How to Lose Afghanistan Twice

Isolating the Taliban Emboldens China and Hurts the West

by Eric Lies,  16 June 2023

The West is fooling itself if it believes that continuing to isolate Afghanistan will lead to a positive outcome. Engaging with the current leadership in a deliberate and cautious manner will allow the West to develop better leverage points with the Taliban while counterbalancing the growing influence of China in the country. As it stands, the West has little in the way of ties to Afghanistan outside of limited humanitarian aid programs due to the implementation of stringent sanctions. This has allowed China to bring Afghanistan into the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), criticize the West for “imperialistic bullying”, and has given them access to critical mineral and energy resources. Without engagement, the West will cede any remaining influence over the Taliban’s policymaking to China. The choice to engage doesn’t lack potential pitfalls but the alternative is placing the hard-line mullahs in the hands of a country that’s consistently demonstrated a blatant disregard for human rights and inclusive democracy.

The West has utilized sanctions with increasing frequency, but they are not a magical fix. 30 years of academic research on what makes sanctions and international isolation work or backfire points out that sanctions often fall short of success and harm U.S. and Western interests. After the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. forces in August 2021, Afghanistan joined the growing club of “international pariahs,” those blocked from full participation in the global economic and political order. Given China’s propensity to support repressive regimes, and that Chinese markets account for over 18 percent of the world economy as of 2021, Western sanctions are far from total economic isolation or insurmountable obstacles. Afghanistan’s growing economic dependence on China will strengthen the Taliban’s economic position and bolster the most extreme elements as the regime consolidates.

In spite of a 40 percent drop in GDP, the Taliban has maintained control of the country and increased their tax intake by formalizing the informal economy. Joining the BRI may reverse this contraction over the coming years. A deal announced this past January between a subsidiary of the state-run China National Petroleum Company and the Taliban is set to bring investments worth approximately one percent of GDP per year alone based on Afghanistan’s 2021 GDP. This is the second largest mining deal Afghanistan has with China, both focused on developing the critical mineral and energy sector. If past surveys are correct, this will give China access to lithium reserves comparable to the world’s largest reserves in Bolivia, and only a train ride away. 

Engaging with the Taliban will not be easy. Even the Chinese, who have been diplomatically engaged with the Taliban for over a decade, have yet to make material progress on the aforementioned projects. The security situation is precarious throughout the country, including the capital city of Kabul, which slows any potential progress in terms of investment. Additionally, given the stronghold on power the current leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has over governmental decision making, it will be difficult to obtain concessions necessary for negotiations. This may be offset by increasingly vocal critiques from within the Taliban itself, which may make room for serious, long-term negotiations.

If we want to truly help the Afghani people thrive, we must engage with the Taliban. There are concrete steps that must be taken as soon as possible to make up for China’s head start on engaging with the Taliban. First, an international body such as the UN must lead the engagement, but the U.S. must be involved in the conversation.  This will allow the international community to determine the most pressing needs and how it can best frame the next steps, including reinstituting human rights, equality, and elections. Getting buy-in from the Taliban is the only way to move towards meaningful progress. The second step: develop a series of well defined steps forward. This must not only apply to the Taliban, but should outline the steps that will unlock the roughly $9.4 billion in reserve funds that were frozen after the fall of the Afghan National Government. Additional steps would lead to opening trade relations, increasing aid, etc. While doling out the funds to those impacted by 9/11 is a political win in the U.S., it does not advance Western interests and will only serve to alienate the general populace in Afghanistan. A clear path forward will allow for greater transparency and accountability but also will serve as a confidence building device as both sides make good on the agreements. 

This increasing collaboration will go far to boost the resources available to the people of Afghanistan, shifting the country from a reliance on aid, illegal activities and a death spiral back towards supporting global terrorism. Instead, it will allow the Afghan Government to support the populace in a more self-reliant country that is a potential contributor to the global economy. There is huge potential to invest in Afghanistan, and the West would be wise to do so before China fully seizes control of the opportunity. With China’s demonstrated interest in the region, this development will happen with or without the West, but if we don’t contribute, the country will be strong-armed by the same nation that has been known to violate human rights agreements and disregards the traditional definition of inclusive governance. If we don’t take swift action now, Afghanistan will be pushed further into the orbit of autocratic governments. Engaging now will help not only the 40 million people living in Afghanistan, but secure a more stable, prosperous region.


Eric Lies is a former US Naval officer and graduate student in American University’s School of International Service and can be reached at elies@otx.international. All views expressed are his own and not representative of the US Navy or US Government.


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