As we reflect on what has transpired in Afghanistan with the Taliban returning to power, we have a vital opportunity for a more authentic, coherent humanitarian response. Toward this end, we must engage some critical analysis and questions.
We might ask why the Afghanistan government didn’t adequately have the support of its people? How can the conditions and momentum be generated for such trust, consideration and inclusion? Why has this been an ongoing issue long before the drawdown of U.S. troops?
President Biden has done a very courageous act by significantly reducing the role of the U.S. military and committing to military withdrawal in a large-scale international conflict, even after 20 years of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan. He should be applauded for shifting away from U.S. arms industry interests, mainstream media and foreign policy thinkers as well as other government voices.
Some in the establishment media and their experts have argued that we should have kept or that we need to send the U.S. military back to Afghanistan and continue to utilize bombing support from the Air Force. They did send about 6,000 troops back to help U.S. diplomats and civilians and others to evacuate. Others have called for a “humanitarian intervention” of other military soldiers — from Muslim nations perhaps — in the form of a U.N. armed peacekeeping force. Strangely, Libya in 2011 and the Dayton Accords in the mid-90s are referenced as examples of the success of such a strategy.
When nonviolent resistance was predominant in Libya, key people were defecting such as cabinet members, ambassadors and military pilots. As the armed “humanitarian intervention” ignited, however, Ghaddafi’s killing only generated predictable habits of domination, destruction and violence in its wake — with war crimes, torture, violence spreading to Mali, ISIS entering the conflict, an ongoing civil war, militias taking over, two government structures and continued instability.
With the Dayton Accords, the plan agreed to was quite similar to the Vance-Owen plan the U.S. blocked three years earlier. More importantly, much of the hostility still lingered after the Dayton Accords and soon after Serbia was engaged in more horrendous violence with Kosovo. Ultimately, a student-led nonviolent movement called Otpor led the campaign that removed Milosevic from power in Serbia.
Another significant concern with armed intervention, even by “peacekeepers,” is that there are alarming rates of sexual abuse and rape of civilians whom these U.N. armed peacekeepers are intended to protect. There also has been documented sex trafficking, pedophile rings and the increasing of local prostitution by U.N. peacekeepers. Such sexual assault allegations have been brought forward in Central African Republic, Haiti, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo. The additional problem of inadequate accountability for U.N. peacekeepers only exacerbates this habit and functions as another example of normalizing the power of domination and the threat and use of violence.
In turn, what would an authentic, coherent “humanitarian” response look like? On the one hand, this is complex and there are no guarantees of significant short-term shifts in a positive direction. On the other hand, there are some straightforward steps that President Biden and others have already taken or could try to better re-humanize this situation.
1. Diplomacy rooted in needs. Diplomatic efforts that are underway need to be urgent, consistent and ongoing to try and generate credible messengers at the diplomatic level who can influence the key stakeholders such as the Taliban, other Afghan government actors and civil society leaders. It’s important for any effective diplomacy to go beyond stated or presumed “interests,” and really try to unpack the deeper needs that stakeholders are trying to meet by their strategies. Then they need to build just peace proposals and agreements based on those needs as much as possible.
2. Robust evacuation. Evacuation routes for those who want them, not merely one’s “nationals” or those who helped our policies or those with resources need to be provided. We have the resources, planes, helicopters and intelligence to prevent a lot of suffering and save lives with this line of effort. This is where a commitment to human dignity and human rights must show through clearly over narrow visions of national interests.
There has been some training in unarmed civilian protection within Afghanistan, but more support would be a critical contribution at this time.
