US policy of 'pragmatic engagement' in Afghanistan risks legitimatizing Taliban rule

Sher Jan Ahmadzai, Director, Center for Afghanistan Studies, University of Nebraska Omaha, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

For two decades, the conflict in Afghanistan occupied international attention and U.S. resources. But ever since American troops withdrew in 2021, the conflict has seemingly been viewed in Washington more as a concern localized to the region of Central and South Asia.

This is due in large part to the U.S.’s shifting global priorities. The invasion in Ukraine and Chinese ambitions in the Pacific have meant that Afghanistan is no longer a top priority for the U.S. administration.

Naturally, the U.S.’s exit from Afghanistan has left the Biden administration with weaker leverage in the country. Indeed, some observers are now calling for the U.S. to diplomatically recognize the Taliban government – something the Biden administration has stated it has yet to make a decision on.

As an expert on international relations and Afghanistan, I would argue recognizing the Taliban without pushing for a political road map and guarantees from them would be a mistake. As a partner in the Doha agreement – the peace deal signed by the U.S. and the Taliban in 2020 leading to American troop withdrawal – Washington has an obligation to hold the Taliban to account over its side of the bargain: Preventing terrorists from operating in Afghanistan and engaging in intra-Afghan talks to end decades of conflict.

Yet over the past two years, the U.S.’s policy of “pragmatic engagement” in Afghanistan – which amounts to working with the Taliban on limited security concerns while urging a course correction on human rights – has done little to discourage Taliban policies that have degraded the rights of Afghan citizens. Nor has it pushed the Taliban to long-promised talks with other factions and parties in Afghanistan aimed at ending decades of turmoil.

America was drawn into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack on the U.S mainland. It’s goal was to dismantle and destroy al-Qaida and its affiliate groups. But at the same time, it was considered to be in the U.S.’s interest to also assist Afghans in creating a more equal and just political system after decades of civil war and instability. The vision was for a government that respected human rights, guaranteed access to education for all and promoted democracy.


Some of those ideals made it into the Doha agreement and public statements by the Taliban delegation before the deal was signed. Yet, more than three years after the agreement was inked in the Qatari capital, the Taliban appears to show no intention of following through on its promises. It has restricted the rights of women and girls to education and rejected the idea of an inclusive government with input from other Afghans.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s policy of pragmatic engagement amounts to combating terrorism through an “over-the-horizon” strategy directed from outside the country and intervening in Afghan affairs only through the Taliban itself, an unconventional partner for the U.S. in this effort.

In July 2023, President Biden implied that working with the Taliban in counterterrorism efforts had borne fruit: “I said al-Qaida would not be there. I said it wouldn’t be there. I said we’d get help from the Taliban.”

Yet, after vowing in the Doha agreement to send a “clear message” to groups such as al-Qaida that “threaten the security of the United States and its allies,” the Taliban has yet to publicly sever ties with the group or banish militants from Afghanistan.


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