Afghanistan – time is running out but a response is possible

I want to share some further thoughts on response to the Afghan crisis including what I think governments should be doing in response. I appreciate that I’m moving further into the territory of personal opinion on matters that Christians should not have their consciences bound. Some of you may wish to stay clear of the controversial stuff here and that’s perfectly reasonable. If so, you may wish to stop reading now and instead to have a look at this article which I hope will provide common ground for action among believers in Christ who may disagree on Western foreign policy. However, others may wish to read on.

Something struck me this morning which is that many commenting on social media now will have been very young children at the time when allied forces went into Afghanistan 20 years ago. Some may not even have been born. Even for those of us who are old enough to remember, there has been a passage of years and further more I think that other foreign adventures as well as policy failure in the aftermath of the invasion may well have all become conflated together since to give us a distorted recollection. The result is that Afghan is seen as merely part of a bit of gung-ho western colonialism.  Part of an illegal war motivated by oil based on flimsy or none-existent evidence.

So, the first thing to say is that the Afghan campaign should not be confused with Iraq, whatever your views of both conflicts. Iraq is now recognised as happening without UN sanction and on the false premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The Afghan campaign came in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. The Taliban who had controlled the country for much of the time since the Soviets had left were notorious for their cruel form of Islamism. Women and girls were second class citizens, denied an education.  Executions and amputations were used to crack down on non-compliance with their ideology and interpretation of Sharia Law.[1] The Taliban had also harboured Al Qaeda and their leader Osama Bin Ladin providing refuge, somewhere to train operatives and a launch pad for the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers and The Pentagon.

The response to 9-11 was an international coalition drawn from a wide range of nations supported by UN motions. Remember this also means that there had not been a veto from the permanent members of the Security Council. There have been attempts to revise and question this, the suggestion being that the resolutions did not support military action. It is crucial therefore to note the wording of those resolutions at the time when the US were overtly building an international coalition.

The first resolution (1368) adopted on the 12th September makes a number of crucial statements. First it reminds readers of the UN charter which includes provision for self defence under article 51. It goes on to condemn the aggression against the US, affirms the rights of nations to act in self-defence, calls on member states to work together to take necessary action to combat terrorism and bring the perpetrators to justice.[2]

The second is resolution (1373) uses similar language and encourages nation states to co-operate together in responding to terrorism. Neither resolution provides an explicit, prescriptive action in terms of war but that is to misunderstand the purpose and function of the UN which would not be a body going to war. Rather, it explicitly recognises the legitimacy of the US and her allies in taking measures in the interest of self-defence and responding to a threat to the peace and security of the international community.[3]

All that not-withstanding, there were many who were sceptical about military action and concerned that it would not achieve its objectives. Concerns were that traditional conventional military action would not be effective against a terror organisation.  Further, the experience of the USSR in Afghanistan meant that many were concerned that the Western allies would become sucked into and bogged down in an ongoing war of attrition. For those reasons I personally was sceptical but as mentioned before, this was a different context to the later Iraq war in 2003.

The purpose of looking back at history is this.  One question right now will be “what has Afghanistan to do with us?” If we went in illegally then the best thing we can do now is to get out of the way. However, I want to suggest that even if we had question-marks about the decision, we should be able to see that there was a strong rationale for our involvement. Further, that involvement means we have a level of moral responsibility to Afghanistan which has in effect been an ally in the region particularly through the recent history of danger from ISIL. If we have maintained a military presence in Germany and South Korea for the past half-century we must at least have a similar form of responsibility to Afghanistan. We cannot simply wash our hands of the situation. Like it or not, we are involved.

The other issue to consider is the history of Afghanistan over the past 20 years. There is a danger of over simplicity here. We cannot pretend that Afghan has been an exemplar of democracy and freedom. There have been constant concerns raised about corruption and human rights infringements. At the same time, nor was the government simply some kind of western puppet, the voice piece of The Great Satan.  Rather, the government were democratically elected. Remember that this meant too that females were elected as MPs and to positions in the Government. These women will now be targets of the new regime.

The past 20 years has not been perfect but it means that there has been some respite from terrorism on a 9-11 scale and it means that people in Afghanistan have enjoyed a better quality of life including freedoms that they would not otherwise have enjoyed. There has certainly been corruption but the regular participation of Afghanis in democratic elections often in defiance of Taliban threats points to a far more complex situation than claims by Islamists and the hard left that the Afghani government was a puppet regime. It also counters the belief that efforts to encourage democracy and human writes were always going to be futile

All of that is now about to end.

I believe therefore that we have a responsibility to act and I believe there may be a short but rapidly closing window of opportunity to do something beyond the bear minimum of evacuating our people. First of all, we must urgent commit to providing refuge for as many who are looking to escape the Taliban.

Secondly we should at least seek, with the help of UN resolutions to set out the parameters of acceptable behaviour in Afghanistan and make it clear what the consequences of breach of such conditions will be.

Thirdly, we need to be ready to use military force either because those conditions are breached or to seek to prevent the Taliban from establishing a stronghold.  This means that we need to urgently understand why the Afghani army capitulated so quickly. Secondly we need to evaluate the possibility of urgent military action. Something may be possible over the next day or two whilst there is still some presence on the ground and people willing to remain loyal to their government prior to the Taliban. At the moment he is true representative of Afghan’s legitimate government, not the Taliban.

Fourthly, we need to look at other measures that might be possible in order to quickly engage and respond to the Taliban breaching UN resolutions, committing atrocities. This may include the use of Drones and covert operations as well as providing logistical and intelligence support to potential rebels.

Finally, attention needs to be paid to something that was talked about at the start but never followed through on, the battle for hearts and minds. This battle was ceded fairly early on as focus moved to other theatres of war.  The ideological battle with radical Islamism needs to be re-joined and won. Of course, from a Christian perspective I suspect that part of the problem here is that modern westernism devoid of Christian roots has little to offer. However, neither has Islamism or its proxies on the radical left in the UK. 

This final focus must include the robust countering and refuting of the conspiracy theories which provide fertile breeding ground for extremism and violence, particularly those rooted in antisemitism.  It must include a passionate defence of human rights especially those of women and children. It will require a willingness to recognise the limitations and failings of the last twenty years especially with regards to corruption but it must also mean still defending democracy as the best means to hold governments to account and root out such corruption.

Time is short but I hope that Parliament will give serious attention to these options when it convenes on Wednesday.


[1] You can get something of a feel for pre 2001 Afghanistan from Khalid Hosseini’s moving novels “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns.”

[2] S/RES/1368(2001) – E – S/RES/1368(2001) -Desktop (undocs.org)

[3] res_1373_english.pdf (unodc.org)