The influential RAND Corporation published a paper last week offering the US three options on how to approach the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan: Engage, Isolate, or oppose.
Since the US withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021, the Biden administration has maintained sanctions on the Taliban government and seized billions in Afghan central bank funds, exacerbating a dire humanitarian crisis. According to the UN, 95% of Afghans are not getting enough to eat.
The 28-page paper from RAND said if the US engaged with the Taliban government, known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, it could influence how it conducts counterterrorism operations. The paper says under the engagement policy, the US “would need at some point to be prepared to ease US and UN sanctions.”
The isolation option, the paper says, would “seek to punish and weaken the Taliban regime and change its behavior, while signaling US and broader international disapproval of that regime.” The isolation policy would mean maintaining and strengthening sanctions, which would have a devastating impact on the civilian population.
The paper says that the third option, to oppose the Taliban government, would mean the US “would seek to bring down the Taliban regime.” But the RAND authors recognized that the US doesn’t have the power to take down the Taliban at this point. “Even if it were feasible and would succeed, the US would find itself once again supporting a dependent government in Kabul against local resistance with no better prospects of ultimate success than its last such effort,” the paper says.
The paper concludes that engagement is the best policy for advancing US interests, but that the default and easiest policy for the Biden administration to pursue is isolation. “Isolation offers a pure passive-aggressive strategy, requiring no expenditure of funds or political capital and no controversial initiatives,” the paper reads.
Ultimately, the authors suggest that the US should start taking steps toward engagement. The Biden administration has maintained that engagement with the Taliban and recognition of the Islamic Emirate depends on human rights issues. Specifically, the US has focused on the issue of women’s rights even as Afghan women and children are dying due to malnutrition that the US sanctions and seizure of Afghan central bank assets are contributing to.