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As policy-makers and analysts become more distant from momentous global events, they tend to invoke a sentence or phrase to encapsulate what these moments mean and what lessons they carry. After World War II, the primary frame was the “danger of appeasement” and “no more Munichs”; after the genocide in Rwanda, the lesson was “never again” and the “failure of the West to intervene."
But how do we arrive at such distilled narratives and soundbites from events as complex as war or genocide? Looking back at both of these examples, it’s clear that particular representations develop over time, becoming dominant as certain lessons are contested or fade away. In short, the lessons policy-makers draw aren’t always immediately obvious or inevitable, but the product of political and social discourse over time.
Twenty-five years from now, what will our shorthand be for the war in Afghanistan? There are at least four potential representations of the intervention, war, and Western withdrawal that are circulating in current discourse – each of which is worth challenging before it becomes crystallized as the dominant lesson for future policy-makers to draw on.
Narrative #1: Doomed to Fail
The first narrative is that the 20-year effort of NATO and the United States was a tragic venture, as it was bound to fail. Two reasons are usually given for this shorthand assessment. The first, articulated most recently by Henry Kissinger, is that the very political DNA of the United States – its democratic system and processes – simply cannot sustain a military engagement overseas, given the difficulty of setting clear, narrow and attainable goals. There will always be the temptation for loftier objectives, such as ‘defeating communism’ (as in Vietnam) or bringing about democratic transformation (as in Afghanistan). The second reason supporting the narrative of inevitable failure is that ‘ordinary’ Afghans simply did not have the will to fight to the end for a new political system for their country. Therefore, once the support of an external power was withdrawn, the military effort against the Taliban and in support of the secular government in Kabul was destined to crumble.
But does this representation of tragic venture really hold up? Some analysts (including Kissinger himself) suggest that in 2001 the United States, supported by other Western states, could have set the more specific goal of rooting out terrorist movements in Afghanistan – and sustained it with appropriate levels of force and creative diplomacy. Instead, US resources and strategic focus became diverted by the dangerous effort to unseat Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and by a military strategy in Afghanistan that created an insurgency. By pushing the idea of inevitable failure, we therefore absolve US and other Western decision-makers of responsibility for the particular policy choices they made. We ignore that there were critical junctures, at which different paths could have been pursued.
Moreover, this first narrative grossly misrepresents the sacrifices made by so many Afghans. Over 66,000 members of the Afghan armed forces lost their lives in the post-9/11 period, along with close to 50,000 Afghan civilians. Others invested sweat and tears in building up new state institutions or in creating new civil society organizations. These numbers do not cohere with the message that Afghans lacked the will to fight for a different future.
Narrative #2: Don't meddle in foreign conflicts
The second narrative or lesson dominating public discourse – the one President Biden currently prefers – is that “the United States should not get involved in other countries’ civil wars”. This is a striking inversion of the lesson the US claimed it had learned from the Rwandan genocide. The problem with this representation is that it depicts a country whose borders could and should have been impenetrable to outsiders, and that the choice facing the United States in 2001 was whether to become involved in Afghanistan’s sovereign jurisdiction.
The reality, however, is that Afghanistan has really never been left to its own devices. It has long been penetrated from all sides — Pakistan to the east and south, Iran to the west, and Russia via various proxies. Moreover, US interference throughout the 1980s as a form of counter-intervention to Soviet involvement facilitated the Taliban’s eventual rise and changed the country’s political trajectory. The insurgency of the post-2001 period, many would argue, was largely made by the United States. But more importantly, the US, along with other powers with interests in the region, have employed many ways and means of trying to influence developments in Afghanistan (and elsewhere), even without boots on the ground.
Narrative #3: Full Circle / Square One
A third representation of Afghanistan that dominates today’s discourse is that “we're back to where we started”. Afghanistan has come full circle. The Taliban are back in power and theocratic rule will grip the country yet again.
This narrative is worth poking and prodding. To begin, the Afghan population has changed significantly since 2001. An entire generation – particularly of women and girls – has lived under a different form of government. It would be surprising if its priorities, and its stance towards its new leaders, were exactly the same as they were two decades ago. Similarly, we should not assume that the Taliban will function as a replica of its 2001 self.
To be sure, there are deeply worrying signs about the authenticity of Taliban leaders’ promises to govern with moderation. Reports suggest that Taliban figures are resorting to extreme and public forms of punishment for crime; cracking down with force on local journalists; denying freedoms and services to women; and forcibly displacing minority communities. The Taliban should be judged by its actions and not its words, and should be held accountable for any crimes or atrocities that it commits.
