Blog post #3 — 5 October 2021
A few weeks ago, I participated in a discussion on Afghanistan in debating centre LUX. Several Afghan activists also spoke, making it an impressive and emotional evening. My contribution focused on the question: now that international troops have left Afghanistan, what can Western countries such as The Netherlands still do to help Afghan people deal with the difficulties they now face under the Taliban? Of course, this is no easy question. My ‘two cents’ on the matter consisted of five elements:
1. We should be generous in receiving Afghan refugees. During twenty years of Western presence in Afghanistan many were given hope of a different future. We owe it to these people to welcome them should they turn to us. Instead, the Dutch government has refused to withdraw Afghanistan’s status as a safe country, has warned that a welcoming attitude would invite many more to come, and has even suggested that refugees may threaten our security. The idea that a flood of people may come knocking on Europe’s gates wrongly assumes that many are able to make the long trip. The suggestion that terrorists may be among the refugees is also a stretch. This same fear was raised during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, but not one terrorist entered Europe as a refugee. This leads me to my second point:
2. We should not exaggerate the danger that terrorist groups from countries like Afghanistan pose to the West. Terrorism is first and foremost a problem for Afghans themselves: Afghanistan is number one on the Global Terrorism Index of countries worst affected by terrorism. In the West, very few people die as a result of terrorist attacks, and those who do are more often the victim of right-wing terrorism than of jihadist terrorism. In addition, those committing jihadist attacks in the West are nearly always people who were born and raised here – not people who travelled here from places like Afghanistan. The Taliban have never targeted the West. ISIS and Al Qaeda have, but most experts agree that they do not currently have the capacity to organise major international attacks. Strongly increased manpower of police and secret services in Western countries also make it much more difficult for them to do so. Let’s not let our fear of terrorism get in the way of efforts to help those who suffer most from it.
3. Difficult as this is, we have to keep a line of dialogue open with the Taliban. Not only to try and evacuate more people who have worked with Western countries, but also to ensure access for aid. Though this may seem counterintuitive, history has shown that political dialogue is far more likely to end terrorism than the use of force. Diplomatic efforts are also needed vis-a-vis other countries, most notably Pakistan, an ally of the West and recipient of military aid, that has covertly supported the Taliban for a long time.
4. Afghans currently face immense shortages of food and medicine. Humanitarian aid has to continue in order to save lives. Longer-term development aid is also vital, even under the Taliban. The failure of nation building via military intervention has once again underlined that democratization can only occur from the bottom up. Historically, we know that middle classes are the driving force of democracy. This means that building a viable private sector is important not just for economic, but also for political reasons. (For more on this, see this earlier publication in Dutch -pages 216-219- and this one in English.) The same goes for education, as educated citizens are more likely to press governments for accountability and reform. Education and economic development also create alternative ways of living for those who now join extremist groups in order to survive.
5. Western countries should be more realistic, and more modest, about the extent of societal change that can be achieved via military intervention. Such interventions also have many unintended consequences: let’s not forget, for example, how the US armed mujaheddin-fighters in their struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan, only to be pitted against these same fighters, now called the Taliban, a decade later. We need to have more attention for the negative effects of the use of force: large-scale loss of life, the destruction of means of living, displacement, refugee flows, anti-Western sentiments, and even extremism. In fact, violence tends to lead to more violence: a spiral of terror. This also means putting an end to the ongoing drone attacks, which are at odds with international and humanitarian laws and which often claim civilian lives, as happened a few weeks ago when an American drone killed an Afghan family with seven children.
None of this is easy, nor is it likely to produce immediate results. But if only a fraction of the two trillion dollars that the war in Afghanistan has cost the US and its allies could be spent on diplomacy, development and refugee assistance, who knows what difference this could make.
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