In order to prevent the ‘forever war’ from turning into war forever, we need to stand for—and practice—the principles of universal human rights, justice and pluralism.
Last August, the U.S. ended its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan with a massive military withdrawal. From the outset, the White House promoted a rosy narrative as President Biden claimed it was the “greatest airlift in history”; an Englishman, with Boris Johnson’s approval, evacuated 200 Afghan cats and dogs. Meanwhile countless Afghan men and especially women—who had risked their lives to be police and army officers, judges, translators, reporters, peace-builders, and human rights advocates, were left behind.
The Biden administration hoped to end the “forever war,” assuming that with the withdrawal in America’s rearview mirror, “what happened in Afghanistan, would stay in Afghanistan.”
But assumptions are not fact. For years prior to the withdrawal, Afghan women and those of us working internationally had warned against the Taliban’s intent and its implications. Washington’s think-tanks framed the debate in simplistic binary terms of being for or against continued U.S. military presence—but as women, peace-builders and rights advocates, we believed military withdrawal had to be conducted as part of an overarching political vision and diplomatic strategy. We repeatedly called for negotiations to address women’s rights, civilian protection, and the inclusion of Afghan civil society, especially its women and youth, so they could address the Taliban directly. The U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, repeatedly stonewalled the call.
The ‘forever war’ that hasn’t ended
Now, the Taliban has banned women from work, keeps girls from school, and continues targeting former government personnel and minority groups. To make matters worse, the U.S. decision to freeze $7 billion of Afghan national assets and impose sanctions has impoverished the wider population. In January, President Biden said, “I make no apologies.” In February, he added insult to injury by allocating half of the frozen national Afghan assets towards the lawsuit settlement of a group of 9/11 families against the Taliban.
Meanwhile the Taliban’s hypocrisy is ever more blatant; disparaging western influence, while demanding foreign aid, using western social media, private jets, and the Pentagon’s leftover weaponry while pursuing its extremist ideology and falsely claiming that erasing women from public life is Islamic.
Yet neither Washington nor any other NATO country has had the appetite or interest to reflect on how and why this avoidable catastrophe unfolded. Washington still spins the narrative: Trump negotiated the terms with the Taliban and Biden could not renege on them; Afghanistan is a corrupt country at war with itself; the U.S. spent a trillion dollars trying to help and now it is offering humanitarian aid. There is no mention of the U.S.’s responsibility, in fueling the war, emboldening the Taliban, enriching U.S. government contractors and weapons companies, or wasting taxpayer money as detailed in the annual U.S. SIGAR reports. There is still no effort to include Afghan women in current humanitarian and security dialogues or to evacuate the most threatened.
What happens in Afghanistan doesn’t stay there
Meanwhile, as predicted, what happened in Afghanistan has already impacted the world. The U.S. war against the Taliban was classic asymmetrical warfare. The Taliban is the ideologically extremist David whose defeat of the hyper-powered but unfocused Goliath—NATO—triggered three, inter-related tectonic geopolitical shifts: the resurgence of transnational violent extremism, the rise of state-based authoritarianism, and the further demise of multilateralism and human rights norms. This is not the end of the “forever war,” but rather the prologue and harbinger of a new and darker era globally.
First, the Taliban’s victory gave a new lease on life to transnational violent extremist movements—weaponizing faith, race, and ethno-nationalism around the world. So-called Jihadi movements weaponizing Islamist identity are inspired by the Taliban. They show new muscle, clearly evident in the attacks on women and girls elsewhere. In the Philippines, a law passed to prohibit child marriages is being challenged by the extreme Islamic religious leaders, who reference the Taliban’s rule. Claiming child marriage adheres with Islamic laws, they are calling for the lifting of the ban. This is not an isolated case, and deeply alarming.
The Biden administration triggered a global green light on gender-based violence. While Afghan women and girls are most impacted, women worldwide are paying the price for the resurgent extremism.
The second trigger was a rise of state-based authoritarianism. From Putin’s war on Ukraine to Erdogan’s demands in NATO, leaders with dictatorial tendencies have been emboldened. The illusion of power and unity once projected by the U.S. and its western allies is shattered. The Ukraine war may have repaired some damage, but the U.S’s international credibility is tattered.
The rise of authoritarianism has further undermined democracy and rights globally. Granted, 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror” era that prompted the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, had already accelerated the decline of human rights. But under the guise of countering terrorism, many states have shut down civil society, human rights, and amped up their security apparatus. The U.S.’s decision to circumvent the elected Afghan government to negotiate and comply with the demands of the clearly unelected Taliban, even as they bombed maternity clinics and schools, sent the world a clear signal: the U.S. doesn’t stand by its stated principles.
The third and final blow is the shredding of what remains: rule-based order, multilateralism and the already fragile human rights norms and systems. This too dates to the “War on Terror” and the impunity with which the U.S. and NATO forces killed civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, whist also laying siege to international laws and norms. Nevertheless, the handling of Afghanistan—from the unrepresentative nature of the Doha negotiations to the treatment of Afghans—especially Afghan women—during and after the August withdrawal, lowered the bar.
Which world leader can credibly claim to champion women’s rights or a feminist foreign policy when so few helped Afghan women police officers, lawyers and rights activists? In effect, by ignoring Afghan women, America not only lost in Afghanistan, but diminished itself globally and accelerated the decline of the already-shaky post-war global order.
So, what now?
Most urgently, we must do right by the Afghan women and men who are at high risk. Lawmakers must expedite resettlement for Afghans still languishing in transit humanitarian camps. Governments must also unite in pressing the Taliban to restore rights and forbid vengeance attacks. Countries convening dialogues with the Taliban—on humanitarian aid, security, economics, or politics—must include women in their own diplomatic teams and ensure independent Afghan women’s delegations participate. The Taliban might erase women from public life, but our institutions and governments must not emulate them or sink to their standards. The delivery of humanitarian and development-based aid must be intentionally gender inclusive and accessible to Afghan women.
We must also heed the calls of women in other war zones, like Yemen and Libya and avoid the mistakes from Afghanistan. We also need a strategic and geopolitical reboot. In the last Cold War, the U.S. instigated its share of proxy wars and fronted many a dictator, but the hard power came hand in hand with fostering the ideals of democracy, pluralism, and equal rights. These aspirations are alive now; from Sudan, Myanmar and Palestine, to Afghanistan where over 62 percent of the population is under 25. Young people and women risk their lives daily, to bring these values to life. They need solidarity.
Russia, China and rising powers like Turkey, Brazil or Arab Gulf states with their veneer of modernity are antithetical to the cause. The credibility of the U.S. and other democracies may be severely tarnished, but in the face of rising extremism and authoritarianism, we need to remember where our strengths lie.
In order to prevent the “forever war” from turning into war forever, we need to stand for—and practice—the principles of universal human rights, justice and pluralism. This is not naivete. Nor is helping Afghans an act of benevolence. It is, as one former soldier said to me, an act of integrity attempting to salvage the soul of America and other still-democratic nations.