3. Credible messengers. Identifying and mobilizing credible messengers at the local level in Afghanistan is critical. These can be important for diplomacy, dialogue, peacebuilding, strategic nonviolent resistance and unarmed civilian protection. There are normally people in each province and community that have relationships with various stakeholders, either by literally being related or through other types of interactions or shared activity that have occurred. Sometimes these are business leaders, religious leaders, elders, tribal leaders, charismatic figures, educators, social workers, athletes, retired soldiers or defectors. The strategy of enabling, connecting and resourcing influencers in local communities has proven to mitigate violence and can create conditions for some broader collaborative action. This also contributes to addressing critical root causes, such as lack of trust and inclusion.
4. Strategic nonviolent resistance. One form of such collaborative action would be training and support for strategic nonviolent resistance. This has happened to some extent and there are leaders on the ground with interest in such mobilization, such as the People’s Peace Movement as well as the Peace Training and Research Organization in Afghanistan. The People’s Peace Movement is a grassroots movement of civil society activists, relatives of victims killed in war and tribal elders. The Peace Training and Research Organization provides training in peacebuilding and good governance. They conduct research for governmental organizations, NGOs and local bodies, to inform policy and provide a deeper understanding of the relevant issues.
Yet, the resources and support has not been adequate. This is not about training people to protest in the streets per se, but about identifying doable concrete objectives, key sources of power, institutional pillars of support, potential allies and contingency plans in a very strategic way. For example, some concrete objectives might include ensuring local ceasefires, maintaining the flow of electricity, ensuring schools open for girls and releasing hostages.
We’ve seen such activity function in very violent situations and even during ruthless dictatorships to overall reduce patterns of violence as well as address grievances. There were prominent examples even during ISIS control in Iraq. In fact, research has demonstrated that nonviolent resistance movements are two times as effective as violent resistance, and at least 10 times more likely to lead to a durable democracy. At times, such nonviolent resistance can manifest as nonviolent civilian-based defense strategies.
5. Unarmed civilian protection and accompaniment. Another form of nonviolent collaborative action is unarmed civilian protection deployments, which can function to protect those at risk such as civilians, women and girls, those seeking evacuation and journalists. They use a variety of methods such as early warning/early response, rumor control, relationship building, accompaniment and interposition. This practice has also demonstrated proven success in war zones such as South Sudan, Colombia and Iraq. It has also gained important traction in U.N. policies and agencies. There has been some training in this within Afghanistan by groups like the DC Peace Team, and more support as well as training would be a critical contribution at this time. These units, especially with credible messengers, could function to provide some measure of safety to persons evacuating, trying to stay in certain locations, or trying to negotiate with various stakeholders.
The approaches cited above are not meant to be an exhaustive list; they are simply critical steps in a broader just peace process. Even if each of these are executed, some suffering and even death may still occur. Yet, they will go a long way toward mitigating such violence — not just in the short-term but, most importantly, the longer term. Ultimately, a coalition of credible messengers in Afghanistan will need to identify the kinds of people who are trusted by the people to govern.
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Thanks for this. Beginning with de-escalating the violence, and looking for community stake-holders seems very reasonable.
This is both interesting and informative. I would welcome any initiative that promotes a peaceful resolution to this and any other conflict. Having said that, I find it hard not to be skeptical as to whether this approach could work in the Afghanistan situation.
My thoughts are based on readings regarding the history of Islam, imperialism, & the differing perspectives of what, for simplicity’s sake, I will call Eastern and Western views, as well as the nature of Afghanistan’s ‘nationhood’ which, it seems to me has never been other than an illusory overlay on a reality of many separate groupings, diverse warlord controlled enclaves and little unifying focus for the population as a whole.
I have been one of those that have advocated for a multi-national humanitarian force to move into Afghanistan and secure a site from which people can be evacuated and that such evacuation should be open to anyone who wishes to leave and free of interruptive & delaying “processing”. If nations accepting refugees really need to “process” people on the grounds of ‘national security’, then it could be done at a safe staging point, rather than whilst people are still under threat in Afghanistan.
That multi-national force ought also be empowered to move anywhere within Afghanistan for the purpose of facilitating movement of evacuees to the secure evacuation site & their protection on route.
