John Humphrys - Afghanistan : the End of a Liberal Illusion?

August 27, 2021, 4:59 PM GMT+0

There’s no longer any doubt about it. Come next Wednesday all American and allied forces will be out of Afghanistan. It will mark a defeat for Western liberal democracies in so many different ways. But for some the worst will be the dashing of any remaining hopes that we could bring enlightenment and human rights to societies we regard as barbaric. And that we should do so, if necessary, through the use of force. As we leave, few believe the assurances of the returned Taliban leaders that they will not behave as last time, carrying out vicious summary justice, denying women the right to an education, persecuting minorities and governing by terror. To see the crowds thronging Kabul airport is to see the fear and horror felt by those we leave behind. It is also to witness the unspeakable horror visited on them by a terrorist organisation many of us had never even heard of. It is the ordinary people of Afghanistan who are the real victims of our failure. Our defeat raises the question: ‘Can we ever bring western values to benighted countries?’ But there is an even more fundamental and controversial one: ‘Do we even have the right to try?’

In many ways the Afghanistan War, launched by the invasion of 2002, was a conventional one. Or at least, the casus belli was conventional. It was self-defence. The United States had been spectacularly attacked by the most audacious terrorist action in history in the very heart of its greatest cities. The attacks of 9/11 had been carried out by al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda had been nurtured and encouraged by the Taliban government of Afghanistan. Thus America’s instinctive response was to attack Afghanistan. And its allies in NATO invoked, for the only time in its history, Article Five of its treaty – that an attack on one was an attack on all. So it became a NATO war. And it was swiftly won. The Taliban were routed and the USA and its allies had a new country to run.

At that point a new phrase entered the political lexicon: ‘nation-building’. It became our job to rebuild the country and naturally we wished to do it in accordance with our values: democratic government, human rights, the liberation of women, the education of girls and so on. Indeed, as the presence of allied forces in Afghanistan continued year after year, the justification for what President Biden was to call the ‘forever war’ came to be this promotion of nation-building and human rights. The original purpose, to protect from further terrorist attack, had long been achieved, at least in so far as Afghanistan was concerned. Terrorist threats now largely lay elsewhere.

There are those who believe that the impatience behind Mr Biden’s phrase betrays a tragic defeatism. We were making progress in turning Afghanistan into a civilised country, his critics say, and we didn’t need to throw that progress away by peremptorily packing our bags. For several years now it had taken only a few thousand NATO troops, with very few fatalities, for the ring to be held and for the delicate plant of western democracy to start growing and spreading. Had we stayed, the transformation could have been permanent. Look at South Korea, the critics say, where American troops are still based seventy years after they first deployed there: it is now a prosperous, ‘western’ country with a firm commitment to human rights, all in stark contrast to the condition of its cousin, North

Korea. Look even at Germany, the bolder critics add, where American troops have been based for even longer. Germany is now as reliably ‘western’ as any other G7 country, and there is a ‘forever war’ still going on there: the ‘cold’ war in which Russia has merely replaced the Soviet Union as the adversary we cannot trust. Biden should have persisted with the much cheaper forever war in Afghanistan, they say, and western liberal values could have triumphed there too.

Maybe. We shall never know. But there is another relevant case study of whether the west can spread its values and one in which also, initially, it used force to do so. That’s the invasion of Iraq which happened the year after the Afghan invasion. It had a much less clear-cut casus belli. Tony Blair, the prime minister who authorised use of British forces in both invasions, was always much more slippery when he was giving a justification for the Iraq War. It was, he said, to remove Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (except there weren’t any). It was not, he insisted, about ‘regime change’ (except that it obviously was). He had not the green light to back President Bush’s military intervention before all other avenues had been exhausted (except that we later learned he secretly had).

The Americans, however, were always much clearer about what they were doing. They wanted rid of their former ally, Saddam Hussein, and they argued that once h was overthrown nation-building on western democratic lines would follow almost as night follows day. They didn’t put it quite like that of course, but there could be no other explanation for their total lack of planning as to what should happen after their invasion had succeeded. Indeed the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, claimed that a short war was all that would be needed. Implicit in that was the belief that the Iraqi people, once rescued from the tyranny of Saddam, would settle down into a sort of default mode of western democracy, human rights and all the rest

We now know, of course, that this was pie in the sky. Iraq is now a failed state, more prone to being the vulnerable pawn in a deadly chess game played by neighbouring powers, more dangerous for those who live there than ever it was under Saddam. We do not visit Baghdad to view a model of nation-building constructed on western values.

