The Limits of Leverage in Taliban-Led Afghanistan

Beyond the limited aims, the most the U.S. and the international community can hope for is to strike a difficult balance between pressure and engagement.

Originally published in Lawfare.

Following the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the United States has pursued a two-track approach to dealing with the group: Pressure when possible, and negotiate when necessary. While a logical strategy, the specifics of the situation on the ground complicate both efforts. The pressure campaign must contend with the need to cooperate with the Taliban on evacuations and to avoid inflicting further suffering on Afghans. Negotiations, meanwhile, are made more challenging by attempts to maintain maximum leverage over the group. How policymakers balance these competing objectives will determine the trajectory of outside engagement with the Taliban over the near term. Despite public statements to the contrary, the Taliban are likely to cede little ground on their core interests, rendering cooperation possible only on limited, mutually acceptable terms. 

International Pressure Campaign

U.S. officials have sought to use Washington’s remaining leverage in the form of sanctions, control over funds, international recognition and future assistance to secure U.S. interests post-withdrawal. The United States has led the international campaign to deny the Taliban access to financial resources and development assistance by cutting off access to foreign reserves, cash shipments, International Monetary Fund aid and other sources of revenue. As a result, the Taliban have reportedly lost control over all but 0.1 percent of the country’s foreign reserves as they struggle to take the reins of a financial system far more complex than during their previous time in power and dependent on international assistance for 75 percent of public spending. No country has yet recognized the Taliban’s de facto rule, and the U.S. and its partners have demanded to see actions, not just words, before considering any relationship with the Taliban.

This pressure campaign is aimed principally at shaping the future form and function of the Taliban-led Afghan government. The United States and the international community have released several statements outlining expectations for the country going forward. The U.N. Security Council, for example, called for a cease-fire, restoration of constitutional order, adherence to international obligations, denial of terrorist safe havens, political settlement negotiations, and an inclusive outcome that protects the rights of women, children and minorities. The Group of Seven and NATO have echoed this list, as have key European partners. President Biden described the question of whether to seek international legitimacy as an “existential crisis” for the Taliban, balancing the group’s core beliefs with its need for access to the international system. 

Read the full article on Lawfare.

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