Before the US government leaves Afghanistan, it needs to find a way to protect the many people who will be left behind, even if that requires the same mass-scale airlifts that accompanied the fall of Saigon.
That’s according to the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a human rights group that lobbies for the displaced. In recommendations outlined Monday, it called on the Biden administration to resettle many more refugees from Afghanistan, including those who worked with the US government as well as journalists, activists, and others who risk being targeted by the Taliban.
“Time is running out for the US government to offer humanitarian protection to Afghans whose lives will be under threat after US withdrawal,” Adam Bates, the group’s policy counsel, said in a statement.
President Joe Biden announced earlier this month he plans to remove the last US troops in Afghanistan by September 11, marking two decades of war and occupation. He has pledged, however, to continue supporting the Afghan government, as well as conduct counter-terrorism missions as need be.
Afghans already compose one of the world’s largest group of refugees, with 2.7 million having fled their country by mid-2020, according to the United Nations. The fear is, after the US pulls out, the number seeking a better life abroad will skyrocket.
Already there is a backlog of more than 17,000 Afghans seeking special immigrant visas, which are awarded to those who worked with the US government. A total of 26,500 such visas have been allocated since 2014, per the US State Department. IRAP is urging the Biden administration to “surge” resources to the program to fastrack resettlement.
But many more will be seeking protection. The White House has committed to raising the annual cap on refugee admissions to 125,000 by next fiscal year — but that does not kick until October. In the meantime, the US should to “parole” Afghan candidates, exempting them from this year’s as yet undetermined cap and allow them to apply for more permanent status from the safety of the US. It should facilitate their transport, IRAP said, with “large-scale airlifts,” including to US military bases that could act as immigrant processing centers.
In 1975, after it had already withdrawn its own soldiers, the US military evacuated thousands of civilians by helicopter from Saigon after North Vietnamese forces overran the city, now named after Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
“The United States must act now to protect vulnerable Afghans or risk a humanitarian catastrophe in the region,” Bates said. “President Biden should use all his power to protect these Afghan civilians.”
In a video address to the nation on Wednesday last week, President Joe Biden announced the 20-year US war in Afghanistan will finally end by September of this year.
It’s not quite the timeline of the pact negotiated with the Taliban by the Trump administration: Biden said he’ll “begin” the final US withdrawal on May 1, which was to be the deadline for its completion, and instead complete it by the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
This doesn’t exactly comply with the peace deal, but it doesn’t discard it, either, and that could prove enough to hold the Taliban to its side of the bargain.
This is excellent news – long overdue, but only made more welcome by two decades of delay. Biden’s brief speech made a cogent case for US departure from Afghanistan, giving weight to his insistence that this plan is to be taken seriously. That weight is, frankly, needed with a war of this length, cost, and chaos.
Indeed, the challenge for Biden over the next four months will be keeping to his own agenda, refusing to let the end of the war in Afghanistan in 2021 replicate the “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.
Biden’s arguments for ending US intervention in Afghanistan were practical and persuasive. He pointed to the futility of Washington’s nation-building attempts and argued for Afghan self-determination and resolution of what is essentially a civil war.
Recounting a trip to the country in 2008, Biden affirmed that “only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country.”
An endless US war can’t “create or sustain a durable Afghan government,” he said, and we are foolish to continue to try. This is the problem with the conditions-based exit scheme long popular among the bipartisan foreign policy establishment: The conditions will never be met. Thus an ostensible schema for ending the war is in practice a tool to prolong it perpetually, as Biden seems to understand.
The president emphasized the distinction between the war’s initial mission – retribution for 9/11 and “ensur[ing] Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again” – and the aimless mission creep of subsequent years. He promised US counterterror programs would continue to keep Americans safe.
The connection he could have drawn a bit more boldly, however, is that the counterterrorism model of 2001 (invading, occupying, and manipulating a whole country because it hosted terrorist training camps) makes no sense in 2021 (when far more advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities allow the US to monitor and address threats emanating from anywhere in the world).
“Our diplomacy does not hinge on having boots in harm’s way – US boots on the ground,” Biden rightly said. He should have made clearer that US counterterrorism doesn’t require forever wars either.
That absence is part of what leaves me still a bit skeptical about this plan. In previews of the announcement last week, Biden administration officials told The Washington Post the “goal is to move to ‘zero’ troops [in Afghanistan] by September.”
