Roar writer Justine Noble on why it was time for America and the West to pull out of Afghanistan.
Right now, after a military campaign that has lasted 20 years, the United States and western troops are pulling out of Afghanistan, their final withdrawal scheduled for the end of the month. As international troops have pulled out from the country, the insurgent Taliban group has filled the void, taking the capital city, Kabul, as well as other major cities. But despite the international political and strategic disaster this decision has become, the majority of Americans stand by Biden’s decision to pull all US forces from the country.
American support of their military’s withdrawal is most likely rooted in the financial and emotional burden the last twenty years have caused, but the positive nature of Biden’s actions extends farther below the surface. The morality and efficiency of foreign intervention is discussed at length amongst those who study international relations, and US intervention in Afghanistan is just the right case study for the scholars who condemn it. For one, America’s presence, or that of any Western power for that matter, has not provided any long-term stability. In 2001, the US entered Afghanistan with a promise to take power from the hands of the Taliban and place it in those of democratically elected leaders. In 2021, they leave the country once again in the hands of the Taliban.
But, you say, doesn’t that just prove everyone coming after Biden right? Well, yes, if we have the short-term in mind. If we think about the state of Afghanistan tomorrow – making sure as few human rights abuses ensue as possible – we would send all the US troops in the world in. However, if we think about the state of the nation for years and years to come, we would arguably vouch for the immediate removal of every single soldier. The sooner the West isn’t in Afghanistan to prop up a shaky democracy, the sooner one can begin to develop organically. Indeed, there is no shying away from the fact that as the Taliban advances, democracy will not exist in Afghanistan in the near future. But sometimes things just have to get worse before they get better. It stands to reason that a government left to evolve -desirably into a democracy – within its own cultural and religious bounds is one that is viable. Suited for the people it serves, such a democracy at its peak is more likely to strengthen itself to demolish threats like the Taliban instead of finding itself in a repetitive cycle of small gains and big losses. The utilitarian approach to ethics is one that is difficult and challenging from an empathetic-human rights standpoint. Nonetheless, it is only with such an approach that Afghans can maximize lives saved long-term.
On top of questioning the practical nature of a self-established democracy, we must ask ourselves: can we even call an enforced democracy a democracy? International relations students studying the principle of External Sovereignty, the right of states to non-intervention given they themselves stay out of others’ business, are far too familiar with the idea that assuming a state is incapable of sorting themselves out is condescending and typically racist. Indeed, there is no denying that Western intervention in Afghanistan in terms of protecting democracy paints countries such as the US and the UK as saviours, while the Afghans are uncivilized; needing to be saved. Of course, US intervention originated in an attack on its own soil. Security concerns played a major role in their entry, as well as the aim to restore power to what they recognized as Afghanistan’s official government. But as previously aforementioned, intervention kept the US in a position of power as the Afghan government became dependent on them, rendering their fate poorer than it might have been otherwise. Even though people with a classic Western education might drop their jaws at what I’m about to say, we can even question why we think democracy is the be-all-end-all system. Perhaps, a system that naturally engulfed the West in line with its norms would have not ever touched Afghanistan without a long history of colonialism both as British territory and a proxy Cold War battleground between the US and USSR. Even one of Britain’s most notable imperialists, Winston Churchill, was willing to admit: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.” Critics may respond that in the late 60s and early 70s, Afghanistan was making great democratic progress all by itself, intellectuals and women exploring new freedoms. But in the case that democracy is fit for Afghanistan, a quick read of its history tells you exactly when the West swooped in to ruin its functionality.
So, who is the West to impose democracy? And when it already exists, who is the West to monitor it? Well, turns out the US and other Western powers have a long history of trying to do both of these things in no one’s interest but its own, destabilizing regions and leaving with their tails in between their legs. Take Vietnam, for example. While Cold War justification for the United States was supposedly all about the threat posed by communism to American values of individuality and freedom, this was nothing more than an ideological facade facing Americans away from their government’s true values: money and power. Over half of the 3 million victims of the Vietnam War were Vietnamese civilians; the people of the US, as the self-proclaimed saviours of the world, were supposedly liberating. Vietnam is simply one of the many proxy wars the US fought with the USSR, fearing a nation’s superpower status becoming big enough to rival its own. Latin America tells us the same story. Does the US really value Guatemalan lives? Or is it the fact widespread nationalization suddenly prevented them from economic exploitation? Its border politics tell me it’s probably the second one. With such a poor track record, it’s probably best to transition away from US-style foreign intervention as soon as possible.
And what was the US really doing in Afghanistan? Well, as a matter of fact, in 2015, the New York Times revealed the US in terms of human rights was doing more harm than good. Troubled US soldiers were calling home from Afghanistan speaking of the large-scale sexual abuse and rape of young boys by the Afghan officials they were backing in a local practice called bacha bazi, or “boy play”. When these disturbed soldiers, who could sometimes even hear young boys being abused from their bunks, would tell their officers, they would demand silence, to “look the other way because it’s their culture”. Where the US could have protected human rights, they showed complicity. In this light, the human rights argument for their remaining presence becomes void.
Of course, we are already seeing why the West pulling out of Afghanistan is far from a simple issue. UK Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, along with many others, feels “We abandoned the Afghan people.” However, the moral responsibility millions in the West are feeling stems from a tradition of intervention. We have adopted a role that didn’t need to be ours. Biden himself said, “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build.” While that may sound selfish, history tells us we don’t always have the ability to make things better. Afghan sovereignty needed to be restored someday, and for now, the Taliban are here to stay. With a failed era of intervention coming to an end, hopefully, Afghanistan can begin from square one and climb slowly towards a better and independent future.