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.

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. Political philosophers wrap themselves in ideal realms in which systems of justice function exactly as they ought to. In the process, they often ignore the compromise and endemic injustice which go along with even the most wellfunctioning liberal systems. John Rawls, for instance, in his work on international relations, The law of peoples,

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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 world full of undemocratic states, illiberal societies, and human rights abusers. This, at any rate, is what critics of Rawls would allege. However, there is a need for ideals in the world. Without a solid conception of what is ideal, or at least, what is patently un-ideal, it seems impossible that greater degrees of justice will ever prevail. Rawls may have sketched

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 answer two questions about these ideals. First, are they possible. And second, if so, how can we achieve them. These are also the questions we must answer about Afghanistan. What is ideal, is the ideal possible, and how? The ideal in Afghanistan has been clear for a very long time. The only solution any humane person can reasonably accept

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Rawa and similar organisations have been fighting for liberal democracy and secularism in Afghanistan for decades, though they have been forced into exile and still find it impossible to operate in Afghanistan. Given that a situation once prevailed in Afghanistan in which such groups could come into being, it does not seem impossible to undo the damage of the last decades.
is one in which political power in the country rests with the actual citizens, a constitution is in place which guarantees human rights, and there is accountability for war crimes past and present, in which nearly all Afghan warlords, including large sections of the current government in Kabul, are implicated. Along with this structure, there must be an ongoing international effort to rebuild the country and provide education, healthcare, food, shelter, employment, and many other resources necessary to human development. This is no doubt a compelling ideal, and it has certainly been voiced before. However, unless it can answer the two questions we must raise about all ideals, it becomes nothing but a mushy platitude. So then, is the ideal possible? Yes, in the sense that most social organisations are in some way possible. It is, however, fairly improbable. But, to reject an ideal on that basis does not make logical sense. There are degrees to which a society falls in line with an ideal, and greater degrees of justice will only prevail with such an ideal in mind. Those who make realist arguments often claim that by focusing on the hard facts, they will actually advance the interests of justice. There is some truth to that, but if we do not begin with an ideal, it is hard to imagine how we will decide which actions are just or unjust, or how we can gauge even the slight progress we make.

If the ideal, then, is possible in even the most limited sense, it is worthwhile to ask the second question: how are we to go about achieving it? There are more obstacles to creating a humane society in Afghanistan than nearly anywhere else in the world. There are virtually no civil society or pro-democracy groups operating freely in the country. There is no young idealistic student population as there is in the Iranian pro-democracy movement. There is also widespread and crippling poverty. In a country of twelve million individuals, nine million live on less than a dollar a day. Nine out of ten Afghans live without safe sanitation, only a quarter of the country can read or write, and there is almost no educational or economic infrastructure to speak of. To say that pursuing humanitarian goals in Afghanistan is near hopeless and that attention would be best directed to the civil war in the Congo or the ethnic cleansing in Darfur has an honest ring to it. However, it is helpful to remember that Afghanistan was not always in such a desperate condition, and that it could emerge from its present gruesome state for that very reason. Afghanistan did, at one point, have a thriving student culture based around the University of Kabul, an institution which produced the young founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, Meena Keshwar Kamal. Rawa and similar organisations have been fighting for liberal democracy and secularism in Afghanistan for decades, though they have been forced into exile and still find it impossible to operate in Afghanistan. Given that a situation once prevailed in Afghanistan in which such groups could come into being, it does not seem impossible to undo the damage of the last decades, especially considering that much of this damage had more to do with the finagling of superpowers than with Afghanistan itself. Much of the war crimes and disorder which mar Afghan history were brought about by the Soviet invasion, and the successive waves of fundamentalists and warlords which have come to power since, from the mujahedeen and the Taliban to the Northern Alliance and the current government, were helped along in different ways by the United States. Given that the situation in Afghanistan may not be quite as patently hopeless as

it might appear, we need to turn to the various options put forward for positive change. There seem to be two competing visions, neither of which fully takes into account the human rights of the Afghan people. There are those who argue that the US should stay the course in Afghanistan, meaning that it should pursue its current policies with greater vigour. This option is defended on two grounds, one of which is considerably less believable than the other. First, it is argued that Afghanistan must not become a safe haven for terrorists. Admittedly, terrorism presents a serious problem for the global community, yet as a justification for the war it is rather thin. Terrorists will always be able to find safe havens in today’s world, whether in London flats or Chicago apartments. The fact that terrorists can organise and plot virtually anywhere is simply one of the insecurities with which we must live. We can attempt to minimise the danger, but by maintaining that we can somehow wipe out all terrorist cells in a given country and that to do so will eliminate a global threat is nonsensical. The second, more compelling reason for staying in Afghanistan is that the world has a responsibility to protect the human rights of Afghans and that the US has more of a responsibility than most thanks to the role it played in bringing the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, and other warlords to power. This responsibility is

Meena Keshwar Kamal: Photo courtesy Rawa.

