Monday 25 February 2013

The Afghan dilemma

In less than a year, US combat troops will draw down their engagement in Afghanistan for good. By then, Western military forces will have been in the country for more than a dozen years. With mixed results. As a documentary by the BBC revealed last night, law enforcement is riddled with corruption and police commanders of the Western trained Afghan forces stand accused of serious human rights violations. While the picture varies considerably across the country, the despair about the humanitarian dilemma was clearly written into the expression of the US commander who talked about the ongoing corruption and criminal behaviour amongst his Afghan colleagues.

So, the question is: what should the West do? Is it really time to leave, or may a premature withdrawal risk creating more suffering in a corner of the world that surely had more than its share of human misery?

Tony Blair often said that policies should be guided by principles, so let us try to find out if principles can assist us to identify a solution for the Afghan issue.

There are essentially two broad guiding principles that divide the field of argument about the Western engagement in Afghanistan. Interestingly, they cut across the ideological divide between left and right.

First, there are those who argue that humanitarian interventionism remains the overriding tenet which should define foreign policy of the US and the Western allies in Afghanistan. Any hasty withdrawal jeopardises the gains in security for the local population, and the limited progress there may have been. Humanitarian interventionism is paradoxically sustained not only by principles of international justice and a globalised vision of human rights, trumping as it were the rights of national governments, but also finds some support from neo-conservatives who argue to fight terrorism at the source and thereby protect national interests. George W. Bush's policy in Afghanistan and Iraq therefore paradoxically coincided with some of the more left-leaning rhetoric about humanitarian interventionism (and tainted its application in the view of some).

The other side of the argument is populated by those who take a realist position coupled with more libertarian instincts. Troop withdrawal from Afghanistan appears justified in their eyes because the world resembles a continuous fight of all against all, which Western governments are incapable of doing much about. The best we can hope for is an increase in security for Western populations and laying the foundations for the Afghan people to solve their own problems with reason and mutual respect.

It seems to be that neither of these principles offer much guidance in the case of Afghanistan. While the humanitarian instinct recognises the need to protect civilians from their own national government, advocates of this position do not tell us much about why Western soldiers should lay down their lives in far flung countries in order to prevent humanitarian disasters. Whilst it appeals to a deep seated moral desire to prevent atrocities or systematically perpetrated injustices, humanitarians seem to fail to factor in the loss of the lives of soldiers or the civilian costs of military engagement of Western countries. Military engagements to stop humanitarian disasters are portrayed as added sum games in which everybody wins.

Libertarian (or laissez faire) isolationism on the other hand fails to tells us much about the global costs of not intervening. The focus of utilitarian calculation is narrower here, concentrating on the gain for Western populations only. Global implications of humanitarian disasters are outside the scope of this argument.

If neither of these, admittedly rather crude, arguments assists us any further, perhaps we should look more deeply at what both principles lack. Both care very little about the perspective of the Afghan population itself. In essence, both arguments are myopic by focusing on Western benefits, be it a gain in moral standing or in narrow, nationally defined utility.

What remains excluded from the picture is the decision making capacity and will of those we are supposedly helping (or failing to help). The biggest barrier to factoring in the will of the Afghan people is of course the lack of a functioning democracy. Yet, is this a reason to dismiss it? If we do, we may end up in a deeply patronising position, where either our help or our refrain from assistance neglects the importance of the views of those we want to engage. Clearly, even amongst Afghans there will always be a multitude of views about when the West should militarily disengage. Yet, adopting a solely Western perspective leaves us open to the charge of pursuing self-interested policies.

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