When ‘Never Again’ Becomes ‘Again and Again’

The U.S. has a responsibility to protect Afghans from the mass atrocities of the Taliban.

The Afghan military is in a state of collapse. The Taliban—one of the most brutal and vicious extremist movements in the world—is on the advance. And the stories of their triumph are already dreadful. Here’s the Wall Street Journal on Friday

Taliban leaders have publicly pledged to be magnanimous in victory, assuring government officials, troops and the people of Afghanistan that they have nothing to fear as ever larger swaths of the country fall under their control.

But Afghans pouring into Kabul and those still in Taliban-held areas say they have witnessed unprovoked attacks on civilians and executions of captured soldiers. In addition, they say, Taliban commanders have demanded that communities turn over unmarried women to become “wives” for their fighters—a form of sexual violence, human-rights groups say.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said Thursday that it had received reports of the Taliban executing members of the Afghan military who had surrendered. “Deeply disturbing & could constitute war crimes,” the embassy said on Twitter.

Right now, as I type this newsletter, America is in the process of watching a movie it’s seen before. Political leaders remove troops from a faraway country, hoping to end an unpopular war. The enemy, committed to an indefinite fight, gains new life from the American withdrawal and attacks. The consequences are splashed across world media—mass killings, child rape, and the brutal darkness of extremist religious tyranny. 

This is the ISIS story, and we’re watching the Taliban sequel happen in real time. To this point, much of the national conversation has focused on the strategic consequences, phrased in terms of cold national interest. Will withdrawal harm American national security? Indeed, that’s a question I’ve tried to answer in piece after piece, written year after year

To me, the answer is clear—withdrawal hurts the United States. It empowers our enemies. It grants not just victory but territory and resources to an enemy that’s already proven that it can hit us, hard, at home.

But there’s also a different question in play, one concerned less with security than with morality. Does the United States have a moral obligation to protect the people of Afghanistan from the darkness that awaits? The answer is a difficult yes. As the Afghan government is proving incapable of upholding its responsibility to protect its own citizens, our concern for the fundamental humanity and worth of the Afghan people demands that we act.

To understand why, a bit of history and theology is in order. First, the history. One of the consistent themes in international relations and military policy since the end of the Second World War is the question of when and/or whether world powers should intervene in the affairs of sovereign nations to prevent or stop unfolding humanitarian disasters. 

Lack of clarity combined with lack of will has resulted in a terrible, sad reality. The phrase “never again”—words that echo in history after the indescribable shock and horror of the Holocaust—have given way to an entirely different reality. Again and again genocide has stalked the earth. World powers have blundered and blustered in response, but rare is the truly effective intervention that has prevented mass death. 

In the early 2000s, in the near-term aftermath of the Rwanda genocide and the NATO intervention to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo, the Canadian government established an International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). The goal was to create a cohesive moral and legal framework for protecting victims from mass atrocities. The Commission produced a report called “The Responsibility to Protect.”

As the Australian National University professor Luke Glanville notes, “The concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (RtoP) aimed to overcome what was an increasingly intractable debate about the so-called ‘right of humanitarian intervention’ by redirecting the focus away from the rights of intervening states and towards the need to protect victims of mass atrocities.” UN member states unanimously endorsed the concept at the UN’s 2005 World Summit. 

The responsibility to protect rests on three pillars. First, nations have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from mass atrocities. Second, the international community has a responsibility “to assist States in protecting their populations.” Third, the international community has a responsibility “to protect when a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations.”

The responsibility to protect isn’t a binding treaty obligation. It represents a declaration of intent, one grounded in a deep understanding of our shared humanity and the worth and dignity of the individual. 

What about theology? If you’ve got some spare time and some spare cash, I’d urge you to read Glanville’s paywalled 2012 paper, simply titled “Christians and the Responsibility to Protect.” It’s an outstanding, relatively short, and readable explanation of how the responsibility to protect “can actually be understood as echoing claims found in Scripture, and developed further by early Church Fathers, Catholic scholastics, and Protestant natural law theorists, that the protection of strangers and foreigners is a sacred duty or obligation.”

Glanville begins with scripture, including scriptures you’ve seen me quote in this newsletter, that explain the universal worth of human beings—each of us created in the image of God—and the duty of men to act justly, including to rescue the oppressed. He cites, for example, the “stern warning” of Proverbs 24:11-12: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” 

Critically, however, the recognition of our shared humanity and the equal worth of all citizens doesn’t mean that we have equal responsibilities to all people. The best view, from church fathers, does indeed permit allocating priorities. Again, here’s Glanville, this time referencing Thomas Aquinas:

Aquinas accepted the idea of Cicero, Ambrose and others that we should give priority to those ‘more closely united to us’ when performing our duties. This was articulated as the ‘order of charity’ or the ‘order of love’. However, like Ambrose, he insisted that the most important criterion for determining the requirements of justice and charity is the degree of need. He cited with approval Ambrose’s dictum: ‘Feed him that dies of hunger: if thou hast not fed him, thou hast slain him.’ And he asserted that individuals have a strict duty of justice to give from their superfluous goods and perhaps even from their own necessities in order to assist those in extreme need.”

Thus, the reasonable framework rejects the extreme idea that national borders and national obligations are meaningless. There is an “order of charity.” But it also rejects the competing extreme idea that we have no moral obligation to those who reside outside our land—that so long as we are safe and secure we can fiddle while the world burns.