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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 to stay the course typically have no other solution than to prop up the increasingly corrupt and undemocratic Karzai regime as an imperfect antidote to the Taliban. We will leave aside the fact that the current regime in Kabul has been making increasingly significant concessions to Islamist forces while also rigging elections, drumming out secularists, feminists, and liberal democrats like the heroic Malalai Joya, and allowing known war criminals to hold office. These are all dreadful things, but there are occasions when it is necessary to compromise with evil in order to achieve a modicum of justice rather than no justice at all. As bad as Karzai is, there is little reason to believe he will become as bad as the Taliban. However, not only is the current government rotten, it is also desperately unstable and widely recognised as illegitimate. It seems that unless some true ingenuity is brought to bear on the question of Afghanistan, the Taliban could very well replace Karzai. The horrors which would result from this

are all too apparent. This brings us to the second option. Rather than stay the course, we could negotiate with the Taliban, work out some kind of power-sharing deal amongst all the ethnic groups and warlords, and thereby achieve some amount of stability at the expense of the democratic experiment. This is the realist argument, and it makes a certain amount of sense. Again, it involves making our peace with grave human rights abuse, in this case even offering power to the biggest abuser of them all: the Taliban. However, if the only other option is an all-out Taliban victory or else civil war and mass murder, it seems that the goal of stability outweighs these concerns. Are these our only two options? Must we compromise on human rights or is it possible to pursue humanitarian objectives in Afghanistan? As a member of the human rights movement, I try never to compromise on rights. There are different degrees of human rights abuse, of course: a genocide can not be equated to a single instance of torture. But if one

accepts certain human rights abuses as justified in order to pursue greater objectives, this thinking leads one with astonishing rapidity to quietism and even an indifference to rights. All atrocities can be justified if one imagines they might have prevented greater atrocities, and all political actors are opposed to atrocities when they are committed by the other side. What distinguishes the human rights movement is its unwillingness to compromise on rights and its refusal to justify some abuses over others. That said, a mere statement of political principle is not a solution. As we saw in the case of Rawls, it is helpful to remember the great distance between theory and practice in political matters. In the case of Afghanistan, then, is there any convincing alternative to compromise? I would say yes, but it requires ingenuity and commitment to principle which the current global community has been hesitant to offer. First of all, both of the unpleasant options I described above rely on a 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 fundamentalists. Admittedly, in the absence of a middle class or an educated population, these are just about the only figures wielding actual political power at the moment. Yet there is also the majority population of Afghanistan, which has no love of the Taliban or the warlords, but which is often threatened into silence during elections and forced to return the same warlords to office. It is widely known that, Malalai Joya, the democrat and feminist recently removed from office for criticising members of the parliament, is one of the most popular MPs in the country. Meanwhile, the Taliban enjoys very little popular support other than that which it can coerce. Also, civil society groups such as Rawa were not removed from the country due to unpopularity, but due to the enmity of the Taliban and others. As a single tentative step in the direction of secular liberal democracy in Afghanistan, it seems reasonable to believe that the international community and the US could put pressure on

Karzai to reinstate Joya and to bring Afghans with similar principles into the government. These could reach out to Rawa and other pro-democracy groups rather than excluding them from any role in Afghanistan. We would then have a force comprised of liberal individuals and groups, which, I insist, do exist and do enjoy a degree of popular support from Afghans fed up with the ruling warlords. Such a force could draft a constitution and install war crimes tribunals, or truth and reconciliation committees at the very least, which would prosecute all those guilty of human rights abuse in Afghanistan’s chequered past. After establishing a basic level of accountability and ensuring that war criminals can not force their way into office, genuine free elections could be held and development projects could be pursued. This may sound like an ideal or a pipedream. However, it seems to me far more likely than any of the solutions being offered by current US policy makers. Unless accountability is

established and a government is formed which is truly committed to human rights, we will have nothing to look forward to but some variety or other of warlordism and oppression. To look for positive developments in this area, the US and the international community must be unwavering in their defence of Afghanistan’s own human rights defenders. They must also be willing to help rebuild the Afghan government from the solid foundation of accountability and fairness. �

Joshua F Leach – currently a student at the University of Chicago – is a writer and human rights advocate.

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