US touts leverage – but influence over Taliban considered limited

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Washington (AFP)

After ending the 20-year war in the United States, President Joe Biden hopes that the economic might of the United States can be used as leverage for the Taliban to shape the new Afghanistan. But experts wonder how much the triumphant Islamists can be influenced.

Since their surprisingly rapid takeover of Afghanistan in August, Taliban leaders have sought to change their mind from the regime’s notorious fanaticism of 1996-2001 and have expressed hope for a stable relationship with the United States. .

The Taliban’s position likely underlies the harsh reality that they must now rule one of the poorest countries in the world, where US-led foreign aid accounted for 75% of public spending in 2019.

Since former insurgents took control of the capital Kabul on August 15, Western countries have halted direct payments and the United States has frozen nearly $ 9.5 billion in central bank assets.

In a speech on Tuesday to mark the end of America’s longest war, Biden vowed to exert “leverage” on the Taliban, including “diplomacy, economic tools and rallying the rest of the world. world”.

His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in an interview with ABC did not reject the possible sending of aid to a Taliban government, saying: “We will wait and see by their actions.

Biden painted a coldly pragmatic view of US interests in Afghanistan – pulling out the remaining Americans and ensuring that this is not a base for international attacks, the original reason the US overthrew the first Taliban regime afterwards. the attacks of September 11.

This time, US officials have been pleasantly surprised at the level of cooperation the Taliban has in the past few days in letting out US citizens and many Afghan allies.

But officials and experts say the jury is out on Taliban 2.0.

– Common enemy in the Islamic State –

Elizabeth Threlkeld, a senior member of the Stimson Center and former US diplomat, said the Taliban had their own source of income, including through narcotics, smuggling and their own customs and taxes.

Afghanistan: from Soviet occupation to American defeat AFP

But on international aid, “there is not much they can do without a continuation of these funds,” she said.

The Taliban have shown their willingness to work with the United States against the extremist Islamic State group, its rival, but would face a “harder sell” internally on issues central to their ideology such as the treatment of women, whose rights were severely curtailed during the old regime, Threlkeld said.

“I think the pragmatic path for the future may be to be suspicious and verify,” Threlkeld said.

“While this is far from an ideal option,” she said of cooperation against the Islamic State movement, “this could be an area where we can start and we can test the waters.”

Graeme Smith, consultant to the International Crisis Group, said the United States must be aware that it will not get everything it wants.

“Western diplomats are obsessed with influence. I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. We have lost the war. Period,” he said.

“So everything we seek to accomplish now in Afghanistan will come from a place of humility and a place of give and take. It will be negotiation, not coercion.”

– “North Korea of ​​Southeast Asia”? –

“The Taliban are not keen to be a US proxy. But they are also keen to avoid the kind of provocation that brought about the fall of their last government,” he said.

The group could still form a government acceptable enough to the West on rights and including figures from the former government in Kabul supported by the international community.

“If he does, then I think there is a chance that a Taliban government will avoid becoming the North Korean kind of Southeast Asia,” he said.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asian expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the Taliban and the United States could both find a common cause by coordinating closely to get humanitarian aid to Afghans.

“Economic aid is the only arrow left in Washington’s quiver,” he said.

But any packaging of non-humanitarian aid faces a giant potential hurdle: China, which has made it clear that it is ready to do business with the Taliban as it searches for Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

“Beijing does not need assurances from the Taliban on human rights. As long as it obtains security guarantees, it is likely to offer recognition,” Kugelman said.

“The United States will have to be very pragmatic about what it can achieve in Afghanistan and keep expectations low.


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