Like so many in my community, I feel an overwhelming helplessness in light of what is happening in Afghanistan during the recent months, weeks, and days. I am witnessing long and painful discussions about what one can do, in light of the sheer force with which the Taleban are overrunning cities, provinces, and are closing in on Kabul. The speed with which this is happening is scary.
Often these discussions are based on a solid layer of angry rambling about the rapidity of military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has had immediate consequences for other, civilian, assistance which the international community has engaged in for almost twenty years now. Like, when the German military announced its withdrawal, being left with no other option in light of the U.S. decision and the subsequent trickling down into NATO deployments, it was a matter of weeks until end of April 2021 that the German bilateral assistance to capacity building for the Afghan policing services ended, after almost twenty years. Nothing was left behind.
Of course, and rightly so, there were pledges for continuing assistance to Afghan partners on the civilian, including policing, side. But then the conquering of more and more territory and cities by the Taleban happened at a speed which, according to media sources, took even military and intelligence planners by surprise. Now we are, within days, in a scenario where we read and hear about contingency plans on the side of diplomatic representations, reducing their staff to the minimum necessary core. We hear about U.S. negotiations with some Taleban representatives calling for sparing the U.S. Embassy in Kabul from retribution. We hear about calls by governments like the U.S., the UK, Germany, and many others, on their respective national citizens to leave Afghanistan as early as possible.
So we are redrawing the map of possible international assistance during a time which appears not to allow any meaningful forward planning. Everything is based on contingencies. And those calls on the Taleban that the international community will not support a caliphate, threatening the withdrawal of any financial assistance, as much as these statements are rightly put out, they give a futile impression. Diplomacy being the only means for the moment in order to influence the rapidly deteriorating situation, it struggles with credibility in itself. How much of a threat comes from statements like these when Taleban may look for alliances with other forces, and States? States and forces that do not stand for values which we promote, and have promoted in Afghanistan for almost two decades? Values like human rights, the inalienable right of self-determination for women, children, vulnerable groups and minorities? Values like individuals and communities represented through democratic forms of governance? And the values inherent to a rule of law based on international standards, individual and human rights, what about those?
Within the onslaught of written and video reporting about this, I saw news where Afghan women told reporters that they feel being abandoned by international partners. I can only sympathize. Whatever we may tell them, whatever explanation we come up with in relation to why there needed to be an end to an otherwise seemingly endless military intervention campaign, it does not take away this argument. Yes, vulnerable groups, communities, individuals, they rightly express their feeling that they have been left alone. Because this is true, no matter which rationale we use. We have left. And we have left them at the mercy of a movement which has imposed a brutal regime more than two decades ago. Shall we believe those spokespersons of the Taleban that this is not true these days? On my part, I won’t. In my view, this would be foolish. It would be the desperate attempt to close one’s eyes from an undesirable and shameful reality. I prefer not to. Trust comes from credible action. I have not seen any action on the Taleban side that would convince me that this is different, now.
So, aside of all arguments about why the military campaigns failed, or all arguments with which some attempt to say it wasn’t a failure, that we defeted Al Qaeda, and so on and so forth, aside of all dogma discussions on the failure of state building, I stick to the core of what I can see: The current situation likely deteriorates into further violations of human and individual rights for vulnerable individuals, groups, and women and children in the Afghan society. And these violations may occur on a massive scale. Why? Because we have seen that in the past, it’s as simple as that. We have seen it in Afghanistan, we have seen it in northern Mali, we have seen it in many places in the Middle East and Africa, we have seen it in a caliphate which was set up by IS. Do we really need to remind ourselves of the atrocities which have been coming along with radical fundamentalism? Do we need to open the archives of how a strictly imposed law of the Sharia looks like? Do we close our eyes on taking away the right of self-determination from women in Afghanistan? Do we blind ourselves about the fact that already now female children in Taleban-occupied territory can’t go to school any longer?
Whereever we live, people like me believe in promoting the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the values of democracy and a rule of law as a system of governance. We see the international system of peace & security becoming more and more eroding, less able to act on a global consent, if at all, when confronted with a country moving away from these principles, or a movement attempting to subjugate an entire population under their cruel interpretation of reality. Whatever it is in addition, the Taleban movement is a fundamentalist movement of men entirely disrespecting values of female members of society, on grounds of an intepretation of Islam which is so far away from the wonderful and peaceful texts which also form a part of Islamic culture, and belief.
It is one thing to witness it from the outside. In Afghanistan, we were inside. We assumed responsibility of assistance, and we became accountable ourselves. So, it is very different to see such deterioration happening in Afghanistan because we took the decision to leave.
Time will tell whether we find a collaborative way forward. But what, if we fail in this, too? Which lesson will this present to those who are opposed to values which we, for a long time, considered to be universal? What does it mean to those values themselves?
In Buddhism, we talk about the temporary nature of all composite things. Do we see the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its impermanence?
I have no wisdom to offer. But it looks like pointing towards the picture which is at the core of this blog: At some point, I think in 2015, staff members of the United Nations’ Headquarters in New York donned white clothes and gathered outside of the headquarters building. They formed a circle which then was photographed from the air.
The circle reads: “What r u doing for peace?”
Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī is commonly known as “Rumi”. He lived in Balkh, now part of Afghanistan, in the 13th Century. One of be greatest Islamic mystic poets, I admire his work so much.
Here is my long-time favorite, also a part of how I set up my blog from the beginning on:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”