Shall We Welcome the U.S./NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan?
EDITORIAL, 13 Sep 2021
Some “Peacebuilders” Say No!
The withdrawal of U.S. troops and their NATO allies from Afghanistan, ending the twenty-year U.S.-Afghan War, has exposed a growing split in the movement for peace and conflict resolution in the United States.
While some scholars and activists celebrate the end of the war and call for a reduction in Anglo American military spending and a pullback of U.S. forces from other imperial outposts, a substantial number of those calling themselves peacebuilders bemoan the “fall” of Afghanistan, accuse President Biden of withdrawing U.S. troops too quickly, and proclaim that the Taliban is an irredeemably evil force that can never rule that nation effectively or justly.
An example of this reasoning is the urgent call by the U.S.-based Alliance for Peacebuilding issued in late July 2021, asking members and supporters to join in a letter criticizing Biden’s “accelerated withdrawal,” calling for continued U.S. support to the then Afghan government, and warning that “if the Taliban controls Afghanistan, they will return it to the conditions that originally led to the U.S. intervention.” The letter proposes a massive program combining coercive threats, economic assistance, political influence, and mediation of local conflicts, and concludes:
Failing to accompany the military withdrawal with the aforementioned engagement will not only undo the hard-fought gains made in Afghanistan during the last 20 years, but will also create newfound costs of a security vacuum, the country’s return to an extremist safe haven, a new refugee crisis, and widespread regional and global instability. U.S. retreat will create space for great power competition with China and Russia and interference by Iran to exert nefarious influence in the region and undermine U.S. strategic and security interests. Preventing these outcomes is more than a moral goal; it will actively promote U.S. national and international security.
Many other organizations and institutions in the peace and conflict resolution field, as well as important elements of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy elite and liberal press outlets like the New York Times share the AFP’s concerns. (The same organizations share the latter’s obvious hostility to China, Russia, and Iran). I think that there are three principal reasons for this:
Over the course of the twenty-year war against the Taliban, the massive military effort spawned a vast collateral program of U.S.- and European-funded economic aid, political guidance, and “humanitarian assistance” amounting to well over four billion dollars. This created opportunities for thousands of businesses, development NGO’s, academic researchers, and would-be conflict resolvers, and thousands more Afghan citizens and organizations, to do paid civilian work that many considered constructive, despite the fact that it constituted part of a highly destructive war effort. How much of this largesse was siphoned off by corrupt local officials and businesspeople we have no way of knowing, but it was probably substantial.
One result of this use of “soft power” to supplement U.S. and NATO “hard power” was to create a good many friendships and partnerships between Anglo American, European, and Afghan individuals, and to give many of the Western interveners a bad conscience when the decision to end the war exposed their partners to personal danger. Another result, more profound in the long run, was to accustom a large number of organizations and individuals in the “peacebuilding” community to being funded by the U.S. or European governments as part of a larger war effort to which those governments were committed. (The “war on terrorism” also provided extensive funding for those interested in adjunct activities such as research on “CVE”: the causes of violent extremism.) The shift from private funding to government funding of peace research in the United States is a long-term trend that was accelerated by the “endless wars” and whose effects are now being made manifest.
Part of the justification for the U.S. attack on the Taliban regime was an alleged responsibility to protect elements of the Afghan population particularly vulnerable to oppression by Taliban rulers: in particular, women, members of ethnic or religious minority groups, and groups expressing opposition to the party’s ultra-orthodox religiopolitical program. There can be little doubt that Taliban rule before that party was ousted in 2002 was ferociously illiberal. But those committed to supporting the Afghan War on the basis of liberal-democratic ideology manage to ignore or forget the fact that that struggle had geopolitical motivations far more pressing and germane than “R2P,” and that anti-Taliban forces consisted of some of the most corrupt and illiberal leaders of the country’s disunited ethnic communities.
Of course, no one knows the extent to which new leaders of the Taliban will fulfill their promises to institute a more representative, less repressive regime than the one their predecessors administered. Among certain peacebuilders the initial definition of the Taliban as a hopelessly fascistic monolith persists, notwithstanding that that their leaders fulfilled commitments made to two U.S. presidents not to attack U.S. troops or prevent an airlift of more than 100,000 pro-U.S. Afghans, that they have requested a continuation of U.S. economic aid, and that they and their former adversaries now face common enemies like the Islamic State in Afghanistan. According to first-hand observers like Johan Galtung, there has long been serious disagreement among Taliban leaders over issues like the education of young women and the need to live in peace with religious and ethnic minorities. One would expect genuine peacebuilders to draw the conclusion that one should deal with the Taliban – and the Russians and Chinese – proactively, as negotiation and dialogue partners rather than inherent enemies. But that is not the way soft power imperialism works.
- Failure to Take Responsibility for Imperialism
The major obstacle to reaching this sort of understanding, I strongly believe, is the inability or unwillingness of important elements of the movement for peace and conflict resolution to recognize that the United States is a global empire whose leaders (elite policymakers, captains of industry, top military brass) are determined to maintain U.S. hegemony while cutting their losses by a combination of undoubted military supremacy and “soft power” tactics. Rather than face up to the multiple contradictions between peacebuilding and imperialism, many of our associates have convinced themselves that by collaborating with the empire-builders and “boring from within,” they can convert a culture of war and threats of violence into a culture of peace.
Perhaps there are situations in which one can be funded by Uncle Sam and not dance to his tune. But the continued refusal of many self-declared peacebuilders to accept the fact that the maintenance of empire constitutes a genuine (and lethal) problem is now generating active opposition among more conscious anti-imperialists. The fact that not all peace advocates accept the inevitability of empire is underlined by recent controversies like that involving the U.S. Institute of Peace, whose failure to establish a promised peace museum is seen as a betrayal of its original principles by more militant antiwar activists. (See Menachem Wecker’s article, “The Peace Museum That Never Happened” in the Washington Post, August 21, 2021). In this regard, a book well worth reading is The U.S Institute of Peace: A Critical History by Michael D. English, which tells the story of that institution’s ultimate acceptance of the imperialist soft-power rationale.
There is a great need among advocates of peace and conflict resolution to allow these differences to surface openly and to deal with them honestly. Perhaps the controversy over the end of the Afghan War, the decline of the Anglo American empire, and the best methods of resolving conflict in the twenty-first century will finally produce a better understanding of the structural causes of global violence. One can only hope so.
Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017). His book in progress, to be published in fall 2020, is Post-Corona Conflicts: New Sources of Struggle and Opportunities for Peace.
Tags: Afghanistan, Anglo America, Anti-war, Biden, NATO, Peacebuilding, Pentagon, Taliban, USA, Warfare
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 13 Sep 2021.
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