Afghanistan: Clear case of how humanitarian intervention can morph into military control

Afghanistan: Clear case of how humanitarian intervention can morph into military control

Tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees, who have been forced by the Tanzanian authorities to return to their country despite fears they will be killed upon their return, stream back towards the Rwandan border on a road in Tanzania in 1996. It was in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 that ‘humanitarian intervention’ came to be used by the international community. File photo: AP /Jean-Marc Bouju

Joe Biden is being dragged over the coals for the impetuous capitulation of the US involvement in Afghanistan. 

The ‘hawks’ in the US administration see this as an embarrassing defeat, making America look weak, which is the greatest imaginable sin. Others are merely accusing Biden of condemning innocent women, men and children to a certain destiny of unspeakable suffering and death.

There is an irony in the fact that many of those who criticize, on humanitarian grounds, the decision by the US to pull out of Afghanistan were also those who, 20 years ago, criticized the decision to get involved in Afghanistan in the first place. And of course, these are the same people who also criticized the US military interventions in Kosovo (1998-9), Iraq (2003-11) and Syria (2014).

Was Biden’s decision wrong, not only strategically but also morally? 

What is humanitarian intervention?

At the root of this debate lies the status of ‘humanitarian intervention’, a notoriously slippery concept. This term was first used by English jurist William Edward Hall in 1880 to articulate an already long-standing idea of using force in defence of civilian populations overseas. 

He conceived of humanitarian intervention as an armed response to ‘tyrannical conduct’ of a government towards its subjects, massacres and brutality in a civil war, or religious persecution.

But it was only in the 1990s that this concept came to prominence as a possible solution to humanitarian crises arising out of intra-state conflict and conscience-shocking atrocities. In the wake of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and the failure of the international community to do anything of significance to save hundreds of thousands of lives, the prospect of standing idly by in the face of atrocities became increasingly unconscionable.

Over the last 25 years humanitarian intervention took on a more general meaning, the versatility of the label lending itself to a wide and diverse range of military engagements vaguely corresponding to the general notion of using force overseas in the name of humanitarian values. Today the humanitarian intervention label is used as an umbrella term for classical humanitarian intervention, liberal interventionism, military humanitarianism, and other improvised initiatives.

As the meaning of ‘humanitarian intervention’ drifted from the classical concern with atrocity-prevention to the much more general contemporary agenda, the distinctiveness of the original conception and the particularity of its merits and defects have become increasingly obscured. Humanitarian intervention has morphed into a dangerously vague notion that can too easily be employed as a disguise for the pursuit of less noble neo-imperialist ambitions.

The case of Afghanistan

The risk of unscrupulous abuse of the term ‘humanitarian intervention’ to justify military ends is blatantly clear in the case of Afghanistan. Of course, the plight of women under the Taliban regime is real, but this reality has also been instrumentalised to justify the military control by the US and its NATO allies of a foreign territory. 

And while there is no doubt that the last 20 years have been positive for many women in Afghanistan, time-indeterminate military intervention by a foreign power is not and cannot be the solution. Within the broader reckoning as to the future shape of Western foreign policy, the future of the idea of 'humanitarian intervention' is also very much in question.

Afghanistan is facing yet another humanitarian crisis of inestimable proportions. The scenes in Kabul Airport bring shame to the international community. Fear and desperation are palpable everywhere. 

In the next few months many atrocities will occur without the world even being aware of it. But we must not make the mistake of assuming that a prolonged military intervention disguised as humanitarian intervention is the simple answer to an exceptionally complex problem.

Whatever happens next, it is important that the correct lessons are drawn from Afghanistan. The first lesson should not be that humanitarian intervention is illegitimate, impracticable, and therefore to be confined to the dustbin of history. 

Rather, what is needed is much better differentiation between classical humanitarian intervention and other forms of military intervention. The problems that the 19th century conception of humanitarian intervention was originally conceived to resolve have not disappeared. 

And as much as the West wants to think that we can stop engaging in the problems of the world, the reality is that there will still be a need for humanitarian intervention, properly defined, into the future.

The failures in Afghanistan and Iraq have been failures of ill-defined and badly executed missions which combined elements of self-defence, nation-building, and humanitarian endeavour. The noble idea of humanitarian intervention should not be tarnished by the failings of these missions.

  • Tim Mawe recently completed his PhD thesis on ‘Atrocity Suppression’: An Alternative to ‘Humanitarian Intervention’ in the Department of Philosophy, University College Cork. 
  • Vittorio Bufacchi is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, University College Cork, and author of Everything Must Change: Philosophical Lessons from Lockdown (2021).

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