The United States and its allies are working to recalibrate their relationship with the Taliban — a group that remains on terrorist watch lists around the world, even as it prepares to name a new Afghan government — amid a steadily worsening situation for the people of Afghanistan.
In recent weeks, the United States cooperated with the group to ensure the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from the Kabul airport, and defense officials have said there is a possibility the threat posed by the militant group Islamic State Khorasan could require future cooperation.
A growing humanitarian and economic crisis may push even more Afghans to seek a way out. Prices for the most basic foods, like eggs and flour, have surged. The emergency food the United Nations distributes to hundreds of thousands of Afghans in need is expected to run out by the end of the month. Foreign aid has dried up. Long lines at the bank are the new daily norm.
On Wednesday, top U.S. defense officials expressed wariness about continuing to work with Taliban leaders, who had been cooperative during the evacuation.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters that while the United States had worked with the Taliban on a narrow set of priorities, “It’s hard to predict where this will go in the future with respect to the Taliban.”
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the Taliban “a ruthless group,” but added, “In war, you do what you must.”
When asked whether the United States would cooperate with the Taliban against Islamic State Khorasan, also known as ISIS-K, General Milley said that was a possibility. Whether the Taliban can control the group had become a matter of major international concern, after ISIS-K claimed responsibility for an attack on the Kabul airport that left 170 civilians and 13 U.S. military members dead in the final days of the U.S. evacuation.
Other nations are working to map out a way forward for cooperation with either the Taliban or regional partners to get remaining civilians who wish to leave out of the country. On Thursday, Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was in Doha, Qatar, meeting with Qatari leaders to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and how to secure safe passage for those who remain. Qatar previously hosted Taliban leaders, and was the site of peace talks between the Taliban and the United States.
Mr. Raab will be speaking with the Qataris on whether they believe a functioning airport would be possible in Kabul in the short term, which would provide a key route for high-risk Afghans still looking to leave, Britain’s foreign ministry said in a statement. The foreign secretary will also discuss the feasibility of safe passage for foreign nationals and Afghans across land borders.
Simon Gass, Britain’s special envoy for the Afghan transition, has held talks in recent days with senior Taliban political representatives, the foreign ministry said.
Emergency food distributed by the United Nations to hundreds of thousands of hungry Afghans will be exhausted by Sept. 30, the organization’s top humanitarian official in Afghanistan said on Wednesday.
The assertion by the official, Dr. Ramiz Alakbarov, amounted to a warning that starvation could soon compound the humanitarian crisis convulsing Afghanistan under its newly resurgent Taliban leadership, which seized power two weeks ago as the U.S.-backed government collapsed after 20 years of war.
Speaking to reporters by videoconference from Kabul, Dr. Alakbarov also said that a third of the country’s population of roughly 38 million is facing acute levels of food insecurity, which means they often don’t know when they will be eating next. A prolonged drought, coupled with the upheavals of the war, he said, mean that “food insecurity is very apparent throughout the country.”
Afghanistan heavily relies on foreign aid, much of it funneled through the United Nations. The United States and other NATO countries have also been major suppliers over the past two decades.
The country has been largely shut off from the rest of the world since the last American forces left a few days ago, signaling total Taliban control. The militant movement commands virtually all border crossings and Kabul’s airport, a major entry point to the landlocked country. The airport was damaged and rendered temporarily inoperative after the emergency American-led evacuation ended on Monday.
The United Nations, which runs an extensive humanitarian aid operation in Afghanistan, has maintained a presence with a mostly Afghan staff but has been unable to replenish most supplies since the Taliban takeover.
Dr. Alakbarov said the U.N.’s storehouses of food in Afghanistan had been drastically depleted. He warned that if current trends prevail “we will be out of stocks” by month’s end. He also said only $400 million of the $1.3 billion sought from international donors by the United Nations for Afghanistan relief this year had been received.
Asked whether the Taliban leaders have honored their pledge to respect the rights of women, who were severely repressed under the 1990s Taliban regime’s strict interpretation of Islamic law, Dr. Alakbarov suggested a mixed picture. In some provinces, he said, women hadcontinued to travel, work and go to school without a problem. But in others they had been ordered to stay home and had been harassed if unaccompanied by male escorts.
“It differs from one province to another, not consistent,” he said. “The Taliban is a very decentralized movement.”
Ahmad, 27, lingered in bed. He did not want to face the day. His sister Haanya, 20, had no appetite for breakfast. She looked out the window, where four Taliban fighters were patrolling the block, AK-47 rifles swung over their shoulders.
It was Tuesday morning in Kabul, a day after the United States completed its military withdrawal, and there was no doubt who was in charge now.
In telephone interviews, the two siblings recounted what their lives looked like on Day 1 of Taliban rule, after two decades of U.S. occupation. Like many ordinary Afghans, they were already trying to learn how to navigate the new Afghanistan.
“Our life just two weeks ago seems 10 years away,” Ahmad said. “For 20 years the U.S. lied to us and said: ‘We are with you. We will not leave the Afghan people.’ Who is with us now? Only the Taliban.”
Just two weeks ago, before the Taliban entered the capital, Ahmad was a government employee. He lost his job and access to his government bank account with his savings. His wife had a miscarriage.
Haanya, a freelance journalist, used to roam cafes freely and talked to strangers for her stories. Now, her story pitches are turned down, and she hasn’t left the house in 10 days. Worried about Taliban harassment, her father will let her go outside only with a male relative.
On Tuesday morning, Ahmad ventured out with two friends. Shops were open and traffic flowed. The crowds that recently mobbed the airport in hopes of leaving the country were gone.
