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The West will need to work with the Taliban to avert humanitarian disaster and defeat ISIS-K

4 min read

A military machine with a thin political hierarchy, the Taliban has few of the skills required to be a national government. This is not the end of our responsibility to Afghans.

The extraordinary events of the last month in Afghanistan are a catastrophe for Western policy, strategy and reputation. The US decision to depart based on the calendar and not outcomes sees the Taliban back in control, after 20 years of fighting them. We must now act very differently in our own national interests to prevent a second catastrophe.

There are three immediate interests for the West to secure. First, several thousand Afghans are at risk of death or imprisonment because they served with us. We made the commitment to them of a new life outside Afghanistan, and we have failed to get them out. Many other Afghans are accustomed to a life the Taliban will wreck and they too feel we abandoned them. The end of the military evacuation is not the end of our responsibility to provide sanctuary.

We are going to swallow hard, despite the deep scars of 20 years of war, and cooperate with a Taliban administration

Second, we know that violent religious extremists committed to hurting Western interests anywhere in the world are in Afghanistan. Some, like Al Qaeda, are co-travellers with the Taliban and we should be very sceptical that they will easily part company, whatever the rhetoric. The Taliban is not a monolithic, rigorously organised movement and there are radical factions who support Al Qaeda as part of their fundamentalist agenda. Other extremists, ISIS-K, are the sworn enemy of the Taliban (for not being extreme enough) and entrenched in Afghanistan as the appalling attack at Kabul airport showed. The West must crush organisations that threaten us at home or abroad.

The third interest is to prevent Afghanistan dissolving into a humanitarian disaster we have precipitated. The Afghan economy is still fuelled by opium, but the international effort often touched 100 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP. The money for the army, the police and most of government has gone. Perhaps 18 million people are in dire straits and 500,000 internally displaced people around Kabul have nothing.  Winter is only two months away. We have a moral responsibility here, and unless we want millions of Afghans walking towards Europe we must help them stay in Afghanistan.

We can be confident that the Taliban is not capable of running Afghanistan well. A military machine with a thin political hierarchy, it has few of the skills required to be a national government. The exodus from the professional classes who do not want to live under the Taliban makes this worse.

For all these reasons we are going to swallow hard, despite the deep scars of 20 years of war, and cooperate with a Taliban administration. In some areas our interests are aligned: averting humanitarian disaster and bearing down on ISIS-K. In others, such as getting our people out safely, there will be discord.

This will be a process, not an event, as every party feels their way forward. Benchmarks such as formal recognition are some way off. It must be a conditions-based process, applying the lessons from over-indulging the former administration.  It will require politicians and diplomats to negotiate, with a physical presence in Kabul. It needs money and strategic patience. It will certainly need explaining carefully to many who have suffered in fighting the Taliban for 20 years. They will react with astonishment to see any engagement at all.

Having to act in this way is often part of post-conflict management. When a war is over – win or lose –the future must be managed as best it can and the past cannot be undone. The West’s statecraft having just failed so spectacularly, our own cold, hard national interests require new ways to do much better.


Sir Richard Barrons is the former head of UK Joint Forces Command.

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