But a New York Times report the same day revealed “zero” may not mean “zero”: “Instead of declared troops in Afghanistan, the United States will most likely rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors, and covert intelligence operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic State threats, current and former American officials said.”
That means this might not be the full withdrawal the remarks suggest. Biden said he wouldn’t pass the responsibility of “presid[ing] over an American troop presence in Afghanistan” to a fifth consecutive president, but that’s only true if we use a deceptively narrow definition of “troops.”
As it stands, it appears Biden’s plan is to keep a small American military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely.
That continuous exposure to attacks from anti-American forces opens the door to future re-escalation, to precisely the “cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan” Biden decried. It opens the door to an “end” of a war unfortunately reminiscent of the Obama administration’s “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.
There too, ending combat operations didn’t mean going to a true “zero” troop presence. The war re-escalated just three years later when the Islamic State registered as a new regional threat, and it has continued ever since.
“It’s time for American troops to come home” from Afghanistan, Biden said last Wednesday. That’s absolutely correct, and the president should match those words with a full exit that precludes all possibility of resuming our country’s longest war.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.
The nearly two-decade war in Afghanistan has cost the United States $2.26 trillion, according to a new analysis by Brown University.
But even after the last American service member leaves Afghanistan later this year, as the Biden administration has pledged, the costs will continue to rise, according to Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
In its Costs of War report released Friday, the Watson Institute tallies the staggering expense of the nation’s longest war, as the Biden administration prepares to withdraw the last few thousand troops from Afghanistan no later than Sept. 11.
The analysis collected the estimated congressional appropriations for the war, including operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The greatest single expense – $933 billion, or 41% of the war effort’s total costs – came in the Defense Department’s Overseas Contingency Operations spending, the report states. The controversial OCO budget, which was used to pay for war efforts, was unaffected by budgetary caps imposed on the rest of the department and grew significantly over the years.
But the DoD’s base budget also saw its own war-related increases, apart from the OCO budget and the costs of actually waging war in Afghanistan. The Watson Institute said the military’s overall budget grew by an additional $443 billion, making it the third-largest cost of the war.
The interest costs, totaling $530 billion, from borrowing money to pay for the war, make up the effort’s second-biggest expense.
The study said that the US has also spent $296 billion to care for veterans of the Afghanistan war.
The State Department’s own OCO war budget cost $59 billion, according to the report.
But these costs are not yet done accumulating. The Watson Institute said its analysis did not include the costs of lifetime care for war veterans or future interest payments on money the US borrowed for the war.
The report estimates that up to 241,000 people died in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a direct result of the war.
The war cost the lives of 2,442 US troops, six DoD civilians, 3,936 US contractors, and 1,144 allied troops, the report states. Between 66,000 and 69,000 Afghan national military members and police, as well as another 9,314 Pakistani troops and police, also died.
More than 71,000 civilians – roughly 47,000 in Afghanistan and 24,000 in Pakistan – died, according to the report. And more than 51,000 opposition fighters died in Afghanistan, as did another roughly 33,000 in Pakistan.
The report said that about 136 journalists and media workers, and 549 humanitarian workers, also died in the war.
A Taliban leader said that the US withdrawing troops from Afghanistan means the extremist group has won.
Haji Hekmat, the Taliban’s shadow mayor in Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province, told the BBC: “We have won the war and America has lost.”
“We are ready for anything,” he continued. “We are totally prepared for peace, and we are fully prepared for jihad.”
President Joe Biden has announced plans to pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.
The US intelligence community has warned in a Tuesday report that the Afghan government “will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
The Taliban said on Wednesday that it wants all foreign military personnel out of Afghanistan “on the date specified” in the agreement. “If the agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit our country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded,” it added.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday officially announced his plans to end America’s longest war and bring US troops home from Afghanistan.
“I am now the fourth American president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan,” Biden said, stressing that he “will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.”
The president said that “we went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” adding that this tragedy “cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.”
“We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead, and al Qaeda is degraded in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “It is time to end the forever war.”
The Biden administration plans to have all US forces out of the country by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack that led the US to war in 2001, a senior official said on Tuesday. The full withdrawal is expected to begin on May 1.
Official estimates put the number of US troops in Afghanistan at 2,500, though the number may be slightly higher, and there are another 7,000 NATO troops in the country. NATO is expected to withdraw its forces in coordination with the US.