Once all evacuation has been completed then the force should be withdrawn and the Afghanistan people left to decide what type of social structure and governance they want.
Your article has motivated me reconsider my view. I have been a pacifist since experiencing active service in what is now the United Arab Emirates. However, being born in England in the immediate aftermath of World War II and growing up with the effects of the war still clearly visible and fresh in the minds of adults and others all around, I have never been quite comfortable with my position because I cannot imagine failing to respond in kind if my family, friends or community were attacked with force.
I have not seen the research to which the article refers but will do so for I *want* and even *need* to believe that the approach described in this article could & would be effective.
I am only one very small, unremarkable and weak person, without influence or visibility so my writing this here is perhaps pointless. However, although I don’t mix with people and no longer have friends or family, avoid people as much as is possible, and am appalled by the inhumanity of human-beings, I do *care* and each and every day find life more futile and disturbing as I read about, witness or think of the billions of people who suffer because of human greed, hatred, desire for power and such.
So, although I feel that there is little to nothing that I can offer, I write in comment to thank you for the article and to commend all those that have the determination, commitment and confidence in promoting non-violent solutions to the tragedy that armed conflict wreaks on our world and not only humans but all species upon it.
Excellent article with powerful and practical suggestions!
I can’t help but think that many of these approaches to a very difficult group should be being used to get through to our military industrial complex. Do you or people you know have leads to people in all the millions of tentacles that the MIC has in our society? We need to get through to more of them! Our military budget just doesn’t have funds for this kind of work! (It’s against their interest……) How about pulling funds out of investments in Raytheon, etc. I guess someone has to follow the trails to show how much we are invested in keeping the military going. Could that be your next book?
Thank you for your perspective and non-violent approach solving human social issues. I totally agree. It should be the path to resolving our human social ills. My concern is that we are assuming there is a desire for “One Afghanistan”. I think there are at least 14 nationally recognized ethnic groups in Afghanistan? all previously persecuted and thus fearful of the possibility of ethnic cleansing. Attempting to bring all of these cultures into a melting pot is unlikely to be successful, as history tells us. I think, a possibly more successful path would be to build the individual ethnicities (humanitarian aid, self-sustainability development and education) then has their confidence grows extend a helpful hand to the other cultures with the hope of fostering common cause. then begin to develop infrastructure to connect and grow the common cultural dependency for the common good of all cultures etc.
I’m so grateful for articles and ideas like this. I believe the whole world needs to engage in paradigm shifts from the way we engage with social media to the way we practice religion, do business and engage politically. There is so much underlying violence in so much of the way we engage. I love the proactive recommendations listed here and would love any recommendations on reading and activity that will help me incorporate these types of thinking and practice into all my interactions.
What hypothetical impartial and benevolant group of stake holders within Afganastan can help to unify the diverse and fractured society, unless they receive financial & security support from some external source(s) ?
And how could they operate in the face of a culture of corruption, without evolving into corrupt & competitive networks that fail to meet social needs ?
And how will they hypothetically bring influence to bear in the face of internal terrorist opposition, as well as the influences of surrounding nations that are powerful political players who do not necessarily have Afganastan’s best interests at heart and may be willing to sell out to the Talaban to gain political favor & influence ?
Trying to build a cooperative and just society is facilitated when the majority of the people share an educated and moral set of foundational beliefs, and where an honest media can operate independently without coercion.
However, in view of the current disparing circumstances, perhaps at this point, the best option would be to include the evacuation of all Christians who would like to leave regardless of whether they were previously on the US payroll, as well as girls schoolteachers, in addition to those being currently evacuated, since these people’s futures seems particularly bleak within Afganistan.
Under USA/NATO bombs the life of girls was very bright, sure. 7 children from 2 to 12 killed by USA belonged to the family ready to be “saved” by USA war criminals.
And in Syria USA back ISIS – such is love USA for ME Christians