The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan should continue. But a new military engagement should begin.
In the run-up to the final U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the situation for civilians has predictably worsened. As of Wednesday, the Taliban had overrun nine provincial capitals and is closing in on Kabul, with characteristically brutal methods. Prisoners are being summarily executed; civilians, journalists, and aid workers are being rounded up and beheaded; and families are caught in the crossfire. Strangleholds on supply lines mean siege warfare will quickly lead to deaths and suffering from deprivation as well as bullets. Members of the Afghan military are deserting, and urban warfare has erupted between militias defending their cities and advancing Taliban troops. This is why Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons told the United Nations Security Council last Friday that Afghanistan is now in “a different kind of war, reminiscent of Syria recently or Sarajevo in the not-so-distant past.”
In the face of all this, some have questioned U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw the U.S. military from the country, but his administration has shown no signs of budging. The administration’s response has been limited to scolding the Taliban: “There is no military solution,” the U.S. special representative stated last week. Nonetheless, it is precisely a military solution that is working for the Taliban, and words will not save the civilians caught in their path. Yet so far, the United States has stood resolute in its stance that Afghans must fend for themselves, fearing if it steps in to help Kabul, it will be drawn back into an endless quagmire.
This is a false choice. The United States can both continue its drawdown from a counterinsurgency and protect civilians from the slaughter by simply shifting its narrative about the purpose of military action and the legal architecture it engages to do so—and by acting quickly.
The analogy to Bosnia is telling. In that war, the stronger party to the conflict was also over-running cities and massacring civilians, and the international community stood by helplessly doing nothing—until it didn’t. Operation Deliberate Force, when NATO entered the conflict from the air to stop further Serbian advances on Bosnian Muslim- and Croat-held areas, ended the war by bringing both parties to the peace table in Dayton, Ohio. That agreement, brokered by the Clinton administration, brought relative peace and stability to a region that had seen the bloodiest civil war in Europe in decades, a peace that has lasted for 25 years despite continued ethnic tensions. This was not a counterinsurgency campaign nor a proxy war against rebels but a humanitarian intervention meant to protect civilians, forestall a regional conflagration, and enforce peace. Afghanistan needs similar help now.
In many cases, historically—Kosovo, Libya—the United States has led the charge to protect civilians or been instrumental in doing so. In places where it has not (for example, in Syria), it was because the logistical and political risks outweighed the possible good the United States could do. That’s not the case here: The United States has air power in the region already and a vested interest in protecting its legacy—a war fought to protect civilians, American and Afghan, from atrocities.
All that is missing is political will. To be fair, the United States had good reasons to end what seemed to be a losing counterinsurgency and withdraw its support from a withering Kabul government against the Taliban. And it is true the United States will be of limited long-term assistance in stitching this country back together, given its loss of favor in the region. It’s also reasonable for a new president to want to stand by his decisions to retain credibility.
But Biden need not choose between switching horses midstream and doing nothing as civilian lives are lost. Just as the war in Afghanistan is different now, the kind of outside intervention required is different than it seemed in 2001. This situation presents Biden not with a Kobayashi Maru scenario, but with an opportunity to salvage the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan. In short, Biden can stick with his policy of disengagement from the internal conflict and stem the bloodshed on his way out while laying the foundation for a Bosnia-style international operation to protect civilians and enforce a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan.
To do so, the Biden administration needs to simultaneously reengage air power at the international community’s behest—on Afghan civilians’ behalf rather than Kabul’s—while shifting the narrative about what a U.S. presence in Afghanistan is all about. And crucially, the United Nations should marshal all its political will to assist, including authorizing such action under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter or, if that vote should fail, a “Uniting for Peace” resolution under the U.N. General Assembly.
