I recently spoke with an old friend who directs a very large a humanitarian operation in Afghanistan. I called him up ready to commiserate about the catastrophe that was the Taliban victory, and to lament the end of international attempts to bring good government, human rights, gender equality, and all the rest of the “ liberal state building package “ to this long-tortured Central Asian country.
My friend, an American who has spend roughly 40 years working in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East with a very large and respected humanitarian group, had a different view. “Our hundreds of staff spread out across the country are reporting no major abuses, as of yet, by the Taliban,” he said as Kabul fell, “and everyone seems relieved that the war ended so quickly, without many civilian casualties.” For now, he said, the Taliban were behaving better in victory than any conquering army he’d ever seen. “iIt’s almost a miracle,” he said. “We were expecting the worst, and that hasn’t happened, at least not yet.”
His main point, I think, was that the Taliban victory has finally put an end to the 20-year civil war that has killed roughly 71,000 Afghan and Pakistan civilians from 2001 through April 2021, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project. Ending that conflict was my friend’s first concern, and he is now relieved that the ambushes, pitched battles, land raids, air strikes, and artillery fire are over, at least for now. That, in and of itself, has quickly boosted the welfare of most Afghanis, perhaps more than any of the many agricultural and feeding programs his group supports throughout the country.
I thought of an argument I once had with the head of the UN operation in Congo-Brazzaville back in 2000, when my friend and I were researching a scholarly article on the end of that country’s brutal three rounds of civil war. “Peace is a human right too,” the UN head told me angrily when I complained about the organization’s unwillingness to hand over low-level war criminals to the International Criminal court. I even wrote an op ed in Canada’s Globe and Mail, complaining about the UN’s integration of these low level abusers into internationally funded employment training programs.
I was wrong, I now realize. Peace really is a human right, and is good for all kinds of other things, including the economy, agriculture, public health, and more. The end of a war — any war — is reason to celebrate. The fighting in Congo, or in Afghanistan, had long ago turned into a net loss for the local population, no matter what ideals were at stake, and no matter who won. All the international aid programs in the world weren’t going to compensate for the horrors of combat in the midst of civilian populations.
Now, Afghanis will have to deal with a declining economy, the departure of some of the population’s most skilled labor, potential international sanctions and, of course, Taliban methods of governance. If the Taliban revert to their style from the late 1990s, the picture will be grim indeed.
My friend with the humanitarian operations in Afghan and elsewhere, however, has some hope. “Our group has been working in Taliban-held areas for years,” he explained, “and we have been able to operate without hindrance. The Taliban seem to know that letting the population do well economically is good for them. They don’t want to disrupt that.”
Let’s hope he is right. I guess we’ll find out in the next 6–12 months.