6 August 2021

Does retreat from Afghanistan spell the end of interventionism?

By

In freedom’s spring, after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, some western leaders’ consciences turned to thoughts of sharing more widely the gifts democracy had given us – free choice of governments, freedom of speech and the press, civil society, dispassionate justice and more. That part of humanity should remain trapped in oppressive polities, that women should be rendered powerless in public and dominated in domestic life, that society should be mobilised to revere the dear leader and hate whom he hated, were facts on the ground that could be changed.

The Soviet people, inspired by Western examples and supported by Western aid and expertise, had shown the way to democracy. And in those states where oppression had developed from pervasive control to violent persecution, then how could rich states with efficient militaries confine themselves to sympathy?

The classic statement of this was made by a young leader, Tony Blair, British Prime Minister: his speech, given in Chicago in April 1999, has gone down as a justification for military intervention – in this case, in Bosnia, where the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, had ordered his army to squash resistance to Serbian rule. Blair acknowledged that non-interference in sovereign states should not be cast lightly aside: but that “acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter. When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries, then they can properly be described as ‘threats to international peace and security’”.

This is, he said, “a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values. We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. We must not rest until it is reversed. We have learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work.” This was artfully crafted: it appealed both to the public’s idealism at a time of Western triumph, and to the memory of mistaken efforts to placate implacable dictators – who, when resolute defiance was shown, were beaten.

It was successful. The war, being waged when Blair spoke, ended some months after with the withdrawal of the Serb forces. Intervention – including the bombing of the Serb capital, Belgrade, with collateral damage to the Chinese embassy – had succeeded. The oppressors had scuttled off; the democratic side had won.

A little more than two decades ago, yet a world away. This month, the American forces pulled out of Afghanistan, almost stealing out  – “leaving”, as the New Yorker put it, “a country that many expect will now collapse into civil war: the United States has no victory to declare; it can only acknowledge the reality of relinquishment and retreat.”

Another reality of relinquishment and retreat will come early next year, when French forces, which have been fighting for eight years against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel, will also “acknowledge the reality of relinquishment and retreat”. President Emmanuel Macron said that “we cannot secure certain areas because some states simply refuse to assume their duties. Otherwise, it is an endless task…  the long-term presence” of French troops “cannot be a substitute” for nation states handling their own affairs. The Sahel – between the Saharan desert and Sudan – contains the states of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania – insecure, a prey to extremist forces, dirt poor. These are the kind of states which, in the flush of democratic expansionism, could have expected attention, aid and protection. Not now.

Earlier this week, it was not a mid-forties prime minister but a 68-year old retired general, former head of US forces in Afghanistan David Petraeus who made the “liberal interventionist” case.  By pulling out of Afghanistan, he said, “the rest of the world will see that we are not supporting democracy or maintaining the values that we promote around the world – human rights, particularly women’s rights the right to education and freedom of speech and press…’

Donald Trump, who regarded the stationing of US troops abroad as a useless drain on the American economy and badgered his aides and military to ‘bring them home’ was in this – as in other areas of his rackety presidency – a compass pointing in a common direction.

Joe Biden, early in his presidency, sang from the same hymn sheet – his words conveying a similar message to that of Macron. “We did not go to Afghanistan”, said the American President, “to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” Bringing the troops home, keeping the flood of immigrants out: these, with national differences, are now the common parlance of a West where to a large extent idealism begins, and ends, at home. Ironically, the withdrawal, or absence, of western forces will mean an ever more swollen flood of refugees, beating on the doors of European states which are now making it ever more difficult for them to enter.

Is there a third way – between intervention (for whatever reason) and getting out? Seth Jones, a former adviser to the US Special Forces in Afghanistan, deplores Biden’s decision but argues that a complete victory by the Taliban – now as before eager to impose their conservative Islamist rule on their fellow countrymen and (especially) women – could perhaps be avoided if US pull out was not complete, but adopted a strategy “focused on supporting Afghan security forces and striking terrorists… funding and arming the Afghan government and other anti-Taliban forces, deploying small numbers of CIA paramilitary units and US special operations forces, and striking targets from the air.” The strategy, he admits, would not stop the Taliban taking the cities but “may” limit its ability to set up a “terrorist sanctuary” and “limit a humanitarian crisis”. It’s not much, in counter terrorist terms, but – if the advice is followed, which is a big if – it would have to do.

This juncture should be marked, for though it is a sign of the times, it is also a large station on the road away from global involvement, for humanitarian, democratic and even anti-terrorist purposes. Only if – a long time fear of experienced politicians and the security services – there is a credible threat of weapons of mass destruction falling into terrorist group hands, could a coalition of states be summoned into existence to strike before a nuclear plume rose over Washington, London or Paris. States, even one as totalitarian as the nuclear-capable North Korea, can be deterred since they cannot move out of the way of a retaliation in kind. A well-organised group can strike, disperse and melt away.

In a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 2003, as the invasion of Iraq by the US and the UK was ramping up, the writer and politician Michael Ignatieff, at some length, provided the underpinning for seeing the intervention as morally just. Hard questions, he wrote, had to be asked; allies had to be convinced; if possible the United Nations brought onside; the decision had to be made as a last resort; a wider war could not be triggered; a democratic regime must be put in place. Yet, even if all these criteria were observed, “the effort to get these judgements right and to make them in good faith exposes any democracy and its leaders to enormous moral hazard. The costs of error – when weapons of mass destruction are actually there – could be incalculable.”

Moral hazards were plentiful, in the actions of both the US and the UK. Many thousands died in the subsequent battles between the occupying military and the forces opposed to their presence: many more thousands in battles between the different religious and political interests in the country. Could it now be justified? Iraq is a very shaky democracy, with the competing interests ever nearer to outright conflict and the ISIS terrorist group feeding off public distrust in the government. Its saving grace is its vast reserves of oil: so long as that can be kept under central control, the country has a chance. Had Saddam and his thuggish sons continued their rule, it had none.

The West is no longer willing to face moral, or military hazards.  Petraeus’ call, for democratic states to continue a self-imposed duty to extend and protect a system in which they are supposed to believe is internationally applicable,  but will pass without the response for which he calls. The threats – from an expansionist, imperially minded China, an aggressive Russia, an unassuageable Islamist terrorism still capable to further revival, the ever-more evident danger of global warming, the internal weakening of rationality and belief in truth – have convulsed our societies and rendered them fearful.

Freedom’s early 90s spring has expired under the long backlash against foreign adventures and the formation of a consensus that Iraq was a vast mistake. Yet these challenges demand a response. How is it to be given voice, and find new support?

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.