteworthy example, as the exiled opposition National Unity Government (NUG) contains not only rightfully-elected lawmakers from the National League for Democracy, but also ethnic minority groups and representatives from lesser-known political parties. A similar organization operating outside of Afghanistan would serve a threefold purpose: it would 1) present a unified and coherent vision for the future; 2) raise awareness and promote solidarity for the Afghan cause; and 3) provide a viable democratic alternative for those in Afghanistan.
Biden’s irresponsible choice to leave Afghanistan has resulted in a worst-case scenario, one that was not unexpected. Yet now the West must proactively react to this new reality. While there may not be a Taliban 2.0, there can be Containment 2.0, which involves limiting the space, capability, authority of the regime in Kabul. Measures short of war must be the tools of engagement. The West must stand its ground on the benefits of a government accountable to fundamental human rights. The U.S. needs to construct a consensus action plan agreed upon by its allies as well as the Afghanistan diaspora. The possibility of the use of military force now would be counterproductive as it would solidify and strengthen the leadership in Kabul. Defeat in Afghanistan is not absolute and eventually, there will be local resistance to Taliban control. While Biden may have thought he was ending American involvement in Afghanistan, the reality now dictates that engagement efforts must be redoubled.