The Ethics of Exit from Afghanistan

August 23, 2021

A United States Marine escorts a Department of State employee to evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 15, 2021. CREDIT: Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/Public Domain

How does this end? This question loomed from the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, and now seems like a prelude to the tragic final act that is playing out in Kabul.

The question was not new in September 2001, and it should have surprised no one then and now.

Prior to Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91, Colin Powell famously asserted the Powell Doctrine: making "exit strategy" central to any discussion of the use of military force. Yet Powell's vital idea was left in the dust as the urgency of hunting down terrorists and defeating al-Qaeda unleashed a series of campaigns that failed to define a practical end point called victory.

Killing and capturing terrorists (counterterrorism) evolved into denying them safe haven (counterinsurgency). As time went by it would not be enough to seek justice against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. A new global War on Terror would militarize the conflict in every respect, including pursuing regime change and nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. The changing nature of these conflicts created a number of new ethical issues that in some cases U.S. policymakers were ill-equipped to address.

Intervening in Afghanistan represented a huge commitment of blood, treasure, and prestige. It is to the credit of the United States and its allies that it persevered for 20 years to stand up a stable and sustainable government, free from Taliban rule and terrorist elements. Despite recent developments, this willingness to give Afghans a legitimate shot at self-determination should never be forgotten.

President Biden's decision to withdraw is justifiable as a reckoning with limits. 

The United States can be proud of its efforts to "clear, hold, build, and transfer." It worked mightily with military allies, aid workers, and community leaders. But at the end of the process, it was up to the Afghans themselves to accept the transfer and stand on their own.  

It is clear now that the Afghans failed the "self-help test" outlined in John Stuart Mill’s essay "A Few Words on Non-Intervention" and Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars. Whether it was weakened by endemic corruption or a lack of political will, the Afghan government could not muster the strength to resist the Taliban. 

As Walzer puts it, foreign intervention cannot substitute for self-determination. "Freedom of a political community can be won only by members of that community." Echoes of the fall of South Vietnam are unmistakable in this regard, complete with the scenes of collapse and chaos as the last helicopters left Saigon in 1975.

If there was an ethical failure by the United States, it was not in the decision to leave. The failure was in its initial execution. In leaving any partnership, it most certainly matters how you do it.

At Carnegie Council, the conversation about implementing a withdrawal began a full 10 years ago when we hosted a program on "The Ethics of Exit from Afghanistan." Even then, it was clear that the moral imperative was to be loyal to those who worked and sacrificed together.

More recently, in a May 2021 episode of the Global Ethics Review podcast, Jonathan Cristol, author of The United States and the Taliban before and after 9/11 said, "There are people who made life decisions based on our presence and commitment to the country whose lives will be in direct danger by the Taliban when we leave, and I think we have a moral obligation to help those people." 

In July 2021, Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Michael Doyle and Research Fellow Mark James Wood wrote a column in Newsweek with a similar theme, "America Has a Moral Responsibility to Refugees Fleeing Afghanistan." Doyle and Wood pointed to past failures to protect friends and allies in Vietnam and Iraq. And they warned of what was coming: "As the Taliban continues to retake territory," they wrote, "the stakes for both those who assisted the U.S. (translators, guides, contractors, etc.) and their families have never been higher." 

As evacuations continue, there is still time for the United States to make good on its responsibilities. While President Biden's decision to withdraw is unequivocal, there are still many decisions to be made on the plight of those seeking refuge and asylum.

How does this end? The final chapter is being written now. The opening paragraphs are heartbreaking, but the heroic work of refugee assistance goes on. The time is now for solidarity with those who are struggling, especially those who have helped the United States and its allies, and of course, with women, girls, journalists, scholars, and other vulnerable groups who took advantage of their freedoms over the past two decades and who will suffer under Taliban rule. 

This moment should also be a call to work for a better system of refuge and asylum, updating and improving the antiquated system put into place following World War II. The hard realities of the day can be partially redeemed by going beyond immediate obligations to reimagine and re-engineer the free movement of people around the world.

As one chapter ends, another begins. An ethical approach suggests there is much more work to do.

Joel H. Rosenthal is president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Follow Rosenthal on LinkedIn to receive future columns translating ethics, analyzing democracy, and examining our increasingly interconnected world. 

blog comments powered by Disqus