What’s Next for U.S. Policy in Afghanistan?

Congressional hearings didn't tell us much on 7 key questions on the immediate horizon

America’s top military leaders faced tough questions on Afghanistan policy from Congress at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, a stepped-up effort to scrutinize the administration’s approach on Afghanistan that began earlier this month with hearings featuring Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

The hearings mostly focused on the rearview mirror, toggling between what happened over the past 20 months and what happened over the 20 years. Given the current political and media environment, there was the usual effort to use the event to score partisan points from various angles. 

Congress will hold more hearings in the coming weeks, and some have proposed a more comprehensive review by an independent commission looking back over the years of policy missteps stretching across several administrations. 

What was largely absent from the Congressional hearings thus far, with a few notable exceptions, was a deeper dive on what’s next for U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and there are some key questions on the immediate horizon.

1. What are the plans to bring Afghans endangered by their links to American organizations to safety?  

The Biden administration implemented a massive airlift last month, but work remains undone, with thousands still remaining in country and others stuck in limbo in certain locations inside America and around the world.

2.  What does the “over the horizon” counterterrorism approach mean in vastly changed circumstances inside Afghanistan and the region?

The idea of having the U.S. military and intelligence agencies positioned nearby Afghanistan to strike against possible counterterrorism threats was originally conceived under much different circumstances, with a friendlier government in Kabul at the time.

3. How do countries like the United States and international organizations provide much-needed humanitarian assistance to Afghans without reinforcing the grip of the Taliban and inadvertently seeing funds slip away to extremist groups?

The Afghan people were already facing difficult food shortages and challenges linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and droughts. With winter approaching, humanitarian aid agencies and U.S. policy makers face some tough practical questions about how to get aid to the people.

4. What can the international community do about the deteriorating human rights situation inside of Afghanistan?

Every day comes with new reports of human rights abuses in Afghanistan, with women and girls being prevented from going to school and work and reports of extrajudicial killings of opponents to the Taliban.

5. How should America engage with Pakistan?

Afghanistan’s next door neighbor, Pakistan has been home to millions of Afghan refugees for many years, and more Afghans have sought refuge in Pakistan after the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. In addition, much of the humanitarian aid that goes into Afghanistan goes through Pakistan. Last but not least, Pakistan has a mixed record in responding to counterterrorism concerns raised by the international community. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is scheduled to travel to Pakistan next week and will have a long list of issues to discuss, and the United States hasn’t had an ambassador in Islamabad since 2018.

6. How will the United States address broader regional security concerns raised by the power shift in Afghanistan?

The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is already shifting the regional landscape and added to tensions between Pakistan and India. Other neighboring countries such as Iran and several Central Asian countries are directly affected by the changing power dynamics. More broadly, Arab Gulf states also have a set of relationships within Afghanistan and the region that are important for long-term diplomatic responses to the evolving situation inside of Afghanistan.

7. How will the United States work with other global powers and international organizations to address the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan?

Another issue left largely unresolved so far at the United Nations General Assembly meeting is the status of the Taliban-controlled government and whether countries like China and Russia will ultimately recognize a Taliban-led government.

These seven questions are just a start of the issues facing U.S. foreign policy moving forward in Afghanistan, and the Congressional hearings thus far have only scratched the surface on developing answers. Those interested in advancing a new style of U.S. foreign policy that puts diplomacy first should be looking to put forward some policy ideas to address these questions.