The Statesman’s Gambit
Tackling the Afghan Humanitarian Crisis through Diplomacy
Written by Anvita Tripathi
Illustrated by Urvi Agarwal
Edited by Shreya Datta
As Karl Klaus once noted, “Diplomacy is a game of chess in which the nations are checkmated.” And over the years, this delicate art has sailed us through several wars, truces and tensions. Today, while we stand at the verge of a humanitarian crisis in the nation of Afghanistan, the grandmaster of diplomacy has come to make its moves yet again. Bringing us more on this topic is Perspectoverse’s Anvita Tripathi.
The atrocities and horrors of today’s Afghanistan are not a secret to anyone. To add on, the situation for civilians has definitely deteriorated in the run-up to the ultimate US pullout from Afghanistan. As of August 12th, the Taliban has taken control of nine provincial capitals and are moving in on Kabul using their usual ruthless tactics. Families are caught in the crossfire as prisoners continue to be executed and civilians, journalists, and relief workers are picked up and beheaded. Afghan military personnel are deserting, and urban combat has erupted between militias defending their cities and Taliban forces approaching.
Because of this, Deborah Lyons, the United Nations Secretary-Special General's Representative for Afghanistan, warned the United Nations Security Council last Friday that Afghanistan is in the midst of "a new type of conflict, reminiscent of Syria lately or Sarajevo not long ago."
Some have questioned US President Joe Biden's decision to remove the US troops from the nation in the midst of all of this, but his government has shown no evidence of changing its mind. The administration's response has been confined to chastising the Taliban. "There is no military option," according to the US special representative last week. Nonetheless, the Taliban are succeeding because of a military solution, and words will not save the civilians stuck in their way. Yet, so far, the US has remained firm in its belief that Afghans must fend for themselves, fearful of being pulled back into an unending quagmire if it intervenes to assist Kabul.
However, what remains to be little-known knowledge is that this is just an excuse posed so very sophisticatedly by the US government. In fact, by simply altering its narrative about the goal of military action and the legal framework it employs to do it, and acting swiftly, the US can both continue its drawdown from counterinsurgency and protect civilians from the killing.
The comparison to Bosnia and Herzegovina is proof enough. In that fight, the stronger side was likewise overrunning towns and massacring civilians, and the world community did nothing until it couldn't anymore. When NATO entered the fight to block further gains on Bosnian Muslim and Croat-held territories, Operation Deliberate Force ended the war by bringing both sides to the settlement table in Ohio. That deal, mediated by the Clinton administration, delivered peace and stability to a region that had seen Europe's deadliest conflict in decades, a peace that has endured for 25 years despite ethnic tensions. This wasn't a counterinsurgency operation or a proxy battle against rebels; rather, it was a humanitarian action designed to protect civilians, spark a local conflagration, and restore calm.
All Afghanistan needs is the same help, a plausible repetition of something from the past.
In numerous situations, such as in Kosovo and Libya, the US has either led or been instrumental in the benefit of civilians. Where it hasn't (for example, in Syria), it's because the logistical and political challenges exceeded the potential benefit the US might provide. Surprisingly, the situation here is hardly the same. The US already possesses military air power in the region and has a stake in preserving its legacy, which has always been framed as a war fought to defend people, both American and Afghan, from all atrocities, irrespective of the inflictors.
This is distinct from what the US mission in Afghanistan has been in the past: A mission viewed as an imperialistic endeavour by the United States to defeat the Taliban and prop up the Kabul government. The decision should now be how to safeguard civilian areas from combat by either Taliban or Afghan soldiers under an international mandate, rather than "providing air support to the Afghan military." A politically neutral approach, in which the international community supports neither political side but only the civilian population, will not only provide a middle ground between the Biden administration's agonising array of choices, but will also be far more effective in achieving a stable peace than previous US policy. It recognises both sides of a conflict as legitimate actors while delegitimizing both sides' human rights violations and war crimes. Humanitarian action that is neutral offers room and incentives for both parties to come to the negotiating table. It also comes at the moral request of the whole United Nations, not just the United States.
To do so, the US must simultaneously reengage air power at the request of the international community, on behalf of the Afghan people rather than Kabul, and alter the narrative about the purpose of the US presence in Afghanistan. And, most importantly, the United Nations should mobilise all of its political will to help, including sanctioning such action under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter or, if that vote fails, passing a “Uniting for Peace” resolution in the United Nations General Assembly.
Finally, the last benefit would be that if managed properly, a humanitarian intervention may be quick and clean. It is a one-time emergency operation aimed at bringing a conflict to a close while minimising civilian casualties. It does not need the US forces staying for decades or shouldering the responsibility of another nation's safety. Kai Eide and Tadamichi Yamamoto, U.N. envoys, have lately advocated for a stronger U.N. presence in Afghanistan, and rightly so. Over the years, the UN mission in Afghanistan has been shockingly inadequate, under-resourced, and ineffective. In simple words, it is about time for the United Nations to step up now that the United States has taken a step back.
Unlike counterinsurgencies or military invasions, UN peacekeeping missions are extremely effective at creating peace, and they are also excellent at safeguarding civilians when given a strong mandate. Peacekeeping, according to Lise Howard, a well-known Political Science professor, is more successful than counterinsurgency because of how peacekeepers persuade parties to modify their conduct: influencing both sides of a conflict. Peacekeeping operations can also have more lasting power since a wider spectrum of countries contribute and rotate personnel. They are also more legitimate in the eyes of fighting nations.
The most suitable aspect about a United Nations peacekeeping operation for the United States is that it could coincide with a US pullout. The United States does not need to, and probably should not, take part in a peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan. Both the Kabul administration and the Taliban would have to agree to a successful UN peacekeeping mission.The Taliban previously stated that it would only comply with such a mission if it was led by peacekeepers from Muslim-majority nations, preferably from outside the area, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Egypt. This alignment of interests, based on time-tested United Nations infrastructure, may allow the United States to gracefully exit its 20-year commitment, leaving the nation in better hands.
However, there must be peace to preserve before peacekeeping can operate. And there will be none as long as any group feels it is free to terrorise civilians. Allowing terror against civilians to go unpunished works against peace by establishing a larger legacy of violence to overcome, unequalizing the playing field in favour of one party, and fuelling circumstances for the most widespread breakdown of trust.
In such instances, a military solution, a forceful military reaction by third parties, is precisely what is required to bring the parties to the negotiating table. This does not imply that Biden should reverse his decision to halt the counterinsurgency campaign. There is a third option, and the US should choose it while it is still possible. The United States would first file an emergency resolution with the United Nations Security Council, requesting Chapter VII permission to defend people in that nation. Until other countries join in, Washington would have to commit its soldiers to a final military campaign to defend Afghan cities until the Taliban agreed to negotiations, while enlisting the help of other nations. The UN should make it clear that this operation is no longer in favour of Kabul, but rather is politically neutral, aimed at safeguarding civilians from both parties' war, and will cease when all parties come to a peace agreement. Only then will the US proceed with its pullout.
This attitude will provide the Taliban with both a carrot and a stick to lay down their guns and negotiate between a power-sharing agreement or a federalized structure akin to the Balkans. And it is this peace that will eventually safeguard Afghanistan's people, guaranteeing that Biden's first major foreign-policy legacy will not be to turn a blind eye to the suffering of Afghan civilians.