Punishment Won’t Cut It for Policy in Afghanistan

Punishment Won’t Cut It for Policy in Afghanistan

For all the talk of international law as a standard, the practice of U.S. diplomacy seldom displays attention to its actual requirements.

Editor’s note: In August, The National Interest organized a symposium on Afghanistan one year after the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban takeover of Kabul. We asked a variety of experts the following question: “How should the Biden administration approach Afghanistan and the Taliban government?” The following article is one of their responses:

How to approach the Taliban? I have an unconventional answer: the United States should accord provisional recognition to the Taliban as the de facto rulers of Afghanistan. It should focus on relieving the humanitarian disaster that has ensued after the U.S. withdrawal attended by the freezing of Afghan access to the banking system and, subsequently, the seizure of $7 billion of Afghan central bank assets. It should reverse those policies and seek pacification, acknowledging that the Taliban are best equipped to bring that about.

The likelihood of this happening, it should be acknowledged, is practically nil. A thousand obstacles present themselves. But it would better accord with what ought to be U.S. priorities: addressing the humanitarian disaster, encouraging nonviolence, and discouraging international terrorism.

Terrorism often springs from intense anger and an outraged sense of wrong inflicted on innocents, so a state should never wantonly abet those sentiments in any of the peoples it deals with. Those with the motive for revenge, it is true, seldom actually have the opportunity, but in principle, it is imprudent to saddle one’s nation with that hatred. In the willful intensification of the Afghan famine, which inevitably followed Afghanistan’s economic and financial collapse, the United States acted imprudently.

It also acted unjustly. After twenty years of protestations of all the grand benefits the United States aimed to bring to Afghanistan, it turned out that U.S. officialdom had other priorities when it came to the impending starvation of the Afghan people. U.S. leaders, the event showed, preferred sermonizing about democracy and women’s rights to acknowledging that America’s policies were massively endangering the most basic of human rights, to life itself. The U.S. seizure of the Afghan central bank reserves, distributing half to 9/11 plaintiffs, compounded these errors and in effect imposed the burden of collective responsibility on the 20 million Afghans born since 9/11.

For all the talk of international law as a standard, the practice of U.S. diplomacy seldom displays attention to its actual requirements. In the case of Afghanistan, the customs of international law dictated the conclusion that the Taliban deserved recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. This is so for two reasons. First, they won the war. Second, they said the right things about their victory.

The international law of civil conflict holds civil wars as unfortunate and deeply regrettable—though sometimes inescapable—means to settle political disputes. The side that could win with no aid from abroad was the presumptive legitimate heir to the civil state and was due external recognition if it would fulfill its international obligations. In the classic view, military victory, aided by the people, was the next best thing to a fair vote. As the legal scholar Brad Roth observed, this idea was not a repudiation of the principle of popular sovereignty but rather an application of that very principle during wartime circumstances, the only means by which popular allegiances could be registered. At the end of the day, the classic law decreed, the great controversy—who should rule?—had to be settled by the people on the spot. It was their business, not someone else’s business. They had the right, and outsiders none, to decide for themselves.

The events of August 2021 were a grand referendum. The results showed which side had won, or rather wholly lost, the allegiance of the majority of the Afghan population. In previous years, Afghans mainly expressed their views not by showing up at the ballot box but by aiding and fleeing, by hiding and tattling, by disguising and conspiring, by joining and disbanding, as they navigated the hazardous terrain posed by the government and the insurgency. The choice between the U.S.-led Afghan government and the Taliban was not, by any rational measure, the best choice for Afghans, but it was a choice they had to make. A lot of them held their noses in preferring Taliban misrule to American misrule, but such was their collective election.

The Taliban also said the right things on their victory. To paraphrase: “We come in peace; we do not seek retribution; we will perform in good faith our international obligations, especially the prevention of terrorist attacks coming from within Afghanistan; we will respect women’s rights within the limits of Sharia law, as they do elsewhere in the Muslim world.” It was like they were reading from some dusty old treatise on the law of nations.

Instantly, however, the Blob replied that the United States can’t trust anything the Taliban says. But I think the right course would have been to proceed with them on the basis of those stipulations, in a “trust, but verify” spirit. Obviously, the Taliban were not of one mind, and therefore the ability of its fractious leaders to make good on those propositions was rightly treated with skepticism. But the question for diplomacy is whether the engagement with them on that basis would have strengthened or weakened those in the Taliban leadership who wanted these outcomes and sincerely wished for a pacification. As it was, the United States could offer in return nothing that acknowledged the Taliban’s authority, which is to say nothing at all.

In this and other venues (see Iran), experience shows that a hardline policy from the United States abets extremists on the other side. In Afghanistan, the war against the Taliban, requiring collective punishments in the manner of the long-distance blockade, weakens the moderates in their struggle with the extremists and gives a boost to ISIS-K. This is known as a bad outcome.

The Taliban are terrorists, U.S. officials say, and therefore no association or recognition is possible with them. But that attitude effectively rejects the verdict of the people. It also works for an outcome in which Afghanistan is not governed at all, and it ignores the fact that some factions of the Taliban want to make good on that pledge of preventing terrorist attacks from within Afghanistan.

In the past, when seeking regime change, the United States usually sought clients who would be in a position to actually govern if they won. No such alternative is waiting in the wings today. If the Taliban can’t pacify Afghanistan then no one can. After forty-five years of near-continuous war, that would be a tragedy, as peace is what the Afghan people need the most.

We think of international law as concerning the relations among states, but a fundamental principle of the international legal order is that states are indispensable in battling anarchy within their territory. The theorists of the law of nations had read Thucydides and knew the anarchy of civil war to be the worst of all human conditions, something that only the unhinged would abet. International law encouraged the formation of governments that could keep order in their territory and prevent it from becoming a menace to others, which ungoverned spaces have a propensity to do. In its approach to Afghanistan, the United States does not give this consideration the importance it deserves.  

The United States has a set of aims in Afghanistan (human rights and democracy) that sanctions are incapable of bringing about. Barring such success, the purpose of American power inexorably becomes the infliction of as much suffering and anarchy as the local population can bear. The people of Afghanistan are now getting the worst of this cruel and incoherent policy. It needs to stop.

U.S. policy has been driven more by passion—the desire for revenge for 9/11, yet to be fully sated—than by a reasoned approach tailored to produce desirable humanitarian and strategic consequences.

One is puzzled to decide whether this dead-end policy should most alarm the realist concerned with terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan, or the idealist horrified by the resulting human desolation.  

David C. Hendrickson is President of the John Quincy Adams Society and the author of Freedom, Independence, Peace: John Quincy Adams and American Foreign Policy (forthcoming). His website is davidhendrickson.org. Twitter: @dhendrickson50.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.