As of the end of last year, American military operations in Afghanistan had cost $824.9 billion, the Pentagon estimated. The overall cost of the war has been substantially higher. More than 2,400 US troops have been killed in Afghanistan, and over 20,000 have been wounded in action.
“Regardless of how the war ends, their sacrifice has not been diminished one bit,” retired US Navy Adm. William McRaven, the former Navy SEAL who led the Osama bin Laden raid in 2011, said on Wednesday.
Concerns have been raised that with the end of US military support, the Taliban may seize the opportunity to undo the efforts of the past two decades. The US intelligence community argued in a new report released on Tuesday that “the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
Biden stated on Wednesday that “while we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue.” He added that “we will continue to support the government of Afghanistan” and “keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.”
“They continue to fight valiantly on behalf of their country and defend the Afghans at great cost,” Biden said. Tens of thousands of Afghan troops have been killed in conflict with the Taliban.
One driving factor behind the decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan is shifting priorities, especially as the US shifts its focus to growing threats from Russia and China.
“Afghanistan just does not rise to the level of those other threats at this point,” a person familiar with the administration’s withdrawal plans told The Washington Post on Tuesday, adding that the US would “remain committed diplomatically” in Afghanistan.
Biden has determined “that the best path forward to advance American interests is to end the war in Afghanistan after 20 years so that we can address the global threat picture as it exists today, not as it was two decades ago,” the official said.
Biden explained on Wednesday that “we have to focus on the challenges that are in front of us.”
One important question hanging over the withdrawal decision is how the Taliban will react, especially considering that a September withdrawal date is past the May 1 date agreed to by the Trump administration.
The Taliban said on Wednesday that it wants all foreign military personnel out of Afghanistan “on the date specified” in the agreement. It added, “If the agreement is breached and foreign forces fail to exit our country on the specified date, problems will certainly be compounded.” The insurgent force said that those who “failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable.”
A senior official said on Tuesday that the US has “told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that any attacks on US troops as we undergo a safe and orderly withdrawal will be met with a forceful response.”
Biden said he made the decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan in consultation with members of Congress, his vice president, US military leaders, intelligence officials, diplomatic professionals, and experts, as well as US allies and partners.
Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani said on Wednesday, “The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan respects the US decision and we will work with our US partners to ensure a smooth transition,” adding that “Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country.”
He said that he has spoken with Biden and that his government will continue to work with the US and NATO as the country pursues a peaceful resolution to conflict.
The Biden administration’s decision has had mixed reviews in Congress, ranging from support to concerns about the unconditional nature of the withdrawal.
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” Biden said on Wednesday. “It is time to end America’s longest war. It is time for American troops to come home.”
Facebook allowed authoritarian governments to use its platform to generate fake support for their regimes for months despite warnings from employees about the disinformation campaigns, an investigation from the Guardian revealed this week.
A loophole in Facebook’s policies allowed government officials around the world to create unlimited amounts of fake “pages” which, unlike user profiles, don’t have to correspond to an actual person – but could still like, comment on, react to, and share content, the Guardian reported.
That loophole let governments spin up armies of what looked like real users who could then artificially generate support for and amplify pro-government content, what the Guardian called “the digital equivalent of bussing in a fake crowd for a speech.”
Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist on the company’s integrity team, blew the whistle dozens of times about the loophole, warning Facebook executives including vice president of integrity Guy Rosen, airing many of her concerns, according to the Guardian.
BuzzFeed News previously reported on Zhang’s “badge post” – a tradition where departing employees post an internal farewell message to coworkers.
But one of Zhang’s biggest concerns was that Facebook wasn’t paying enough attention to coordinated disinformation networks in authoritarian countries, such as Honduras and Azerbaijan, where elections are less free and more susceptible to state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, the Guardian’s investigation revealed.
Facebook waited 344 days after employees sounded the alarm to take action in the Honduras case, and 426 days in Azerbaijan, and in some cases took no action, the investigation found.
But when she raised her concerns about Facebook’s inaction in Honduras to Rosen, he dismissed her concerns.
“We have literally hundreds or thousands of types of abuse (job security on integrity eh!),” Rosen told Zhang in April 2019, according the Guardian, adding: “That’s why we should start from the end (top countries, top priority areas, things driving prevalence, etc) and try to somewhat work our way down.”
