The Future of US-Taliban Relations from a Realist Lens (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Maheen Safian, Fall 2023 Marcellus Policy Fellow

The United States must adopt a realist strategy regarding relations with the Taliban government of Afghanistan to advance American security interests in the region. The resurgence of the Taliban as a formidable political force following the failed U.S. invasion of Afghanistan has posed a complex, multifaceted challenge for American policymakers. The current ostracization of the Taliban government from the international scene will further hinder possible influence actors can wield when negotiating with the government. Though intended to pressure the Taliban into reforming, isolation not only hampers the capacity of the international community to influence and hold the Taliban accountable for human rights violations but also exacerbates an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, continuing to isolate the Taliban could encourage it to continue harboring terrorist cells on its soil capable of targeting the U.S. homeland while leaving it dependent on rival powers like China and Russia.

President Joe Biden’s policy shift has distanced the United States from objectives of nation-building to homeland security concerns, which require to at least some degree a working relationship with the Afghan government. China, in the absence of an active U.S. presence, is undermining strategic American security goals in the state and has taken advantage of Afghanistan’s economic and global connectivity potential while prioritizing the prevention of Islamist fundamentalism spillage into Chinese territory. Afghanistan is proving to be of contentious geopolitical value, and the absence of relations with the state may draw it closer to rival powers while hindering effective cooperation on the threat of terrorism to the U.S. homeland.

Leverage is the ideal policy tool in dealing with Afghanistan’s security risks and lack of adherence to international norms, specifically through the lifting of sanctions and considering recognition of the government as soft pressure. Normalization of diplomatic relations is not a moral or political endorsement of Taliban actions, rather, it provides a channel for international oversight, influence, and accountability. Afghanistan harbors multiple security and economic concerns that can cause a power vacuum or precipitate a rise in Islamist fundamentalism.

Accordingly, the adoption of a realist strategy is the most effective course of action to neutralize volatile terrorist threats towards the United States through constructive relations with the Taliban government (lessening the space for Asian geopolitical superpowers to create strategic allyship with Afghanistan), create a robust intelligence infrastructure, and mitigate the risks of Taliban regime collapse that would lead to a bloody power vacuum and continued threats to American homeland security.