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Leader comment: Afghanistan and the new constraints

27 August 2021

IT IS understandable why some observers of the distressing scenes from Kabul airport over these past two weeks should think in apocalyptic terms: “the defeat of the West”. Setting aside the gross inaccuracy of the term “the West”, the message that a liberal democracy cannot be imposed in two decades by force of arms upon a distant country that has a centuries-long history of violent factionalism and damaging imperial intervention hardly needed to be spelled out — even if that was what the United States thought that it was doing. Infrastructure repairs, increased living standards, the education of girls, the freedom of men to shave — all were paraded as benefits to help explain the cost of the war in human and financial terms, but none of these was the reason for the presence in Afghanistan of the US or its allies; otherwise, there would be US troops stationed in all countries where oppression and inequality are rife.

Behind the general depression is the painful feeling of helplessness when shown the fear and desperation of many Afghan people shown by the international media. Humans have been created by God to respond generously and instantly to distress, and the relatively new global awareness that we have has not diminished that impulse. There has always been a division between bad things that we can do something about and bad things we can do nothing about, and it is hard, psychologically and politically, to scale that up from the local to the international level. Over recent decades, the “we” has always been assumed to include the financial and military might of the US. This merely perpetuated late-19th-century thinking about the sovereignty of nation states, however. In essence, wars between countries were causes of intervention, thanks to the web of mutual defence agreements. Wars within countries, however brutal, were left to run their course. The rise of powerful non-state aggressors such as al-Qaeda has confused this neat, if pragmatic, division.

The fleeting suggestion that British troops might continue to hold Kabul airport after the American withdrawal on 31 August shows that there is work to be done in appreciating the part that “global Britain” can play in the world. Military intervention on any significant scale should be ruled out, unless as a contribution to a multinational force. This still leaves moral, political, and economic levers, but the arrival of Covid has given the UK Government very little breathing space to explore how these work since its disconnection from the EU’s machinery. The overblown rhetoric that has accompanied the fall of Afghanistan is not helping the readjustment that the public has to make to its diminished place in the world, in which it can still relieve distress and save lives, but not all.

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