Rosen told Zhang he agreed with Facebook’s priority areas, which included the US, Western Europe, and “foreign adversaries such as Russia/Iran/etc,” according to the Guardian.
“We fundamentally disagree with Ms. Zhang’s characterization of our priorities and efforts to root out abuse on our platform. We aggressively go after abuse around the world and have specialized teams focused on this work,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois told Insider in a statement.
“As a result, we’ve already taken down more than 100 networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior. Around half of them were domestic networks that operated in countries around the world, including those in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa, and in the Asia Pacific region. Combatting coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority. We’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue before taking action or making public claims about them,” she said.
However, Facebook didn’t dispute any of Zhang’s factual claims in the Guardian investigation.
Facebook pledged to tackle election-related misinformation and disinformation after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Russia’s use of its platform to sow division among American voters ahead of the 2016 US presidential elections.
“Since then, we’ve focused on improving our defenses and making it much harder for anyone to interfere in elections,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a 2018 op-ed for The Washington Post.
“Key to our efforts has been finding and removing fake accounts – the source of much of the abuse, including misinformation. Bad actors can use computers to generate these in bulk. But with advances in artificial intelligence, we now block millions of fake accounts every day as they are being created so they can’t be used to spread spam, false news or inauthentic ads,” Zuckerberg added.
But the Guardian’s investigation showed Facebook is still delaying or refusing to take action against state-sponsored disinformation campaigns in dozens of countries, with thousands of fake accounts, creating hundreds of thousands of fake likes.
And even in supposedly high-priority areas, like the US, researchers have found Facebook has allowed key disinformation sources to expand their reach over the years.
A March report from Avaaz found “Facebook could have prevented 10.1 billion estimated views for top-performing pages that repeatedly shared misinformation” ahead of the 2020 US elections had it acted earlier to limit their reach.
“Failure to downgrade the reach of these pages and to limit their ability to advertise in the year before the election meant Facebook allowed them to almost triple their monthly interactions, from 97 million interactions in October 2019 to 277.9 million interactions in October 2020,” Avaaz found.
Facebook admits that around 5% of its accounts are fake, a number that hasn’t gone down since 2019, according to The New York Times. And MIT Technology Review’s Karen Hao reported in March that Facebook still doesn’t have a centralized team dedicated to ensuring its AI systems and algorithms reduce the spread of misinformation.
The Biden administration plans to withdraw all American forces in Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the deadly terrorist attacks that dragged the US into a decades-long conflict, The Washington Post first reported Tuesday.
“We will begin an orderly drawdown of the remaining forces before May 1 and plan to have all US troops out of the country before the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” a senior administration official said Tuesday, confirming The Post’s reporting.
Under the deal negotiated by the Trump administration with the Taliban, the US was expected to have all US forces out of the country by May 1.
“We have … long known that there is no military solution to the problems plaguing Afghanistan, and we will focus our efforts on supporting the ongoing peace process,” the official said Tuesday.
“That means putting the full weight of our government behind diplomatic efforts to reach a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but what we will not do is use our troops as bargaining chips in that process,” the official added.
In March, Biden said that “it’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” explaining that for tactical reasons, “it’s hard to get those troops out.” He stressed, though, that “it is not my intention to stay there for a long time.”
The next day, the Taliban said that “if God forbid, all foreign troops [do] not withdraw from Afghanistan on the specified date,” then the insurgent force “will be compelled to defend its religion and homeland and continue its Jihad and armed struggle against foreign forces to liberate its country.”
It’s unclear if the Taliban will follow through on that threat with the new September deadline, but the administration is hopeful the new plan will prevent renewed fighting.
“If we break the May 1st deadline negotiated by the previous administration with no clear plan to exit, we will be back at war with the Taliban, and that was not something President Biden believed was in the national interest,” a person familiar with the planning told The Post. “We’re going to zero troops by September.”
The senior administration official said Tuesday that the US has “told the Taliban in no uncertain terms that any attacks on US troops as we undergo a safe and orderly withdrawal will be met with a forceful response.”
The original agreement for a full withdrawal by May 1 was conditions-based, requiring all sides to “demonstrate their commitment to advancing the peace process.”
US military leaders have repeatedly said that the Taliban has not lived up to these commitments. Biden’s plan to withdraw, however, “is not conditions-based,” the official said Tuesday.