At the same time, the organization has forged different alliances and connections with outside actors. The configuration of its foreign support base is not the same as it was in 2001. The political economy of its rule has also shifted. Whereas in the earlier phases of its rule, Taliban leaders and commanders secured revenue by taxing activities that were occurring in their zones of control (including farmers and drug producers), today they are much more deeply engaged in the drug trade – including in trafficking and exporting – and can draw on the resources and institutions of the Afghan state to engage in illicit activities. All of these changes must be analyzed and understood in any political and diplomatic attempts to provide humanitarian assistance to the Afghan population, or to try to influence or moderate Taliban behaviour.
A final problem with the “full circle” representation is that it doesn’t capture the degree to which the United States has changed as global power since 2001. At the turn of the millennium, it was the unrivalled superpower. Vladimir Putin was in the early years of his presidency and had not yet embarked on his campaign to reassert Russia’s power and influence and openly challenge the West. China had not yet flexed its muscles as the rising hegemon or directly confronted US and Western ambitions in the UN Security Council.
The global landscape of 2021 is marked by a very different distribution of hard power, and a significant waning of US soft power. The day before President Biden’s August 31 deadline for withdrawal, the UN Security Council passed a watered-down resolution that would have provided a safe corridor for humanitarian assistance into Afghanistan and safe passage for those seeking to leave. Both China and Russia worked to weaken that resolution as part of a broader effort to limit the influence of Western countries on multilateral humanitarian efforts.
During that Security Council debate, China’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, delivered a diplomatic but hard-hitting rebuke of the hurried Western exit and its potential to destabilize both Afghanistan and the wider region. In so doing, he also adroitly positioned his country as the defender and guardian of international order: “We hope that the relevant countries will realize the fact that withdrawal is not the end of responsibility, but the beginning of reflection and correction.” This is one narrative that Western countries are quickly losing control over.
Narrative #4: We are already doing our part
China’s reference to responsibility brings me to the final narrative contending for dominance in today’s discourse on Afghanistan – the idea that the best way for Western countries to now fulfill their responsibility is through the resettlement of Afghan refugees. Canada, in particular, is heralding its promise to bring 40,000 Afghans to this country, as announced by former Foreign Minister Marc Garneau at the UN General Assembly in late September.
While the resettlement pledge has been widely praised, the details of how the process will actually work is still opaque to many Afghans, as well as Canadians who want to help. But more importantly, the target numbers represent only a sliver of the Afghan population. What about the millions of who remain, in a situation of deepening humanitarian crisis?
In late October, the UN’s World Food Programme warned that more than 50% of the country’s population – approximately 23 million – are now confronting acute food insecurity. 3.5 million of them are children. And this in a context where the country is already facing its worst drought in three decades.
The narrative that our responsibility is exercised through refugee resettlement is dangerously narrow. It denies that the actions of foreign countries have had a profound impact on Afghanistan’s future and the security and livelihoods of its people. It legitimizes a conception of responsibility that extends only to particular individuals who Western countries are able to extract and “save”.
Narrative #4 also diverts us from confronting two fundamental questions that are crucial moving forward.
The first is what NATO countries are prepared to do if and when Afghans start fleeing en masse, in order to avoid the fate of starvation. Already, Canada’s European allies are wrestling with this possibility. In so doing, they are invoking another historical precedent: the 2015 migration of Syrian refugees across the European continent.
The second, and really tough question, is whether and how we are prepared to engage with the Taliban. Millions of dollars in development assistance have been frozen, due to concerns about directly dealing with Afghanistan’s new rulers. Are we willing to re-purpose it for humanitarian aid? If so, through what processes and under what conditions?
There are no easy answers. But policy-makers will be only be able to confront these questions, and others, if they resist the temptation to frame the last two decades of Western involvement in Afghanistan with a simple soundbite.
About the author
Jennifer M. Welsh is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University. She was previously Professor and Chair in International Relations at the European University Institute (Florence, Italy) and Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford, where she co-founded the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. From 2013-2016, she served as the Special Adviser to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, on the Responsibility to Protect.
Professor Welsh is the author, co-author, and editor of several books and articles on humanitarian intervention, the evolution of the notion of the ‘responsibility to protect’ in international society, the UN Security Council, and Canadian foreign policy. Her most recent books include The Return of History: Conflict, Migration and Geopolitics in the 21st century (2016), which was based on her CBC Massey Lectures, and The Responsibility to Prevent: Overcoming the Challenges of Atrocity Prevention (2015). She was a former recipient of a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship and a Trudeau Fellowship, and from 2014-2019 has directed a five-year European Research Council-funded project called “The Individualisation of War: Reconfiguring the Ethics, Law and Politics of Armed Conflict”. She is also a frequent media commentator on international affairs and Canadian foreign policy.
Professor Welsh sits on the editorial boards of the journals Global Responsibility to Protect, International Journal, and Ethics and International Affairs, and on the Advisory Boards of the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt, The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation. She has a BA from the University of Saskatchewan (Canada), and a Masters and Doctorate from the University of Oxford (where she studied as a Rhodes Scholar).