Editor’s Note: Madeleine K. Albright served as the 64th US Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. Rector Federica Mogherini is a former Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vice President of the European Commission. Albright and Mogherini are co-chairs of the Atlantic Council Trilateral Dialogues on Afghanistan. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
One month into his administration, President Joe Biden faces a daunting set of domestic and international crises. As Covid-19 continues to spread around the world, America’s allies are also counting on the Biden administration to restore leadership, credibility and international partnerships as part of US foreign policy.
Among the many challenges Biden must tackle is the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Following the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban last February, a wave of orchestrated assassinations targeting civilians has besieged Afghanistan in recent months.
Journalists, human rights activists, doctors, civil servants, judges, religious leaders and teachers have been injured and killed in a string of attacks. Many of the victims were women who reclaimed their rightful place in Afghan society after the Taliban’s brutal rule. In September, the US embassy in Kabul warned that Afghan women were at increased risk of being targeted by extremist groups. Since then, the number of women threatened and harmed has risen consistently.
Without a concerted, coordinated effort by the US and other key actors, Afghanistan risks falling into chaos, further destabilizing a volatile region, advantaging terrorist groups, and, once again, precipitating a large-scale refugee crisis. What happens in Afghanistan has global consequences and what is happening on the ground today is a warning we can no longer ignore.
When the Taliban deny responsibility for the violence, experts and US forces in Afghanistan have concluded that this is part of the Taliban’s new strategy to silence civil society and destroy those who uphold peace and democracy. Recent victims of this deliberate killing campaign include two female supreme court judges, whose murders are a clear attack against a pluralistic and democratic society reaching for peace.
We welcome all steps to end conflict and bring peace in Afghanistan, but what we see today is the continuation of war by the Taliban. The repeated failure to hold the Taliban accountable for their continued violation of the terms of their agreement with the United States, including their unkept promise to break ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, has set Afghanistan on a path that could lead to state collapse.
Let us be clear: We believe the Taliban is terrorizing and tormenting the country’s citizens into submission as part of a deliberate strategy to eliminate opposition and force surrender either on the battlefield or at the negotiating table. President Biden is rightly reviewing the US-Taliban agreement, which it must consider as part of broader strategic calculation to not only push for a real peace process, but to prevent a reckless withdrawal that leads to state collapse, a civil war, and the revival of a global terrorist haven.
There is still time to change course and make good on almost two decades of shared investment and sacrifice in Afghanistan. Several immediate steps should be taken to accomplish this.
First, the Biden administration should reestablish close coordination on Afghanistan with its European, NATO, and Afghan government partners, following a unilateral US process with the Taliban that committed its allies to concessions without their agreement. The US has greater leverage over the Taliban when it can put on a united front with its allies. The early calls between the Biden administration and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government are a promising indication of a more constructive and collaborative approach. Closer coordination with NATO allies on Afghanistan will also help in the broader goal of rebuilding America’s transatlantic relationships.
Second, with the US-Taliban agreement, President Biden inherited a rapid troop drawdown that is not based on conditions. The US should now re-assert meaningful conditions and place its commitments on hold if they are not met. At the same time, they must continue to support professionalized, and apolitical Afghan National Defense forces, as our main security partner and the central engine of security for the Afghan people.
Third, the US – joined by its transatlantic allies – should also demand an immediate nationwide ceasefire and a demonstrated commitment to a genuine peace process that would include future political arrangements and the rights of women.
As several former US diplomats have proposed, both the Taliban and the Afghan government should agree to an independent, third party mediator to help work through complex and divisive issues in order to support and reach a political settlement. In the meantime, the United Nations, for its part, should not lift sanctions on the Taliban until it meets basic human rights obligations.
Finally, these steps should be accompanied by a sustained and high-level regional diplomatic process to reach a strategic consensus on relations between Afghanistan and its neighbors. In the long term, Afghanistan will only be able to secure its territory and population only if neighboring countries desist from pushing their narrow interests or playing the role of the spoiler, which has too often been the case in the past.
With new leadership in the White House, there is an opportunity to strengthen the Afghan peace process and secure our shared interests in peace, security, and regional stability.