“The president has judged that conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever,” the official added.
The official said the September 11 deadline was set largely due to “operational and logistical issues related to ensuring that we have a safe and orderly withdrawal” and that it may be “completed well in advance” of that date.
The US will also coordinate with NATO allies and partners about the drawdown of their forces over the same time period, the official added.
The war in Afghanistan, which began on October 7, 2001, has been America’s longest-running conflict. The US has been steadily pulling troops out of the country amid negotiations with the Taliban.
The plan to pull troops out by September comes as the US shifts its focus to what are considered to be higher-level threats, such as rivals like China and Russia.
“Afghanistan just does not rise to the level of those other threats at this point,” The Post’s source said, adding that the US would “remain committed diplomatically” in Afghanistan.
Biden has determined “that the best path forward to advance American interests is to end the war in Afghanistan after 20 years so that we can address the global threat picture as it exists today, not as it was two decades ago,” the official said Tuesday.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that America’s domestic infrastructure is in utter disarray. Travel down I-95 between New York City and Boston, and you will be lucky not to hit a 5-inch-deep pothole in the middle of the lane.
The United States, the most prosperous country in the world, is now 13th in terms of infrastructure quality, below many of its peers in Europe. Over 20% of its roads are in poor condition. About 127,000 bridges across the US are either structurally deficient or need to be replaced. And as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan showed, even clean water supplies aren’t a given.
The United States, in other words, is in desperate need of investment at home. The alternative is watching as Americans who live in cities continue to suffer from dilapidated highways while their fellow citizens in rural areas are left searching for a basic broadband connection.
The juxtaposition outside US borders is stunning. Over the last two decades, as US infrastructure was worsening, Washington was busy conducting reconstruction initiatives in nations that to this day remain consumed by conflict and led by unaccountable and corrupt governments.
As of December 2020, the US has spent approximately $143 billion of taxpayer money on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.
The projects were designed to kickstart the Afghan economy, introduce a degree of self-sufficiency over the long-term, and ensure ordinary Afghans were able to enjoy the kinds of public goods – accessible water supplies, highways, access to hospitals – that are often taken for granted in the West.
Yet the results, to put it generously, have been poor. $1 billion was devoted to schools in Afghanistan that weren’t even operating. A $8.5 billion program to wean Afghan farmers away from growing poppy was unsuccessful, evident in Afghanistan’s current status as the world’s foremost producer of opium.
As Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko testified to Congress last month, systemic corruption in Afghanistan undermines US-funded reconstruction initiatives to the point of irrelevancy. Of the $7.8 billion in US reconstruction funds SIGAR investigated, just $1.2 billion – 15% – went to their intended purpose.
Many of the buildings paid for by the US taxpayer were left abandoned. Afghanistan still relies on international donors for 80% of its budget; remains dominated by corruption at all levels of government; and is seemingly incapable of exhibiting the slightest degree of responsibility in how it spends US taxpayer money.
The US experience in Iraq isn’t much better. Despite their good intentions, US officials ran into problems on the reconstruction front almost immediately.
Schools and prisons funded by Washington were left idle, while water treatment plants in dangerous areas like Fallujah were overbudget and woefully inadequate for the population. Today, Iraq remains a country so riddled with parochialism and multiple power centers that Shia militias are building up their own revenue streams separate from the state.
As US soldiers and aid workers were essentially throwing billions of dollars in the toilet in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s own schools, roads, and bridges were falling apart.
Total spending on US domestic infrastructure fell between 2007-2017. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US a “C-” on its infrastructure score and estimated that the US economy could lose $10 trillion in GDP by 2039 if Washington failed to plug the infrastructure spending gap.
The Biden administration, like its predecessors, is hoping to solve (or at least mitigate) America’s infrastructure problems with an ambitious $2 trillion proposal that would be paid for over a period of 15 years.
The plan would dump $600 billion into improving and modernizing ports, railways, bridges and highways. $300 billion would be devoted to supporting domestic manufacturing, while an additional $100 billion would be invested into building up an electric grid prone to occasional outages.
Biden’s initiative will run into steep opposition due to the cost. But leaving the details aside, one can’t help but feel a sense of jubilation that US policymakers are actually showing some interest in investing in America rather than in countries overseas that have proven to be perpetually weak, dysfunctional, and perhaps even immune to US generosity.
Policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits still like to describe the United States as an exceptional nation in a league of its own. But no nation, not even the United States, can thrive if it underinvests in its own communities or takes its eyes of the ball to what is truly important: expanding its own strength domestically.
It’s a lesson the old denizens of the Soviet Union learned the hard way – and when they finally appreciated the concept, it was too late.
America’s source of power overseas is anchored in its prosperity at home. If the US is so keen on nation-building, it should start and end in its own cities and towns.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
Have know-nothing civilian bureaucrats, lily-livered humanitarian do-gooders and misguided academics tied the military’s hands with increasingly restrictive norms that don’t correspond to the laws of war, let alone the rigors of battle and requirements of victory?
This is a danger, they argue, since troops trained in restraint and respect for civilian life would be tactically, bureaucratically and morally hobbled if faced with a massed formation of Russian, Chinese or Iranian tanks.
For all this argument’s numerous flaws, it contains one underappreciated insight. The US military has been asked to take on tasks to which it is ill-suited, affecting mission readiness for its primary role: winning wars.
The solution, however, is not to water down the laws of war as they pertain to counterterrorism operations or to diminish the role of civilian agencies in peace building. Instead, the US military should get out of the counterterrorism and nation-building business and stick to the battlefield where it belongs.
Pede and Hayden make some valid points, even if their conclusions miss the mark. It is true that the laws of armed conflict are more permissive than most civilians believe and most humanitarians wish. But NGOs and academics are the first to acknowledge that. Advocating for stronger rules is not the same as pretending they already exist.
It is also true that NGOs, lawyers, scholars and activists are actively involved, alongside militaries, in promoting, augmenting and implementing the laws of war. But that has been the case ever since the very first Geneva Convention codified, at the behest of 19th-century Swiss activists, the right of civilian medical workers to rescue wounded soldiers from battle without being shot by warring parties – the origin of today’s Red Cross.
And yes, it is true that the laws of war are evolving today as much through soft law, advisory opinions, jurisprudence and policy initiatives as through changes in the letter of multilateral treaties. But that’s how the laws of war are designed. Geneva and Hague rules are not merely words on paper, but a living, breathing set of norms meant to evolve within limits and change with the times, as new technologies emerge and global temperaments shift.
Where Pede and Hayden are most right, however, is when they point out that neither militaries nor the system of rules designed to regulate their behavior in war were really designed for the kind of operations into which the US military has been thrust for the past two decades: counterterrorism and nation building.
But the solution is not to disparage or undo the humanitarian achievements of the NGO sector, but rather to move the US military out of both counterterrorism as well as stability and support operations. This means acknowledging that those operations require adherence not to the law of war at all, but to human rights law.
The law of war, as the authors note, is a more permissive framework meant to apply only in genuine situations of armed conflict, and not to peace building or counterterror operations. But the strained relationship between military readiness and international law is not the result of the norm entrepreneurship of humanitarians, but rather of the misguided marrying of military power to law enforcement and peace-building operations.
What former President Barack Obama once called “overseas contingency operations” do require different mindsets, strategies and legal regimes than do operations on conventional battlefields. And it is equally true that this is not what troops are trained for, nor what they do best.
This has arguably led to the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, it has required an expansion of war law restrictions, causing officers like Pede and Hayden to chafe over fears of defeat on “Battlefield Next.”
On the other hand, this trend has also diluted human rights law, which is the branch of international law that ought to apply in law enforcement or nation-building situations. And worst of all, it has muddied the important distinction between the two branches of the law and their respective scopes of application, contributing to failures of political imagination and foreclosed policy options.
Consider the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Carried out with the blessing of the international community and in alignment with the United Nations Charter, it led to a quick and decisive tactical, strategic and moral victory. But rather than quit while ahead, the US then stayed for an extended bout of nation building, resulting in an enduring quagmire, with the promise of a power vacuum upon the inevitable withdrawal of American forces.
Worse still, during the so-called nation-building stage, the US military continued to treat Afghanistan and the surrounding region as a hot battlefield, operating in a war law mindset rather than a human rights law mindset. The US continues to speak of “civilian casualties” instead of “innocent bystanders,” of “enemy combatants” rather than “accused insurrectionists,” and of “peace talks” rather than “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.”