This is different from what the U.S. mission has been in Afghanistan thus far—a mission viewed as an imperialistic endeavor by the United States to defeat the Taliban and prop up the secular Kabul government. Rather than “providing air support to the Afghan military,” the calculus should now be how to tactically defend civilian areas from fighting by either Taliban or Afghan troops under a mandate from the international community. A politically neutral approach, where the international community is on neither political side but solely on the side of the civilian population, will not only constitute a middle ground between Biden’s agonizing set of choices but also be far more effective in bringing about a stable peace than the previous U.S. policy did. It recognizes both parties to a conflict as legitimate actors while delegitimizing human rights abuse and war crimes on both sides (and yes – the Afghan government also commits war crimes against civilians). Neutral humanitarian intervention creates space and incentives for both parties to come to the peace table. And it comes at the moral behest of the entire United Nations rather than simply the United States.
The final advantage of a humanitarian intervention is if handled well, it can be short and sweet. It is an emergency operation only, designed to bring a conflict to its conclusion while stemming civilian bloodshed. It does not require the United States to remain for decades or shoulder the burden: previous humanitarian interventions have quickly led to peace enforcement operations led by the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations. U.N. envoys Kai Eide and Tadamichi Yamamoto have recently called for a stepped up U.N. role in Afghanistan, and they are right. The United Nations’ presence in Afghanistan over the years has been appallingly weak, under-resourced, and ineffectual. With the United States stepping back, it is time for the United Nations to step up.
Unlike counterinsurgencies or military occupations by Western powers, research shows U.N. peacekeeping operations have been remarkably successful at maintaining peace, and when given a robust mandate, they are effective at protecting civilians. Lise Howard, a professor at Georgetown University, has argued peacekeeping is more successful than counterinsurgency because of how peacekeepers get the warring parties to change their behavior—influencing both sides of a conflict. Because a broader range of nations shoulder the burden of contributing and rotating troops, peacekeeping missions can also have greater staying power. And they are generally seen as more legitimate by warring powers.
From the U.S. perspective, the best thing about a U.N. peace enforcement mission is it could dovetail with a U.S. withdrawal. The United States need not and likely should not participate in a peace enforcement mission in Afghanistan. A successful U.N. peace operation would need consent by both the Kabul government and the Taliban. The Taliban once indicated it would consent to and cooperate with such a mission only should it be manned by peacekeepers from Muslim-majority countries, preferably from outside the region: Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Egypt. This harmony of interests, drawing on existing and time-tested U.N. architecture, could allow the United States to withdraw gracefully from its 20-year involvement, leaving the country in better hands rather than in ruin.
But before peacekeeping can work, there must be peace to keep. And there can be no peace so long as either party to a conflict believes it can terrorize civilians with impunity. Allowing terror against civilians to go unmet works against civilians and against peace by creating a wider legacy of bloodshed to overcome, un-leveling the playing field in favor of the most bloodthirsty party, and fueling conditions for the widest breach of trust.
In such situations, to bring the parties to the peace table, it is precisely a military solution that is needed—a robust military response from third parties. This does not mean Biden should radically undo his decision to end the counterinsurgency. There is a third way, and the United States should choose it while it can still work. The first step would be for the United States to field an emergency resolution to the U.N. Security Council asking for Chapter VII authorization to protect civilians in that country. Until other countries stepped up, Washington would also have to commit its forces to a final military campaign to defend Afghan cities until the Taliban capitulate to talks, while mustering other countries to assist. The UN should make clear this operation is no longer in support of Kabul but is politically neutral, focused on protecting civilians from conflict by both parties, and will end when both parties come to the peace table. Only then will the United States continue its withdrawal.
This stance will give the Taliban both a carrot and a stick to lay down arms and negotiate a settlement—whether a power-sharing arrangement or a Balkans-style federalized system. And ultimately, it is that peace that will ultimately protect Afghanistan’s civilians—while ensuring Biden’s first major foreign-policy legacy won’t be to turn away from Afghan civilians’ suffering as the international community did at Srebrenica.
Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Director of Human Security Lab.