But the Taliban made their presence known with checkpoints at roundabouts. Few women were out alone on the street. A friend drove Ahmad to three bank branches in search of cash, but he gave up after seeing lines that stretched for blocks.
When they headed toward a friend’s house in a neighborhood where a prominent politician has a home, they found that Taliban fighters had blocked access to the road. They parked the car and walked to their friend’s house, where they drank tea and discussed potential exit plans.
Applying for visa to India? Attempting to cross the border into Pakistan? Joining the resistance in Panjshir?
There were no good options.
Later, Ahmad said, the Taliban stopped them at two checkpoints on their way to dinner, and asked them where they were going, where they lived and where they worked.
Stuck at home, Haanya texted Ahmad every hour, pressing him for details about what Kabul looked like now.
Other friends texted him with similar questions: “Who is out? What’s the situation in the city?”
At a nearly empty restaurant, Ahmad took a photograph of his sandwich and his soda and sent it to his friends, asking them to join him. “I didn’t tell them about the waves of emotion hitting me up and down all day,” Ahmad said.
Haanya was restless. She looked out the window. She checked her messages on her phone. She wandered from room to room.
“I am in my house, and I feel like I have no home,” she said. “I miss the little things I used to do that I can never do again: go to a bookstore alone, sit in a cafe and talk to people.”
She posted an essay she wrote in Dari to a private group for friends. “After 20 years of war and bloodshed, the war did not end,” it began. “Everything returned to 20 years ago and we are back at square one.”
By early evening Ahmad was back. A friend called him and said she had lost her job. They cried on the phone together.
They heard President Biden was giving a speech. He was announcing the end of the long war in Afghanistan — or, at least, America’s part in it.
Neither brother nor sister wanted to hear it.
What could he possibly say, wondered Haanya, that would make any difference for Afghans like them now?
As Afghans pay surging prices for eggs and flour and stand in long lines at the bank, money changers like Enayatullah and his underground financial lifeline have found themselves in desperate demand.
Enayatullah — his family name withheld — holds down a tiny point in a sprawling global network of informal lenders and back-room bankers called hawala. The Taliban used hawala to help fund their ultimately successful insurgency. Many households use it to get help from relatives in Istanbul, London and Doha. Without cash from hawala, economic life in whole swaths of Afghanistan would come to a crashing halt.
And hawala won’t be enough, said Enayatullah, who says people’s need for money has become so desperate in the last week that he has raised his commission to 4 percent per transaction, about eight times his usual rate. The system is now struggling with a lack of money, leading the Taliban and dealers themselves to rein in activity to preserve cash.
“The demand,” Enayatullah said, “is too much.”
The Taliban won the war in Afghanistan, and an economic crisis may be their prize. They have been cut off from the international banking system and from the country’s previous funding sources, like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United States government. Foreign aid makes up nearly half of economic output.
Without other sources of money, millions of Afghan people could lose the gains they made, in fits and starts, over the past two decades. Already, drought conditions have created a real risk of hunger.
“We have conflict. We have war. This is another misery,” said Shah Mehrabi, a board member of Afghanistan’s central bank. “You will have a financial crisis and it will push families further into poverty.”
BRUSSELS — The Americans have left 20 years after invading, the Afghan government has dissolved and the Taliban are now in charge of some 40 million people in one of the poorest countries, ravaged by decades of violence and upheaval. Foreign powers must now decide how to deal with an organization that remains on terrorist watch lists around the world. What happens now?
Why are other countries so interested in Afghanistan’s future?
Three main reasons: counterterrorism, a trove of natural resources and humanitarian aid.
It is in much of the world’s interest to ensure a stable Afghanistan that doesn’t once again become a haven for Al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups, as it was when the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001.
Another terrorist group, Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K, an Afghan branch of Islamic State, established itself during the American occupation, fought with the Taliban and attacked U.S. forces. Whether the Taliban can control this group is a matter of widespread concern.
The country’s neighbors will be watching the Taliban-led government closely. China shares a short border with Afghanistan, which under the Taliban in the 1990s served as a haven for Uighur militants. Pakistan sees Afghanistan as a strategic bulwark against India and has close ties with the Taliban.
Foreign powers are also grappling with the humanitarian catastrophe they left behind, raising the prospect of a new refugee crisis. And, of course, several countries have commercial interests in the estimated $3 trillion in mineral reserves in Afghanistan including gold, copper and lithium.
What must the Taliban do to achieve international recognition?
The United States and European Union have urged the Taliban to form a more inclusive leadership representing women and the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.
“The Taliban will be judged on their actions — how they respect the international commitments made by the country, how they respect basic rules of democracy and rule of law,” said Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European Union. “The biggest red line is respect for human rights and the rights of women, especially.”
The United States has said that the Taliban will be judged on whether they allow freedom of travel for Afghans and foreigners with valid documents, women’s and minority rights and, probably more important for Washington, whether the Taliban prevent international terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base.
Diplomatic recognition would help open direct channels for development aid and sizable loans from countries and institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
How much leverage do the United States and its allies have over the Taliban?
Most of the leverage can be measured in dollars. The Afghan economy, so dependent on foreign aid and spending, is grinding to a halt, with cash running out, government salaries stopped and prices rising fast.
For now, the United States, European Union and Britain have suspended their considerable aid programs, and Afghanistan’s central bank reserves, nearly all held abroad, have been frozen. The I.M.F. has withheld $400 million that it was scheduled to deliver to the old government this month.
U.S. and allied officials say they want to continue providing humanitarian aid, no matter what political system emerges in Afghanistan. The most powerful lever that the United States and its allies have against the Taliban are terrorism sanctions, which prohibit contributions of money, goods and services.