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ESSAY

Afghanistan: Is there
a humanitarian solution?
Battling warlordism and oppression, supporting pro-democracy groups.
By Joshua F Leach

Juma Gol, a ten-year-old from Helmand, lost an arm in a Nato bombing: Photo by Manoocher Deghati/IRIN.

O ne of the charges most frequently


leveled against liberal political
theory is that it is naively
idealistic, or even worse, that it sacrifices
honesty for the sake of moral clarity.
offers an appealing vision of a world full
of peaceful democratic societies governed
by a body of international human rights
law. This is no doubt an ideal. But it
leaves unacknowledged the realities of a
desirable ideals: a world full of egalitarian
societies free of poverty and oppression.
But it is up to the successors of Rawls
and to everyone who wishes to live in
a more humane, egalitarian world to
Political philosophers wrap themselves world full of undemocratic states, illiberal answer two questions about these ideals.
in ideal realms in which systems of societies, and human rights abusers. First, are they possible. And second, if
justice function exactly as they ought This, at any rate, is what critics of so, how can we achieve them. These are
to. In the process, they often ignore Rawls would allege. However, there is also the questions we must answer about
the compromise and endemic injustice a need for ideals in the world. Without Afghanistan. What is ideal, is the ideal
which go along with even the most well- a solid conception of what is ideal, or at possible, and how?
functioning liberal systems. least, what is patently un-ideal, it seems The ideal in Afghanistan has been clear
John Rawls, for instance, in his work on impossible that greater degrees of justice for a very long time. The only solution any
international relations, The law of peoples, will ever prevail. Rawls may have sketched humane person can reasonably accept

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If the ideal, then, is possible in even it might appear, we need to turn to the
Rawa and similar the most limited sense, it is worthwhile various options put forward for positive
to ask the second question: how are we change. There seem to be two competing
organisations have to go about achieving it? There are more visions, neither of which fully takes into
been fighting for liberal obstacles to creating a humane society in account the human rights of the Afghan
Afghanistan than nearly anywhere else in people.
democracy and secularism the world. There are those who argue that the
in Afghanistan for decades, There are virtually no civil society US should stay the course in Afghanistan,
or pro-democracy groups operating meaning that it should pursue its current
though they have been freely in the country. There is no young policies with greater vigour. This option
idealistic student population as there is is defended on two grounds, one of which
forced into exile and still in the Iranian pro-democracy movement. is considerably less believable than the
find it impossible to operate There is also widespread and crippling other. First, it is argued that Afghanistan
poverty. In a country of twelve million must not become a safe haven for terrorists.
in Afghanistan. Given that individuals, nine million live on less than Admittedly, terrorism presents a serious
a situation once prevailed a dollar a day. Nine out of ten Afghans problem for the global community, yet
live without safe sanitation, only a as a justification for the war it is rather
in Afghanistan in which quarter of the country can read or write, thin. Terrorists will always be able to find
such groups could come and there is almost no educational or safe havens in today’s world, whether
economic infrastructure to speak of. To in London flats or Chicago apartments.
into being, it does not seem say that pursuing humanitarian goals The fact that terrorists can organise and
in Afghanistan is near hopeless and plot virtually anywhere is simply one of
impossible to undo the that attention would be best directed to the insecurities with which we must live.
damage of the last decades. the civil war in the Congo or the ethnic We can attempt to minimise the danger,
cleansing in Darfur has an honest ring to but by maintaining that we can somehow
is one in which political power in the it. wipe out all terrorist cells in a given
country rests with the actual citizens, a However, it is helpful to remember country and that to do so will eliminate a
constitution is in place which guarantees that Afghanistan was not always in such global threat is nonsensical.
human rights, and there is accountability a desperate condition, and that it could The second, more compelling reason
for war crimes past and present, in which emerge from its present gruesome state for staying in Afghanistan is that the
nearly all Afghan warlords, including for that very reason. Afghanistan did, at world has a responsibility to protect the
large sections of the current government one point, have a thriving student culture human rights of Afghans and that the US
in Kabul, are implicated. Along with this based around the University of Kabul, an has more of a responsibility than most
structure, there must be an ongoing institution which produced the young thanks to the role it played in bringing the
international effort to rebuild the country founder of the Revolutionary Association Taliban, the Northern Alliance, and other
and provide education, healthcare, of the Women of Afghanistan, Meena warlords to power. This responsibility is
food, shelter, employment, and many Keshwar Kamal.
other resources necessary to human Rawa and similar organisations have
development. been fighting for liberal democracy and
This is no doubt a compelling ideal, secularism in Afghanistan for decades,
and it has certainly been voiced before. though they have been forced into exile
However, unless it can answer the two and still find it impossible to operate in
questions we must raise about all ideals, Afghanistan. Given that a situation once
it becomes nothing but a mushy platitude. prevailed in Afghanistan in which such
So then, is the ideal possible? Yes, in the groups could come into being, it does not
sense that most social organisations are seem impossible to undo the damage of
in some way possible. It is, however, fairly the last decades, especially considering
improbable. But, to reject an ideal on that that much of this damage had more to do
basis does not make logical sense. with the finagling of superpowers than
There are degrees to which a society with Afghanistan itself.
falls in line with an ideal, and greater Much of the war crimes and disorder
degrees of justice will only prevail with which mar Afghan history were brought
such an ideal in mind. Those who make about by the Soviet invasion, and the
realist arguments often claim that by successive waves of fundamentalists
focusing on the hard facts, they will and warlords which have come to power
actually advance the interests of justice. since, from the mujahedeen and the
There is some truth to that, but if we Taliban to the Northern Alliance and the
do not begin with an ideal, it is hard to current government, were helped along
imagine how we will decide which actions in different ways by the United States.
are just or unjust, or how we can gauge Given that the situation in Afghanistan
may not be quite as patently hopeless as Meena Keshwar Kamal: Photo courtesy Rawa.
even the slight progress we make.

