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National Interests

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

“Look,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a reporter on August 30. “We are not in a place yet where we are prepared to recognize the Taliban. They haven’t even formed a government yet.”

Italics mine.

Here’s Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s version, in remarks the same day: “Going forward, any engagement with a Taliban-led government in Kabul will be driven by one thing only: our vital national interests.”

Government officials, especially diplomats, are known for language that can hide more than it reveals. Afghans are parsing the nuances.

Alongside them, I find myself wondering: What are America’s “vital national interests” — at least as Washington defines them?

International terrorism, it seems, still. U.S. officials still seem to think that a splashy attack is of a greater threat to the American people than systemic corruption abroad or at home.

Is that analysis correct? Is a shadowy “ISIS-K” more dangerous to U.S. citizens than, for example, private equity partners or real estate speculators, who nearly brought down the world economy in 2008, then presided over an eviction frenzy that continues today? Or who take over struggling corporations and pay themselves generous “management” fees out of the pension fund, bankrupting it? Is ISIS truly more dangerous to humans and the irreplaceable air and forests and the creatures in them than the fossil fuel companies that, not content to tear down mountains, are now shattering the very bedrock under our feet, to extract ever more natural gas?

What about drug trafficking? Is that a vital U.S. interest? It has not been explicitly mentioned in statements on Afghanistan, but judging from Washington’s approach to Latin America, the Afghan opium industry seems a likely candidate.

In May — just when our Kandahar-based cooperative needed to hire extra people to harvest wild herbs so we could distill their essential oils — I would watch men boarding busses headed west, to fields dense with lovely, tulip-like poppies. There the workers would labor for a few well-paid weeks scratching the stalks with needle-tipped tools, then scraping away the sap that oozed out. That sap is what is turned into opium.

I get it: Afghanistan — no matter who its rulers are — is a major source of dangerous drugs.

And yet, what organizations manufactured and distributed the opium derivatives that have killed more than 750,000 Americans since 1999? Narcotics trafficking networks? Surely. And what about U.S. pharmaceutical companies, like Purdue and Cardinal Health and McKesson — some of which received preferential contracts during the COVID pandemic?

As my Afghan friends have been considering statements like Blinken’s about “vital national interests,” here are some comments I’ve heard:

“The Taliban will be better puppets for the Americans. They’ll put a few faces in their government, in unimportant positions, to make it look ‘inclusive.’ They’ll fight against ISIS-K. They’ll control poppy, like they did before — for a year so the prices would go up. And the U.S. will ‘engage.’ And then the heads of the Taliban can profiteer from this and torture their own citizens…”

“I won’t be surprised if the U.S. is the first country to recognize them.”

I remember how often, over the years, friends and neighbors would insist: “The U.S. must be supporting the Taliban.” In the early days, I would scoff. But as time went on, such remarks got harder to rebut. It got harder to convince people that the U.S. government could actually be so stupid. Finally it became impossible, and I stopped trying. How do you explain — to Afghans and to Americans — that U.S. officials are sending servicemen and women to fight and die at the hands of an “enemy” that we are simultaneously financing to the tune of $1 billion per year, via its sponsor, the Pakistani military? How do you explain such contempt for those our civilian leaders called heroes?

How do you explain the choice not simply to leave Afghanistan in 2018, once you’ve made up your mind to withdraw? What was gained — for Afghans or for Americans— in the three years of negotiations?

What reason could I give my Kandahar neighbors to explain why my country insisted on further crippling our supposed friend, the Afghan government, by engaging in secret talks with its enemy? Why did we exclude that friend from those talks?

Is it that we needed the Taliban’s permission to leave? What was to stop us from unilaterally withdrawing -- which is what we did in the end? What was extracted from the Taliban in return for forcing the Afghan government to release thousands of enemy fighters, among other concessions, and giving the Taliban more than two years to make their case to local leaders: "The U.S. is leaving, why don't you join us?"

How do you explain that those talks in Doha were carried out by an Afghan-born U.S. official who had worked as a lobbyist for the Taliban when they were last in power? How do you explain that those talks were carried out in Pashtu, with no other U.S. official present, or none who understood the language?

In whose interest was the U.S. envoy really negotiating? Where has that envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, been since Kabul fell?

What exactly is in the agreement he negotiated under the Trump Administration? Now that U.S. personnel are out of Afghanistan, will President Biden declassify the secret annexes, so we can all know -- Afghans and Americans alike -- what vital U.S. national interests that agreement protects?

As strange as my Afghan friends’ comments might sound to Americans, it is impossible for me now to make the case that the U.S. wasn’t in fact supporting the Taliban from the start.

“The U.S. isn’t interested in democracy for Afghans.” Another comment slams into my ears. “It never was. Just look Mubarak in Egypt, and how you helped him all those years.”

That one got me. I traveled to Egypt during the 2011 revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. I remember the intoxicating breath of possibility that impregnated the air those early days.

Then I watched Washington swivel to “engage” with the Islamist regime of Muhammad Morsi, which had capitalized on the explosion of indignation at a corrupt and vicious Mubarak regime. Just as quickly, Washington pivoted again to engage with the dictatorship of Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, after he sent the police to mow down Morsi’s supporters in the streets of downtown Cairo, killing more than a thousand. I was back in town in time to see the blood congealing on the pavement. The Sisi regime today is more repressive than Mubarak’s ever was.

On September 7, the Taliban did, at last, announce their cabinet -- at least the positions that count. It resembles the last Taliban government, just as Sisi's regime resembles Mubarak's. In the top position is a close adviser to the late Mullah Muhammad Omar, the first Taliban chief of state. Mullah Omar’s son is the minister of defense, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who led “the most lethal and sophisticated insurgent group targeting U.S., Coalition and Afghan forces in Afghanistan,” according to the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, is the powerful interior minister, controlling the police, recipient of much U.S. military training and equipment. Mullah Baradar, whose recent words had been most palatable to the West, got a relatively minor position -- he will be one of two deputy chief executives.

Now what will Washington do?

What are U.S. “vital national interests” anyway? Can anyone spell them out? Does allying with repressive autocracies and investing in corrupt political economies around the world further them? Is lurching back and forth between proclaiming the virtues of democracy and bending to the whims of strongmen an effective strategy for defending them?

How do we decide how we behave, as a nation, towards whom? What kind of countries and peoples should we treat with respect and consideration? From which governments and individuals should we protect ourselves? Towards which ones should we be crafty, unpredictable, even cynical?

Real statecraft — our very future, perhaps — depends on getting these choices right.

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