Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 18:05 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 18:05 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: It doesn't stack up (part 2)


Sam Roggeveen


7 September 2009 18:13

I argued in the previous post that the most prominent political/strategic reason for the Afghanistan operation — counter-terrorism — is flawed. In future posts in this series, I'll look at some of the other arguments broadly in that category.
But moral and humanitarian arguments also have a prominent place in justifications for the operation. Are these arguments strong enough to warrant the continuation of the mission or even to justify another escalation, as the US seems to be contemplating? 
A good starting point for examining the humanitarian case for continuing the current Afghanistan operation is what we might call the 'promise' argument. Political commentators Clive Crook and Joe Klein have each recently made versions of this argument, which says that the US and its allies have a moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan. Here's Crook:

...letting the Taliban succeed in Afghanistan would abandon people the US and its allies have promised to defend. That may not be a dangerous prospect for the west, but it sure is a revolting one.

And Klein:

...we have a moral obligation to the Afghan people, just as we had to the Iraqis when we stomped in there and destroyed the most basic institutions of civil society (corrupt and authoritarian institutions to be sure, but they provided a semblance of order which we replaced with a semblance of anarchy).

As critics of this argument have noted, it is difficult to know how far this obligation ought to extend. Given the blood and treasure the Coalition has lost in Afghanistan over eight years, is it fulfilled already? And how many innocent Afghans need to die at Coalition hands (albeit not deliberately) before that outweighs the good being done? Finally, what if the Afghan people don't want to be helped in this way?

None of these questions can really be settled definitively, though voters in Coalition countries will make their views known about when their governments have done enough in Afghanistan. As for the last question, that is a matter for the Afghan people, and their support for the presence of US and ISAF forces remains strong.

So, as long as Coalition countries maintain a stomach for the Afghanistan mission and the Afghan people don't object to it, what is the moral argument against it? Perhaps it hangs on insincerity or hypocrisy: the humanitarian case for the Afghanistan mission might be said to be a moral figleaf for a military operation justified squarely on national interest grounds.

After all, if this were purely or even primarily a humanitarian effort, it's hard to see why Afghanistan deserves so much attention. Many parts of the world are crying out for the kind of assistance now being offered Afghanistan, so why do they not get the same treatment?

Certainly in purely moral-humanitarian terms, it makes sense to help the very weakest and most destitute first, and in a more perfect world, perhaps Afghanistan would get less humanitarian attention than Somalia or the Sudan. 

But the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good, and even if the US and its allies are guilty of misallocating aid and conflating their national interest with humanitarian goals, clearly there is still some good being done in Afghanistan, a country desparately in need of help. The Coalition deserves praise for doing right thing as well as criticism for not doing better.

Of course, 'doing the right thing' only takes you so far, and good intentions cannot substitute for results. The Coalition operation can only be justified on humanitarian grounds if it is actually doing good and can meet its aims. If not, the mission can be criticised for its opportunity cost — the resources wasted there could have been put to better use elsewhere.

Some quality-of-life indicators for Afghanistan show modest growth, but the wider Coalition aim of building a democratic and law-bound Afghan state is mired in difficulties, as demonstrated by the recent elections. According to critics like Rory Stewart, the state-building effort is doomed. He points out the poor historical record of foreign forces in Afghanistan and the incredible social and economic complexities that would have to be overcome to establish in Afghanistan what the West recognises as good governance.

Others argue that the West has learnt a lot from its counter-insurgency and nation-building experience since the end of the Cold War, and that we need not fall into the same old Afghanistan traps.

Again, there's really no way to settle such arguments, though my prejudice is to regard nation-building schemes such as that in Afghanistan as far too ambitious. And if such an effort cannot succeed, greater humanitarian good can be done by reducing the effort and putting the resources to other uses.