I like the way Glanville phrases it. “Sovereign boundaries are morally relevant and it is right that states give some priority to the care of the vulnerable within their borders,” he writes, “nevertheless, states are bound also to care for the vulnerable beyond their borders in cases of extreme persecution and suffering if they can do so without excessive cost to themselves.”

This is a much easier formulation to adopt when discussing diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and welcoming refugees fleeing horrific oppression (though it’s worth noting that even that level of support for people facing mass atrocities is increasingly controversial in American politics). It’s much more difficult to ponder when considering the use of military force. Armed conflict is a last resort. 

Not only is it vital to consider whether military action will achieve the desired ends at acceptable costs, just war doctrine must also apply. Fortunately, just war doctrine is deeply connected with the responsibility to protect. Writing in Providence Magazine, the Heritage Foundation’s Joseph Loconte made a Christian conceptual case for humanitarian intervention. Speaking of the responsibility to protect, he says this:

Here is a universal norm, morally binding on all member states. And it draws its intellectual strength from the Christian just war tradition. That tradition begins with the God-given worth of every human life, and then insists on the state’s obligation to defend that life against harm—using force if necessary. Indeed, the UN’s criteria for military engagement follow precisely those articulated by Christian theologians beginning with Augustine: the motive must be to prevent human suffering (right intention); means short of force must be judged as unlikely to stop the aggressor (last resort); the military option must be proportional to the threat (proportionality); and the consequences of action must not be worse than inaction (reasonable prospects).

“This,” Loconte argues, “is classic Christian just war theory.”

Indeed it is. Fighting to save Afghanistan from the Taliban would be just. We have a right under American law and international law to remain in place and engage in battle. But do we have the obligation? Under Glanville’s formulation, does staying impose an “excessive cost” to ourselves?

I’m not going to pretend the answer here is easy. People I respect greatly come to a different conclusion. But I still believe the difficult, true answer is that we must stay. We have proven for the better part of a decade that we are able to prevent a mass atrocity with minimal American casualties and a minimal exertion of America’s vast military and economic might. We are long past the days of President Obama’s Afghan Surge.

Writing in The Dispatch, Paul Miller—the former director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the national security council staff for Presidents Bush and Obama—put it this way:

The U.S. presence in Afghanistan the last few years was tiny—just 2,500 troops before the start of the final withdrawal. It was indefinitely sustainable. There is no significant antiwar movement to speak of, there is no domestic political pressure to withdraw, and no election will hinge on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan. 

U.S. troops faced low risks in Afghanistan, and the low casualty rate is not a function of the 2020 peace deal. Just 66 U.S. personnel have been killed in action since 2014, less than one per month for nearly seven years. That is not to make light of the loss of individual soldiers, but it is to recognize, in historical perspective, that the conflict in Afghanistan is very small and U.S. ground troops have not been involved in direct combat in large numbers for years.

Yes, it is deeply disappointing to watch large numbers of Afghan troops melt away in the face of the Taliban onslaught. We can lament our failures to adequately train the Afghan Army, and we can and must understand whether the failure to anticipate and prepare for the Taliban offensive represents an intelligence failure on a massive scale

But recent history gives us some degree of hope that even now it is not too late to reverse the Taliban’s gains and save millions from the nightmare to come. In 2014 we watched as American-trained Iraqi divisions collapsed when ISIS attacked. But beginning in 2015 and beyond, we watched many of those same troops fight heroically and at great cost as they went house-to-house and block-by-block destroying the Caliphate and reclaiming Iraqi land. 

What made the difference? Not mass numbers of American troops but rather a renewed American commitment. Even small numbers of American soldiers and Marines, backed by the might of allied air forces, decisively tipped the balance of power. For allied troops, there is an immense psychological difference between fighting after America has abandoned the field and fighting when America is committed to victory. 

While I disagreed with President Obama’s decision to abandon Iraq in 2011, it was to his immense credit that he had the wisdom to reverse course to stop the ISIS genocide, and it was to President Trump’s credit that he continued the fight Obama started. But then Trump made a deal with Afghanistan’s equivalent of ISIS, and it is President Biden’s mistake to complete the blunder that Trump began. 

It is easy to allocate blame for the Afghan collapse. Already the internet is filling with poignant postmortems of our 20-year war abroad. But we know who is not to blame for the Afghan Army’s failures, and it’s the women and girls who face the return of medieval oppression. It’s the men and women who laid down their lives to support American troops in the field. It’s the tiny, beleaguered Christian community in Afghanistan. On Friday evening, World Magazine’s Mindy Belz tweeted this:

So it begins indeed. As Belz reports, there are 18,000 Afghans who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas because they worked with American forces. Only about 1,250 have been evacuated to safety. At the very least, do we not have an obligation to those who risked their lives in our employ? 

There is a responsibility to protect the people of Afghanistan from the evil to come. The government of Afghanistan is failing. We don’t know if a genocide like that committed by ISIS awaits, but we do know we can stop a mass atrocity with a minimal exertion of our vast national might. A moral pillar of our international order is crumbling before our eyes. Never again? It may happen again, and we are choosing to stand aside.

One last thing …

There are times when a lamentation is the only appropriate response to deep darkness. This song is short, it’s powerful, and expresses both sorrow at the loss that awaits and a plea for healing to come: