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A year ago, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in part because the United States had hoped for the best after withdrawing its forces from the country, without adequately preparing for the worst. In dealing with the Taliban today, President Joe Biden’s administration cannot afford such illusions.

The past 12 months should have dispelled any optimism about the new regime. In their second round in power, the Taliban again seem willing to welcome foreign terrorists, including former al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, killed by a US drone strike in the heart of Kabul. Taliban leaders who favor less barbaric social policies – like allowing girls to go to school – are unwilling to challenge their more conservative counterparts on them.

The Pashtun-dominated movement has shown little inclination to welcome the country’s minorities or prevent revenge attacks on former enemies. While their executors have yet to replicate the horrific brutality they demonstrated in the 1990s, they are nonetheless on their way to making Afghanistan one of the most repressive societies on the planet.

Importantly, even Taliban leaders who want sanctions relief and international recognition are unwilling to compromise in any way to achieve them. Despite a collapsing economy and continued attacks by the local branch of the Islamic State, the regime appears broadly secure in its position. The movement is unlikely to fracture or implode in the short term – let alone a viable opposition to form.

With these realities in mind, the United States must take a pragmatic approach to pursuing its engagement. Its top priority must be to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a base for terrorist attacks again. The Biden administration should inform the Taliban that the United States can and will take out more targets there if necessary — and that continuing to harbor extremist groups will prevent the regime’s international recognition. The White House should also leverage the revelation of ongoing ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban to seek greater counterterrorism assistance from countries like Pakistan.

It is also in the interest of the United States to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan, which would be rightly or wrongly blamed on the West. Billions in international aid prevented a dreaded famine last winter. But the Afghan economy has shrunk by 30% over the past year. Up to 70% of Afghans cannot afford food and other basic necessities. Although the United States should be careful to bolster the Taliban with additional aid, it cannot ignore a looming crisis. It is expected to focus for now on mobilizing donors to respond to the UN humanitarian funding appeal, which is well below its target.

Finally, the United States should recommit to bringing Afghans who qualify for so-called special immigrant visas to the United States as soon as possible. While recent efforts to streamline the complicated process are welcome, the backlog of applicants is still far too high and major consulates abroad need staff and resources to process visas for other vulnerable Afghans fleeing the country. Congress is also expected to pass legislation that would allow Afghans already in the United States to apply for green cards before their temporary immigration status expires.

Such a program is certainly limited. But after spending 20 years and $2 trillion in Afghanistan to return the country to the Taliban last year, the United States must be realistic about what it can achieve. Simply preventing the worst would be no small feat.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• How the Afghan War Was Lost, in Five Easy Steps: Kori Schake

• Zawahiri’s murder was a success of a bygone era: Hal Brands

• Congress Should Help Afghan Allies Go American: Editorial

The editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion Editorial Board.

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