The United States’ hasty and frightened withdrawal of its diplomats, civilians and soldiers from Afghanistan signifies the resounding failure of decades of American strategy. It promises to make the country’s future a nightmare, with especially dire consequences for Afghan women, the education system, health, human rights and the rehabilitation process. But the dark period that awaits Afghanistan under Taliban rule does not rule out the possibility of building international-level relations with the militant group, ones that would give the Taliban legitimacy and perhaps help soften the expected blow to Afghan citizens.
The Taliban had already gained legitimacy when former U.S. President Donald Trump recognized them as partners in the diplomatic talks on the future of Afghanistan and signed an agreement with them that sought to regulate, among other things, the division of political power between them and the legitimate Afghan government. The negotiations American representatives were conducting in Qatar until the last minute, under the administration of Joe Biden, stressed that the United States does not recognize the legitimacy of the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” as the Taliban define themselves, but the very signing of the agreement is essentially a certificate of approval.
The United States isn’t the only power that has maintained ties with the Taliban. Russia and China this year hosted representatives of the movement and held talks on building and strengthening economic ties ahead of the withdrawal of American forces. Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Iran and the United Arab Emirates have aided the Taliban over the course of years and hope to now reap the fruits of their investments, which helped the Taliban maintain their power and fund their operations.
America’s relations with the Taliban far predate Trump’s 2020 agreement with the group. In 1997, just one year after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, U.S. oil giant Unocal hosted a delegation of Taliban leaders, including former foreign minister Mullah Mohammad Gaus, at the company’s offices in Houston, Texas. The purpose of the delegation’s visit – in which they were given royal treatment, including a trip to Mount Rushmore – was to sign an agreement to build a gas pipeline that would run from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.
According to reports at the time, Unocal promised the Taliban between $50 million to $100 million a year in royalties for use of its territory and in exchange for securing the pipeline. Unocal also opened a special center in Kandahar via the University of Nebraska at Omaha to train Afghan professionals at an investment of about $900,000, which served as a base for recruiting workers for the project.
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The pipeline deal fell through in the end partially due to the Afghan civil war and al-Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es-Salaam, but mainly because of U.S. public pressure against dealing with the Taliban. But dialogue with the Taliban continued when President George W. Bush negotiated with their leadership to extradite Osama bin Laden in exchange for recognition and financial assistance.
After the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the occupation leadership appointed Hamid Karzai as president, a position he held until 2014. According to some reports, which were denied, Karzai had briefly served as a consultant to Unocal. What could not be denied was his close relationship with the Taliban and his support for them.
Karzai is a member of the Popalzai tribe, the same tribe as Abdul Ghani Bradar, the presumptive president of Afghanistan under the Taliban, who was wanted by the United States, captured in 2010, released in 2018, and who later became a partner to the negotiations that the Americans held with the Taliban leadership. It’s almost impossible to draw the lines that separated Karzai’s corrupt government from the Taliban, but simultaneously those ties helped and may continue to help the United States find channels to the heart of the new Taliban administration.
Both sides have a common economic interest. Not only did the United States continue to advance the idea of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, it turned it into a flagship project in 2014 that may generate huge profits for Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and the American companies that were expected to build it.
Even more importantly, the project was slated to serve as a way to bypass Iran’s gas pipeline. The countries through which the pipeline is meant to run – Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – signed an agreement to build the pipeline at an estimated cost of $7.5 billion. Construction began in 2015, and while the United States is not a partner in financing or building it, it sees its completion as a move that could help rehabilitate Afghanistan.
Could this pipeline be brought to fruition under Taliban rule? This week, after the Taliban took over the capital of Kabul, assessments hastened to bury the project. But the Taliban has an interest in building it as well as partners who can work on it. India, Russia and Turkmenistan are the immediate stakeholders that have already invested quite a bit of money in the project, and the Taliban have announced that they attach great importance to the pipeline and intend to continue building it; what’s more, they have not dismissed the possible involvement of American companies in the project. The question is whether Biden will permit American companies to participate or if he will impose sanctions on the new regime due to its takeover of the country and its anticipated undermining of human rights there.
Aside from the economic interest, Washington will be required to decide how the Taliban regime reconciles with its regional strategy, especially in light of their relations with Iran. The Taliban has traditionally seen Iran as a religious and ideological enemy, but they have not refrained from receiving financial aid and weapons from Iran in exchange for defending its border against Islamic State infiltration and safeguarding Afghanistan’s Shi’ite minority. Pakistan, neighbor to both Afghanistan and Iran, has close ties with Iran that include military and perhaps even nuclear cooperation, even though Pakistan is a Sunni state. Saudi Arabia has supported both the legitimate Afghan government and the Taliban.
Does the United States want to detach from this arena diplomatically, not just militarily, and leave Afghanistan under the patronage of Russia, China and its neighbors? If Biden has marked Russia and China as the focal points of his foreign policy, he will have to decide if this policy includes relations with their ally, Afghanistan.
It’s hard to imagine that a U.S. president who has made preserving human rights one of his highest priorities will suddenly embrace the Taliban leadership. But if he’s prepared to talk with the Houthis in Yemen, seeks to conduct negotiations with Iran on issues beyond the nuclear agreement, and has yet to impose any sanctions on Saudi Arabia, and, given the indifference he has shown toward the tragedy expected to occur in Afghanistan, one cannot totally dismiss the possibility that he will seriously consider cooperating with the Taliban, if only in an effort to reduce the harm to the Afghan population.