Home / Opinion / Columns /  The world must never abandon its humanitarian responsibility

The swiftness with which the Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan has surprised many, including US President Joe Biden. What led to the Afghan army’s sudden capitulation can only be speculated: Perhaps its soldiers realized that without protective American air cover, they’d be vulnerable, and with former president Ashraf Ghani abandoning the country, what were they meant to defend anyway?

Biden justified the withdrawal with peculiar logic. An arbitrary deadline—the 20th anniversary of the 11 September attacks on the US—as though there was a term limit; implementing a decision his predecessor Donald Trump had already set in motion; and insisting that Americans were not in the nation-building business (although as a senator, Biden had spoken differently).

The chaotic departure has created several new problems.

One, it reinforces the view that American interventions tend to end in disaster, with helicopters ferrying diplomats from the embassy to the airport, as in Saigon back in 1975 and in Kabul now.

Two, it raises profound questions concerning security in South Asia. The last time the Taliban were in power, Afghanistan had become an inn for the armed disaffected keen to destabilize different parts of the world. Its return emboldens Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which has an exaggerated notion of its role in the world, and this isn’t good for any democracy, even Pakistan’s own.

Three, the Taliban may walk their talk for now, of respecting women’s rights “under Islamic laws" (whatever that might mean), and its spokesman might even deign to be interviewed by a female journalist, but the whitewashing of billboards with women sends a different message. The heartbreaking messages on social media, the testimonies by brave Afghan women who face a frightful future, is an indictment of all the world’s countries that gave that wounded country some hope.

Four, it makes it far harder for any future military intervention to prevent crimes against humanity or genocide. To be sure, the record of the international community in this regard has been pathetic. Far too many atrocities have remained unchecked because political leaders committing or supervising these atrocities knew that the world would do nothing in most cases. The world had watched the Rwandan genocide in 1994; perhaps shamed by that, it acted in later years—after Yugoslavia collapsed, US-led NATO forces attacked the Serb expansionism of Slobodan Milosevic, and foreign troops protected the sovereignty of Bosnia-Herzegovina for years. And over in Africa, British and other forces intervened in Sierra Leone at the turn of the century to defend its fragile democracy.

That was the moment when it seemed liberal intervention and the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect could become a norm. Such interventions were hardly unique. In 1971, India intervened in what became Bangladesh to prevent mass atrocities that had disrupted millions of lives in what used to be East Pakistan. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia, helping end Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. And in 1979, Tanzania aided anti-government Ugandan forces to end Idi Amin’s despotic rule in Uganda. The US-led and United Nations-authorized coalition that pushed back Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 too had a legal basis.

However, the war in Iraq changed that. This war was different from the US invasion of Afghanistan. Under international law, the US had the right to act against Afghanistan, which had hosted Al-Qaeda which had attacked the US in September 2001. But the US lacked such basis against Iraq in 2003. This is not to suggest that Saddam Hussein was a legitimate leader. He was brutal. He treated minorities and opponents cruelly. But to argue that Iraqis preferred Saddam over the US invasion disregards Iraqis who wanted to live peacefully without either.

And yet, the Iraq invasion has made it nearly impossible to achieve consensus for future military interventions should mass atrocities occur. Pacifism is a respectable view. But the world isn’t there yet. Even the UN accepts the need for military intervention and there are laws that govern how wars should be conducted. Diplomacy must be the first step. But without the possibility of military use as the last resort, diplomacy may be powerless in tackling mass atrocities. In our imperfect world, prosecutions under the International Criminal Court are selective, and applying targeted sanctions against repugnant individuals or regimes isn’t easy. Even when sanctions are imposed, not every country complies. To be sure, the citizens of Sierra Leone, the Balkans, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Uganda did not want foreign forces to stay forever, but they wanted their nightmare to end. It is a choice between two imperfect scenarios.

The US has chosen. It has not ‘lost’ Afghanistan; it had never won it, nor owned it. But by leaving such a mess behind, it has betrayed many Afghans who were able to live with some dignity and enjoy some freedoms. The callous manner in which countries that had once stationed troops in Afghanistan but are now slow to accept refugees, shows that the war was never about liberating Afghans. That’s the ultimate limitation of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. Who are you protecting, and from whom?

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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