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A mother and child at a hospital in Kabul: Photo by Manoocher Deghati/IRIN.

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A policeman in Kabul: Photo by Obinna Anyadike/IRIN.

indisputable. However, those who want are all too apparent. accepts certain human rights abuses
to stay the course typically have no other This brings us to the second option. as justified in order to pursue greater
solution than to prop up the increasingly Rather than stay the course, we could objectives, this thinking leads one with
corrupt and undemocratic Karzai regime negotiate with the Taliban, work out astonishing rapidity to quietism and even
as an imperfect antidote to the Taliban. some kind of power-sharing deal amongst an indifference to rights. All atrocities can
We will leave aside the fact that the all the ethnic groups and warlords, be justified if one imagines they might
current regime in Kabul has been making and thereby achieve some amount of have prevented greater atrocities, and all
increasingly significant concessions stability at the expense of the democratic political actors are opposed to atrocities
to Islamist forces while also rigging experiment. This is the realist argument, when they are committed by the other
elections, drumming out secularists, and it makes a certain amount of sense. side. What distinguishes the human
feminists, and liberal democrats like the Again, it involves making our peace rights movement is its unwillingness to
heroic Malalai Joya, and allowing known with grave human rights abuse, in this compromise on rights and its refusal to
war criminals to hold office. case even offering power to the biggest justify some abuses over others.
These are all dreadful things, but abuser of them all: the Taliban. However, That said, a mere statement of
there are occasions when it is necessary if the only other option is an all-out political principle is not a solution. As
to compromise with evil in order to Taliban victory or else civil war and mass we saw in the case of Rawls, it is helpful
achieve a modicum of justice rather than murder, it seems that the goal of stability to remember the great distance between
no justice at all. As bad as Karzai is, there outweighs these concerns. theory and practice in political matters. In
is little reason to believe he will become Are these our only two options? the case of Afghanistan, then, is there any
as bad as the Taliban. However, not only Must we compromise on human rights convincing alternative to compromise? I
is the current government rotten, it is or is it possible to pursue humanitarian would say yes, but it requires ingenuity
also desperately unstable and widely objectives in Afghanistan? As a member and commitment to principle which
recognised as illegitimate. It seems that of the human rights movement, I try the current global community has been
unless some true ingenuity is brought to never to compromise on rights. There are hesitant to offer.
bear on the question of Afghanistan, the different degrees of human rights abuse, First of all, both of the unpleasant
Taliban could very well replace Karzai. of course: a genocide can not be equated options I described above rely on a
The horrors which would result from this to a single instance of torture. But if one belief that there is no political force in

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View of Kabul city: Photo by Manoocher Deghati/IRIN.

Afghanistan apart from warlords and Karzai to reinstate Joya and to bring established and a government is formed
fundamentalists. Admittedly, in the Afghans with similar principles into the which is truly committed to human
absence of a middle class or an educated government. These could reach out to rights, we will have nothing to look
population, these are just about the only Rawa and other pro-democracy groups forward to but some variety or other of
figures wielding actual political power at rather than excluding them from any role warlordism and oppression. To look for
the moment. Yet there is also the majority in Afghanistan. positive developments in this area, the
population of Afghanistan, which has no We would then have a force comprised US and the international community
love of the Taliban or the warlords, but of liberal individuals and groups, which, must be unwavering in their defence
which is often threatened into silence I insist, do exist and do enjoy a degree of Afghanistan’s own human rights
during elections and forced to return the of popular support from Afghans fed up defenders. They must also be willing to
same warlords to office. with the ruling warlords. Such a force help rebuild the Afghan government from
It is widely known that, Malalai Joya, could draft a constitution and install war the solid foundation of accountability and
the democrat and feminist recently crimes tribunals, or truth and reconciliation fairness. �
removed from office for criticising committees at the very least, which would
members of the parliament, is one of prosecute all those guilty of human
the most popular MPs in the country. rights abuse in Afghanistan’s chequered
Meanwhile, the Taliban enjoys very little past. After establishing a basic level of
popular support other than that which accountability and ensuring that war
it can coerce. Also, civil society groups criminals can not force their way into
such as Rawa were not removed from the office, genuine free elections could be
country due to unpopularity, but due to held and development projects could be
the enmity of the Taliban and others. pursued.
As a single tentative step in the This may sound like an ideal or
direction of secular liberal democracy a pipedream. However, it seems to
Joshua F Leach – currently a student at
in Afghanistan, it seems reasonable to me far more likely than any of the
believe that the international community solutions being offered by current US the University of Chicago – is a writer and
and the US could put pressure on policy makers. Unless accountability is human rights advocate.

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