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After ending the 20-year war, President Joe Biden hopes America’s economic might can serve as leverage on the Taliban to shape the new Afghanistan. But experts question how much the triumphant Islamists can be swayed.

Since their stunningly swift takeover of Afghanistan in August, the Taliban leadership has sought a rebranding from the notorious zealotry of the 1996-2001 regime and voiced hope for a stable relationship with the United States.

Likely underlying the Taliban’s stance is the harsh reality that they must now run one of the world’s poorest countries, where foreign assistance led by the United States accounted for 75% of public expenditure in 2019.

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

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

His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, in an ABC interview did not reject eventually sending aid to a Taliban government, saying: “We are going to wait and see by their actions.”

Biden painted a coldly pragmatic view of U.S. interests in Afghanistan — getting out remaining Americans and making sure it is not a base for international attacks, the original reason the United States toppled the first Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 attacks.

This time round, U.S. officials were pleasantly surprised at the Taliban’s level of cooperation in the final days on letting out U.S. citizens and many Afghan allies.

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

Common enemy

Elizabeth Threlkeld, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center and a former U.S. diplomat, said the Taliban had its own revenue stream including through narcotics, smuggling and their own customs and taxation.

But on international aid, “there’s only so much that they are going to be able to do without a continuation of those funds,” she said.

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

“I think the pragmatic course going forward is maybe to distrust and verify,” Threlkeld said.

“Even though it’s far from an ideal option,” she said of cooperating against the Islamic State movement, “that could be one area where we can start and we can test the waters.”

A Taliban fighter attends a rally in Kabul on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI
A Taliban fighter attends a rally in Kabul on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI

Graeme Smith, a consultant at the International Crisis Group, said the United States needed to be aware it will not get all it wants.

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

“So whatever we seek to achieve now in Afghanistan will be from a place of humility, and from a place of give and take. This will be about bargaining and not about coercion.”

Avoiding provocation

Smith said that Afghanistan could be in a far more precarious position if the United States had not already been in dialogue with the insurgents — who knew the U.S. priorities.

“The Taliban are not eager to be an American proxy. But they’re also keen to avoid the kind of provocation that resulted in the collapse of their last government,” he said.

The group could still form a government that is sufficiently palatable to the West on rights and includes figures from the former internationally-backed government in Kabul.

“If it does that, then I think there is a chance that a Taliban government could avoid becoming the sort of North Korea of South Asia,” he said.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the Taliban and the United States could both find common cause in coordinating narrowly to push through humanitarian assistance for Afghans.

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

But any conditioning of non-humanitarian aid faces a giant potential obstacle — China, which has made clear it is ready to do business with the Taliban as it seeks Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.

“Beijing doesn’t need assurances from the Taliban on human rights. As long as it gets security assurances, it’s likely to offer recognition,” Kugelman said.

“The U.S. will have to be very practical about what it can achieve in Afghanistan, and keep expectations low.”

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