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The Enduring Lesson from Afghanistan

27 Aug 2021
By Dr Samuel Berhanu Woldemariam
Cots are set up in the fitness center at Naval Station (NAVSTA) Rota to accommodate evacuees from Afghanistan in anticipation of their arrival. NAVSTA Rota is currently supporting the Department of Defense mission to facilitate the save departure and relocation of U.S. citizens, Special Immigration Visa recipients and vulnerable Afghan populations from Afghanistan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Carpenter)

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has left powerful states scrambling to evacuate their citizens, the usual political blame-shifting, and distressing scenes at Kabul airport. Deeper reflection is needed on what the enduring lesson is.

The talking point of the Biden administration is that the US has met its strategic objectives in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban takeover, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made rounds of media appearances where he defended the decision of the Biden administration on the basis that the US has successfully completed its mission in Afghanistan, which was to defeat al-Qaeda.

But for the rest of the international community, this simplistic assessment of mission completion did not sink well. UK lawmakers called this debacle “a failure of intelligence, leadership and moral duty.” A different tone came from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In his speech to Parliament, the prime minster said, “I know many of you are asking a simple question, was it worth it? Yes, it was. We did the right thing. You did the right thing. … Australia is safer today because of your efforts and your sacrifice.”

The current crisis

A reasonable assessment of the situation in Afghanistan over the past 20 years suggests that the current crisis unfolding in the country has been a crisis waiting to happen. On the one hand, it was clear that the US and NATO forces were not going to be in Afghanistan forever. They had to leave at some point. On the other hand, even though the Taliban was ousted from power 20 years ago following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, they managed to mount an insurgency that survived for two decades. Not only did it survive, it also became stronger. Therefore, as the US and allied forces gradually left, the Taliban gradually gained more territories. What we are witnessing today is not something that was unexpected.

However, the scene unfolding before our eyes in Afghanistan should not be dismissed as a mere failure of a mission. This is a fiasco of grand proportions. It is troubling to see what’s happening in Afghanistan at the moment. It’s more troubling that this is happening after 20 years of fighting. In this time, 47,000 civilians, 6,000 US troops and contractors, and over 1100 NATO troops were killed, and between one and two trillion dollars were spent by the US alone.

It is also troubling to see the political blame shifting now occurring. President Joe Biden has pointed to the Trump administration and the failure of the Afghan security forces who were not willing to fight. But this begs the questions of what happened to all the effort in training and equipping the Afghan forces over the past two decades? Yes, training and equipment will not do the fighting, but how were the coalition so wrong in their assessment of the strength and resolve of the Afghan military which they said they trained and built over the span of two decades?

So, from whatever angle you look at it, this is perhaps one of the greatest foreign policy failures. Every nation that participated in the war, including Australia, should seek to get to the bottom of these failures, hold decision makers accountable, and come to the aid of Afghan refugees who are already fleeing the country.

Who is to blame?

The responsibility for the unfolding crisis should be apportioned among the various actors who participated in the so-called “forever wars.” The US has a misguided policy of exporting democracy and human rights to the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. I say it is misguided because there is a fundamental inconsistency between the interventionist US foreign policy and the rules of international law that oppose such interventionist tendencies. This inconsistency therefore means that US foreign policy, particularly those seeking regime change, often run afoul of international law thereby pulling national and international support away from the cause. This leaves the US and allied forces fighting a unilateralist war. When they can no longer fight or pull out, they leave the countries in a worse position than they found them. Libya and Iraq are prominent examples of that. Now, Afghanistan.

The protection of human rights and the promotion of a democratic culture are legitimate goals in a country’s foreign policy. The problem lies in how countries give effect to these goals. The interventionist model of US foreign policy enforcement is partly responsible for the failure in Afghanistan. This should yet be a lesson towards considering other models to help achieve human rights protection and democratisation.

The Taliban is the other big player that bears responsibility. It has sown the seeds of terror throughout the nation, and the very people it seeks to govern are fleeing from it in terror. The people fear reprisal, deprivation of their basic human rights, and repression. By the look of it, the Taliban is going to form a government, and if it does, it will bear the primary responsibility for the protection of the Afghan people.  A basic principle of international law is that the primary responsibility for the protection of citizens lies with the concerned government of the state. It is my optimistic hope that the Taliban would prove all analysts wrong and commit to respecting the rights of the Afghan people, particularly those of women and children.

Focusing on the future

The immediate focus for the international community needs to be putting pressure on the Taliban leadership to respect its responsibility as the power that is in control of the government and the country.

Another priority should be the aid of Afghan refugees and displaced persons who are fleeing the country. States need to open up their borders and receive those leaving the country. Canada and the UK have already committed to receiving 20,000 vulnerable Afghans threatened by the Taliban and forced to flee Afghanistan. Australia should follow suit by expanding its initial allocation of 3,000 spots for Afghan refugees from its annual humanitarian intake of 13,750.

The long-term goal to rebuilding Afghanistan has to be of course to see to it to that the Taliban commit to the intra-Afghan dialogue and negotiation it agreed to in the peace agreement with the US. At the moment, that seems the only plausible long-term solution. To the extent there is a terrorist threat against states from within Afghanistan, the international community as a whole needs to condemn such threats and seek to hold the Taliban accountable if it harbours and supports such threats. In this respect, the international community needs to speak with one voice through the United Nations.

But the enduring lesson for the international community, in particular the US, is the need to reconcile foreign policy goals with the international legal order so that the delicate balance will not be disturbed. This, among other things, calls for a reconsideration of foreign policy tools to further foreign policy goals. The interventionist tools have time and again failed. It is time to look for other options, ones that support democratisation and human rights protection from within the state, not without.

Dr Samuel Berhanu Woldemariam is a Lecturer at the University of Newcastle Law School. He previously worked as a legal officer with the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Samuel’s research interest spans across a range of areas in international law.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.