The death toll from continued US armed violence continually exacerbated the situation, yet for the US to withdraw abruptly would likely leave civilians even more at risk from a renewed civil war. It is the same no-win scenario America has continuously faced when it has melded wartime victories into nation-building projects.
Now, imagine a counterfactual: The US enters Afghanistan briefly in 2001 to topple the Taliban, applying the law of war as best it can during a conflict as brief and relatively bloodless as that in Kosovo or Libya. It then turns the rebuilding of Afghanistan over – as happened in Kosovo but not in Libya – to a UN-authorized peace enforcement mission combining civilian and military police with civil society experts from Muslim-majority countries, with a robust mandate to protect civilians.
As Page Fortna and Lise Howard have shown, such missions have a far better track record of success in peace building than what the US military calls “stability and support operations.” This is because they are structured around principles, norms and rules of engagement designed to win the peace, rather than win wars.
With burden-sharing across many nations, UN missions also have staying power, avoiding the no-win scenario of remaining forever or leaving a power vacuum, as NATO mistakenly did in Libya and former President Donald Trump set the stage to do in Afghanistan. Most importantly, UN missions are incubators for training post-conflict nations in human rights law and democracy – the ingredients of stable peace.
If nation building might be better left to other actors than the US military, what about counterterrorism?
As Kenneth Roth argued early in the war on terror, what the US calls counterterrorism is much better thought of as an effort to apprehend and punish transnational criminals than as a form of all-out war, and thus best handled not by militaries but through the tools of international law enforcement: extradition, arrest, trial, detention and ultimately punishment or rehabilitation.
Instead of drones aiming to kill, imagine special forces commando raids to arrest terror suspects in much the way the FBI arrests and tries mass shooters in the US.
Such suspects would then be turned over to Interpol, or a neutral third country for detention and trial, or be tried in US criminal court. Those found innocent would be released. Those found guilty would be rehabilitated in prison – a process that Saudi Arabia, for all its flaws, has been particularly good at.
The distinctions between civilian and combatant, between battlefield and home front and between unlawful combatant and POW rightly become irrelevant within such an architecture.
This was the world before 9/11; before then-President George W. Bush declared “war” on a band of criminals; before Congress authorized the use of force without due process against anyone, anywhere suspected by the US to be a threat; and before the U.S. military was erroneously tasked with transnational law enforcement, nation building and operational support in the world’s various civil wars.
To be sure, where useful, members of the US military might be deployed under UN auspices to support peacekeeping missions. US special forces could become a useful adjunct for Interpol and/or any country willing to try alleged terrorists under universal jurisdiction.
But the military as an institution is not equipped to orchestrate the building of nations or effectively police transnational crime, nor should it be entrusted with these tasks. The attitude underpinning Pede and Hayden’s article is itself an example of why.
Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets @charlicarpenter. Her WPR guest column will appear every other Friday.
President Joe Biden during his first news conference as commander-in-chief on Thursday said it will be tough to meet a May 1 deadline to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan.
“It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline just in terms of tactical reasons,” Biden said. “We will leave. The question is when we leave.”
The May 1 deadline was set under an agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban that did not involve the Afghan government. The Biden administration, wary of the Taliban fully taking over in the event of a US withdrawal, wants to work toward a political settlement involving a transitional government. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani opposes the proposal, per Reuters.
In short, the peace process remains stalled and what happens next is unclear. Meanwhile, violent attacks continue in Afghanistan, signaling that the Taliban is not living up to the terms of the agreement for a US withdrawal.
“It is not my intention to stay there for a long time. But the question is, how, in what circumstances, do we meet that agreement that was made by President Trump to leave under a deal that looks like it’s not being able to be worked out to begin with,” Biden said. “How has that done, but we’re not staying a long time.”
When asked if he expected US troops to remain in Afghanistan into 2022, Biden said, “I can’t picture that being the case.” This signals that Biden is relatively confident the longest war in US history will come to a conclusion before the end of the year.
The war in Afghanistan, which began in October 2001, is nearly 20 years old. When it began, Biden was still a senator and he voted in favor of the law that paved the way for the invasion.
Multiple presidents have tried and failed to fully wrap up the conflict in Afghanistan, a country that has often been called the “graveyard of empires.”
As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged to end “forever wars” like Afghanistan that came about as part of the global war on terror. In early March, the White House said Biden intended to work with lawmakers to repeal laws passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks that opened the door for such conflicts.