All this at the very least raises doubts about whether the West can still use military power to spread its values. But there is the more fundamental question of whether it should even try.

The argument for doing so is embodied in the images at Kabul airport. The sheer fear expressed on the faces of those who are beginning to realise that they won’t make it out and believe they know all too well what their fate is going to be when the last American plane has left without them on it, elicits an obvious response in the liberal West: something must be done. That is what has motivated liberal believers in the universality of human rights throughout recent history. It is, in part, what motivated the American neo-conservatives, so powerful a group in President Bush’s government, and their political soulmates in Britain and elsewhere. It is the view that to be a western liberal is to believe in an ethical dimension to politics and an ethical foreign policy. It says: wherever we can stop suffering and promote western values, we should.

But there is a counter-case and it can be summed up in a single word: sovereignty. This is the view that a country’s politics, its form of government and the way it treats its own citizens are its own affair and no one else’s. It is not just a potent political idea (think of the main argument offered in favour of Brexit). It is the basis of international law and order. A country’s laws are for it alone to make and international law comes about through the agreement of sovereign nations. Those laws cover, among other things, the issue of when one country can invade another (rarely) and when it can’t (most of the time).

This has always been a bit of a problem for liberal and neoconservative missionaries on behalf of human rights. Over Afghanistan it was simple: the USA had the legal right to attack the country because it itself had been attacked. But with Iraq it was all much more complicated, as was evident in the embarrassing contortions Tony Blair’s attorney-general, Lord Goldsmith, got himself into when asked to advise on whether an invasion would be OK in international law. His initial advice was that it definitely was not. The United Nations had not passed the resolution necessary to give such an invasion legal sanction. But then he changed his mind and said it had. Some suspected (perish the thought) that he might possibly have come under political pressure.

What is clear, though, is that it is very difficult indeed to get international legal backing for one country to invade another on any grounds, and particularly if the reason is to promote human rights and western-style democracy. That’s because such a move would need the unanimous backing of the UN Security Council and both Russia and, even more, China, are always likely to veto it. China does not want to establish any precedents that would allow one country to invade another to promote human rights.

You might argue that this is all legalistic stuff that we shouldn’t allow to interfere with what we might consider our simple human duty to protect human rights where we see them being trashed. But it is much more than some sort of abstract legalism for respecting sovereignty. It also reflects the fact that people and their values are different.

We like to think that human rights are universal. Indeed at our instigation, after the Second World War, we put together a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that a lot of countries signed up to - even if many then largely disregarded it. But the universality of human rights is an aspiration not a fact. And it has to compete with other claims to universal truth, whether we like it or not. They include claims such as the one that says the word of God, as written down many centuries ago, is literally the word of God and must be followed as the basis of all law now and forever and everywhere.

We can’t know how much genuine support the Taliban and its hardline, fundamentalist form of Islam enjoy in Afghanistan. We certainly know it attracts a lot of opposition, much of it besieging Kabul airport in the form of desperate people anxious to escape and wanting to go on being able to enjoy the sorts of freedom to which they have been introduced over the last twenty years. And we know that Taliban ruthlessness and cruelty will cause many, perhaps most, Afghans to keep their real opinions to themselves. But terror groups with no real support among the public over whom they rule tend not to last long. And the Taliban has lasted. The conclusion must be that there are many Afghans who share the view of the Taliban that their form of Islam is Truth with a capital T and that government in conformity with it is a duty, a holy duty and a universal duty. And it is a duty that trumps any strange, foreign notion of ‘human rights’. ‘Sovereignty’ is what protects their ability to believe that if they want to.

In short, for all our talk of the universality of human rights it is only one form of claimed universality and it is in competition with others. Of course most of us in the West would argue that it is the right form, the good one, the humane one, the rational one and so on. That’s something I personal believe and I suspect you do too. I am certainly not going to challenge it. But if we stress too much the universal bit and believe it allows us to go in and sort things out wherever we see those values being abused, then we risk being as absolutist and potentially violent as those who believe that their version of Islam gives them the right and duty to do the same on behalf of their beliefs. Mutual respect for sovereignty stops us coming to blows.

So as we witness the heart-breaking image of the faces of those about to be left behind at Kabul airport, what is it to be? Should we, simply through our sense of shared humanity and our belief in universal human rights, seek ways to redouble our efforts to help? Or should we acknowledge the limits which the notion of sovereignty imposes on our wish to make the world a better place?

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