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Thoughts on the Situation in Afghanistan

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The Taliban have apparently now entered Kabul. We can hope for the best, but it seems more likely than not that we are looking at a humanitarian crisis across multiple dimensions: atrocities committed by the Taliban, internal displacement, and a fresh wave of refugees. All bets are off for the U.S. embassy. The Taliban are calling for a peaceful transition, so perhaps they hope to avoid the kind of international isolation they experienced the last time they were in power.

Regardless of one’s overall position on U.S. withdrawal, it’s pretty clear that the Biden administration botched the process. Paul has already posted about the administration’s lack of urgency in helping arranging safe haven for vulnerable Afghans. Yes, the federal bureaucracy moves at its own pace, but if the White House had wanted to make it a priority they could have.

I’m sure political considerations played an important role here. It’s also possible that White House simply believed it would have more time. Axios reports that “The working assumption in Biden’s inner circle had been that Kabul could hold for the short term, allowing the U.S. to stay diplomatically engaged and help Afghan women secure their rights beyond the U.S. withdrawal.” The Washington Post notes that:

The lightning collapse is rooted in misplaced assumptions — including a failure to account for how the U.S. departure would catalyze a crisis of confidence in Afghan leaders and security forces, enabling the Taliban blitz — from the moment Biden announced the withdrawal this spring. It is equally the product of two decades of miscalculations about transforming Afghanistan and overly optimistic assessments of progress that have plagued the war from its start.

You’d think Democratic national-security officials would have internalized the lessons of the Bush administration’s failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of those lessons, the most obvious is: don’t let overly optimistic assumptions prevent contingency planning for worst-case outcomes. But here we are.

Biden has pointed the finger at Trump, and the ex-president responded with his typical bullshit and bluster. Biden’s more right than wrong, but that’s no excuse for the things that his administration did have some control over.

I’m not an expert on Afghanistan, but I’d caution against assuming that the Taliban’s blitzkrieg is going to leave them in uncontested control of the country. They appear to have cut a lot of deals with local authorities – both official and unofficial – to minimize resistance. The remnants of the old Northern Alliance could eventually reconstitute themselves, perhaps with support from Uzbekistan. Central Asia is a more geopolitically complicated space than it was the last time the Taliban controlled the majority of the country.

There are a lot of possible futures for the country right now. But most of them seem not great.

A final thought, concerning progressive values, restraint, and events in Afghanistan.

Consider two stylized ways of thinking about ethical duties to citizens of other countries.

  • Fully committed cosmopolitans view national boundaries as fundamentally arbitrary; hold accidents of birth should not determine the value of a life; and believe that justifications for valuing co-citizens over other human beings depend on questionable ideological commitments, such as nationalism.
  • Entirely parochial ethical systems – possibly nationalist or republican – hold that ethical obligations only extend between members of the same political community; that cosmopolitanism is impractical and insufficiently attentive to plural conceptions of the good; and that ties of culture, history, kinship, locale, or creed are necessary for reciprocal obligations.

In a purely parochial ethical framework, self-interest is the only reason a country should expend blood or treasure to help citizens of other political communities. Since a state has no obligations to non-citizens, it need not be concerned with how its actions affect them – except insofar as it hurts or harms the interests of it citizens.

In foreign conflicts, for example, a purely parochial ethical framework would hold that a state should only strive to limit civilian casualties for instrumental reasons: to increase the chances of victory or because failing to limit collateral damage might leave their own citizens vulnerable in future wars. Trump’s arguments for ending “forever wars” were – and remain – entirely parochial; not only did he almost never point to the toll of U.S. conflicts on non-citizens, he advocated war crimes to secure victory.

In fully cosmopolitan frameworks, the opposite is the case. A state should treat those civilians as if they were its own citizens.

Very few people, of course, think in entirely cosmopolitan or parochial terms. Most believe that, or at least act as if, their obligations to others attenuate with difference or distance. People’s attitudes vary in terms of a) what defines degrees of separation and b) the discount rate applied to those distances – that is, how much do ethical duties decrease with degrees of separation.

Progressives tend to espouse relatively cosmopolitan views. Progressive advocates of “strong” foreign-policy restraint – those who call for a major reductions in U.S. overseas commitments, basically oppose U.S. military interventions, and are skeptical of non-military coercive tools, such s economic sanctions – articulate a variety of different reasons for their position. However, a non-trivial number of their arguments concern how U.S. involvement harms citizens of other countries.

Left-wing anti-imperialists, in particular, rest a great many of their arguments on, first, claims that imply strong duties to non-Americans and, second, the assumption that U.S. actions abroad are invariably perfidious and harmful to non-citizens.

But restraint, and especially “strong” restraint, isn’t guaranteed to always lead to better outcomes for non-Americans. The matter is extremely complicated, but it does look like the decision to withdrawal from Afghanistan might be such a case.

In my experience, progressives who advocate strong restraint deal with such possibilities via some combination of:

  • Denying that the use of military instruments – or sometimes even any U.S. involvement at all – is ever net beneficial;
  • Arguing that any use of cosmopolitan ethical arguments to justify coercive measures is intrinsically harmful to non-Americans because it legitimates U.S. military action; and
  • Shifting to parochial ethical standards, such as arguing that American soldiers shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice for non-citizens.

I think that the first objection – when we’re talking about actual U.S. military intervention – is more correct than not. It’s not correct for the coercive use of non-military instruments or the use of military instruments short of invasions. It is certainly not some kind of axiom of international affairs, which means there will be cases where some level of cosmopolitan duties justifies some sort of U.S. military involvement overseas. Moreover, even if military instruments are always ex ante worse than the alternatives, that doesn’t mean the decision to end, say, a military intervention will be net beneficial for the local population.

The second objection, as far as I’m concerned, begs the question. It also makes a number of strong, but undemonstrated, assumptions about the influence of everyday discourse on the decision by leaders to use force. There’s also an obvious conflict between appealing to duties beyond borders to argue for U.S. non-involvement but to suddenly claim such considerations are verboten if they imply U.S. overseas involvement.

The third objection isn’t problematic per se. As a practical matter, American policy makers will always treat citizens lives as more valuable than the lives of non-citizens. My concern is when the importance of cosmopolitan ethical duties just happens to vary in ways that always come out in favor of restraint. In other words, I worry when the shift to parochial standards is too often actually a shift in standards.

Events in Afghanistan do not necessarily provide retrospective justification for a continued presence there or buttress future arguments for U.S. intervention, military or otherwise. But they do underscore the need to tolerate debate about what progressive values imply in terms of U.S. involvement, military or otherwise, overseas. Anyone who makes appeals to international ethical duties to justify restraint should, at a minimum, be appalled by some of the Biden administration’s missteps and support policies designed to mitigate harms. That includes non-military tools associated the responsibility-to-protect, such as proactive efforts to help refugees.

NB: I wrote this piece in the wee hours of the morning; it’s grammar and syntax left a lot to be desired. I made substantial edits to this post at 12.45pm in the interests of clarity.

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