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On Monday, the Taliban celebrated the anniversary of their successful campaign to reclaim control of Afghanistan, one year after their forces captured the capital of Kabul as the U.S. military withdrew from the country.
The chaotic and deadly American withdrawal marked the end of a 20-year war in Afghanistan, which began as a counterterrorism mission after the 9/11 attacks and evolved into a decades-long effort to build an Afghan government and military that could stand on their own. As heavily debated as the withdrawal — and the decades of war that preceded it — have been, there are major questions about how the U.S. should approach Afghanistan today, as the country’s 40 million people deal with a series of crises.
Over the past year, much of the educational progress made by women and girls during the U.S. occupation has been erased as the Taliban reinstated its strict interpretation of Islamic law. The country has also experienced a severe economic collapse, leading to widespread starvation and a wave of refugees fleeing to neighboring nations. Last year, the United Nations warned that as much as 97% of the Afghan population could plunge into poverty unless conditions improve dramatically.
The Taliban, who have been insurgent fighters for the past two decades, have struggled with the basics of running a functioning government. The nation is also deeply isolated from the international community, with most of the world’s economic powers refusing to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate leaders and refusing to do business with them or let them access offshore funds — including $7 billion being held in the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank in New York.
Tensions between the American government and the Taliban became even more strained earlier this month, after a U.S. drone strike killed the al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who had been sheltering in downtown Kabul.
Why there’s debate
The situation in Afghanistan presents a real strategic challenge for the U.S.: Keeping the country at arm’s reach likely means allowing millions to suffer with starvation and subjugation while also raising the risk that the area could again become a haven for terrorists, but any engagement risks legitimizing — or even indirectly supporting — the Taliban’s inhumane regime.
Many experts argue that the Biden administration needs to stop worrying that helping the Afghan people might somehow benefit the Taliban and instead open up more spending to ensure that their basic needs are being met. Others say the U.S. should do everything it can to help Afghanistan develop a functioning economy, including lifting some sanctions and allowing the country to access billions of dollars stockpiled overseas. They argue that, as loathsome as the Taliban are, the U.S. refusal to do any sort of business with them ultimately hurts Afghan civilians.
At the same time, some argue that the greatest threat to ordinary Afghans is the Taliban themselves and warn against any steps that might empower the regime. There are also concerns that a more entrenched Taliban might feel more comfortable harboring terrorists who might build networks large enough to target Americans on U.S. soil.
The White House has said it intends to give half of the $7 billion in frozen funds back to the Afghan people and is reportedly in the process of setting up a trust fund to ensure that money goes where it’s most needed. The other $3.5 billion has been set aside to be dispersed to families of 9/11 victims, but dozens of those family members recently wrote to the administration urging them to give all the funds back to the Afghan people.
The U.S. can’t ignore a dire situation it's directly responsible for
“Everybody’s responsible for not stopping the war after removing the Taliban [in late 2001]. Everybody’s responsible for viewing any kind of a reconciliation with the Taliban as taboo, just like everybody’s responsible for why Afghan people are suffering under sanctions. … We have to take responsibility as a nation.” — Vali Nasr, Afghanistan expert, to Vox
The U.S. must help Afghanistan build a stable economy
“What Afghanistan needs is enough currency reserves and a relaxation of sanctions to allow its collapsed banking system to recover and something like normal economic life to resume. Until the economy is stabilized, it will be necessary to keep aid flowing indefinitely—and who knows what would happen if a Republican wins in 2024?” — Ryan Cooper, American Prospect
The No. 1 goal must be to prevent Afghanistan from harboring terrorists
“The administration points to the [Zawahri] strike as evidence that its ‘over-the-horizon’ counterterrorism strategy can work. But the bottom line is, to keep the United States safe and prevent Afghanistan from reverting to its pre-9/11 form as a terrorist safe haven, Washington must remain engaged in counterterrorism in Afghanistan.” — Colin P. Clark, Politico
Continuing to spurn the Taliban will only harm the Afghan people
“The Taliban prioritizes ideological issues over practical issues like getting assistance and recognition. If the world is so disgusted at Taliban policies that it does not want to entertain the idea of providing assistance to the government, it’s the Afghan people who will lose out the most.” — Michael Kugelman, South Asia policy expert, to NBC News
Collaboration, not opposition, is the best way to get the Taliban to moderate
“By nurturing and encouraging moderating tendencies in Afghanistan and by allowing more pragmatic leaders to form new domestic alliances, the West can help empower the realist elements of the Taliban. … Washington ignores Afghanistan at its own peril: by failing to support the Afghan people or engage with the Taliban, the West may be consigning the country to a future as a humanitarian catastrophe and terrorist haven.” — Saad Mohseni, Foreign Affairs
There will be no peace in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban are in charge
“The greatest humanitarian crisis in the world will continue to worsen as long the Taliban are in power. An absence of war is not the same as peace when Afghans are continuously stripped of their human rights. The Taliban must not be whitewashed — they are patriarchal terrorists. Resistance forces continue to fight this illegitimate regime that is not in any way representative of Afghans — but the rest of the world needs to step up.” — Ferdouse Asefi, The Conversation
The U.S. is in a no-win situation when it comes to Afghanistan
“The Biden administration now faces a policy dilemma of its own making. Since so many millions of Afghans are on the brink of starvation, Biden officials cannot completely turn their backs on Afghanistan. And yet, it's hard to help Afghans without propping up the Taliban in some manner.” — Peter Bergen, CNN
Policymakers must be realistic about the limits of what the U.S. can do
“After spending 20 years and $2 trillion in Afghanistan only to return the country to the Taliban last year, the US must be realistic about what it can accomplish. Simply forestalling the worst would be no small achievement.” — Editorial, Bloomberg
All foreign investments must be returned to the Afghan people
“I would say probably a first step would be to get moving on the negotiations for the release of not just 50 percent but 100 percent of the $9 billion of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. There has to be a way of making sure that that money can reach Afghan people. You have to get money flowing so that businesspeople can pay employees, buy supplies, and really get the economy moving.” — Lynne O’Donnell, Foreign Policy
The U.S. has a duty to help provide Afghan refugees a safe harbor
“One year after the U.S.’s dramatic evacuation from Afghanistan, many Afghans who risked their lives to assist the U.S. in the fight against the Taliban and for democratic ideals are still looking for a pathway to the United States. And Afghans who were evacuated to the U.S. remain in limbo with no assurance they can stay or work. … Correcting for this inaction is a matter of national security.” — Margaret D. Stock, The Hill
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