Rebuilding U.S. standing requires an end to backing militants abroad.
Following the United States’ withdrawal of ground forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s renewed control, members of Congress and Afghan opposition actors called for supporting new anti-Taliban rebellions. The National Resistance Front, now based in Tajikistan, has been ramping up lobbying efforts in Washington in recent weeks, seeking support for a new fight against the Taliban. Amid a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, renewed repression of women and minorities, and doubts about the Taliban’s pledges not to offer a base to al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations, some policymakers might be increasingly tempted to give insurgents a chance.
That would be a mistake, repeating U.S. errors of creating partnerships with unaccountable and potentially abusive or corrupt armed groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It would also potentially violate international law. If the Biden administration wants to fulfill its promises to value human rights and shore up a rules-based international order, it should cut off aid to nonstate armed groups in Afghanistan and beyond.
As I show in new research, state ties to armed groups vary depending on the balance of power between them and what strategic aims are pursued. States may delegate to armed groups to take on tasks the government would carry out itself if not for political or resource constraints. In the 1980s, the United States organized and supplied Contra rebels in Nicaragua in place of a politically unpopular military intervention. Or states may sponsor loosely connected armed groups aligned with their ideological goals, like former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi arming and training Basque and Northern Irish separatist groups.
The United States regularly criticizes Russia’s support for rebels in eastern Ukraine and conducts airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, yet it has its own long history of working with armed groups. Anti-communist insurgencies received massive aid during the Cold War—including the mujahideen in Afghanistan, who helped spawn al Qaeda. More recently, the United States forged relationships with rebels and militias in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. These groups are U.S.-funded but rarely if ever fully in Washington’s control. The United States therefore has little legitimacy when it comes to asking others to avoid or control such relationships.
That would change if the Biden administration and Congress committed to curtailing relationships with armed groups. Doing so could reduce human rights violations and backlash against U.S. forces. It would strengthen international order, aligning with shifts in international law by holding states responsible for their armed group’s partners. Policymakers and the broader public are also more likely to prefer a foreign policy relying on state allies to one based on ties with armed groups.
U.S.-supported state forces certainly do not have clean hands. There were revelations earlier this year that a U.S. military advisor was likely present at the infamous 1981 El Mozote massacre by Salvadoran troops that killed 978 people—which the United States then helped cover up. Somali government forces the United States relies on to fight Islamist militant group al-Shabab have committed torture, forced children to work as spies, and dragged U.S. intelligence agents and diplomats into domestic disputes. With foreign governments though, relationships are more transparent than with armed groups, and the United States has various diplomatic and economic levers to incentivize or compel desired behavior.
The United States’ own record is far from perfect. In Afghanistan, U.S. airstrikes and ground attacks that killed or harmed civilians turned many rural Afghans firmly against the United states and its Afghan government allies. Recent revelations about a 2019 airstrike in Syria that killed roughly 70 people make clear that U.S. forces sometimes ignore or cover up abuses, a long-standing pattern.
When U.S. forces harm civilians, however, there are robust resources and structures in the media, nongovernmental organizations, the military, and Congress for investigations seeking legal accountability and compensating victims or surviving family members. Although highly imperfect and unevenly applied, these procedures can help reduce enmity, potentially keeping civilians from joining or aiding anti-U.S. militant groups.
Armed group partners rarely have the same rules of engagement or policies for redress after violence against civilians. In Afghanistan, the United States relied on local militias that frequently abused and extorted civilians, breeding backlash against U.S. forces already struggling to win over locals. Holding armed group partners accountable requires close monitoring and an on-the-ground presence, abilities the United States now lacks in Afghanistan.
This is not just a matter of public opinion. Armed groups working with or for states long had an unclear status under international law, giving states a loophole to violate rivals’ sovereignty and dodge responsibility for human rights violations.
International courts and legal scholarship increasingly hold states liable for armed group partners that attack other states or harm civilians. New laws on the “crime of aggression” mean state officials are liable not only for unprovoked and unjustified military attacks but also if they delegate that task to rebels, mercenaries, or terrorist organizations. International war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone held Serbian and Liberian officials, respectively, responsible for the actions of the militias and rebel groups they helped organize and supply, even though the officials were not directly under their command.
In 2016, the International Committee of the Red Cross also issued new commentaries on the Geneva Conventions, suggesting states now have a duty to ensure respect for human rights from armed group partners no matter how tight their relationship is. Even looser relationships could now be crimes, such as supplying weapons to an armed group if state actors know they will likely be used to harm civilians.
To be sure, the United States has a rocky history with international law. Nicaragua is still owed reparations ordered by the International Court of Justice for sabotage operations in the 1980s. And the United States has had a contentious relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC), supporting certain prosecutions but never becoming a member state.
The Biden administration reversed sanctions on ICC officials imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump yet maintained strong opposition to ICC investigations into potential atrocities in Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories. New ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan said he will not focus the continuing Afghanistan investigation on U.S. abuses, removing one potential worry in Washington. By limiting armed group relationships, taking responsibility for them, and framing them in terms of obeying international law, the United States could start progressing from its troubled past and reinforce the struggling international legal system.
The U.S. government remains unlikely to subject itself to international legal accountability though, so temptation may remain to turn to armed group partners to take on rivals. With little public appetite for sending more U.S. ground troops abroad, U.S. plans for counterterrorism and competing with Russia, China, and Iran increasingly rely on “local partners.” Some security experts have even called for supporting privateers to attack Chinese merchant ships.
Yet not all partners are equal. While local armed groups may have stronger on-the-ground knowledge—and even “implausible deniability” of involvement in attacks on rivals may be useful internationally—ties to armed groups very easily backfire. Turkey, for instance, has viewed U.S. cooperation with Kurdish rebels in Syria as signaling U.S. support for Kurdish rebels more generally, holding the country responsible for alleged attacks by Kurdish forces in Iraq. Armed groups may use U.S. support to carve out their own fiefdoms while abusing local populations, an unfortunately common occurrence in Afghanistan that bred support for the Taliban.
U.S. ground forces tend to prefer working alone rather than with partners. The public and foreign-policy experts, meanwhile, trust state allies more and prefer them to partnering with armed groups. Progressives and many conservatives alike want a more restrained foreign policy with less external intervention. Liberals want a stronger international order with more U.S. cooperation globally. Avoiding armed group partnerships and tying that decision to international law balance these preferences.
The Biden administration has been reassessing U.S. strategic priorities and aiming to rebuild U.S. credibility and leadership on the global stage. Reducing entanglements with armed groups abroad can only help these efforts. For order to be anything more than powerful countries doing whatever they wish, the United States needs to lead by example: not only criticizing other states as rule-breakers but following the rules itself.
Kai Thaler is an assistant professor of global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He conducts research on civil conflict, political violence, and regime change, especially in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.
This article was originally published on Foreign Policy. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.