Afghanistan and the Ethics of Triage

| June 23, 2017
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I wanted to continue the discussion that was started earlier this week by applying the discussion of “democracy triage” to the debate over next steps for the United States in Afghanistan. The United States is now engaged in an assessment of its 16-year effort in that country, and matching whether the means that have been applied (in terms of lives, funds and resources) have produced the desired ends. Afghanistan has become one of the largest recipients of overall U.S. assistance and remains slated to be the biggest recipient in 2017 at an estimated cost of $4.7 billion for the formal budget requests. With a population of about 36 million people, the question has to be asked as to whether that is the best investment of limited U.S.  aid dollars versus other parts of the world where the same amount of money might lead to better outcomes for hundreds of millions more. On top of that, much of the infrastructure that has been constructed in Afghanistan–including the size of the government and the security services–cannot be sustained by the resources of that country and will require long-term funding commitments.

The realpolitik rationale for the Afghan operation was to decapitate an unfriendly regime that had given sanctuary and safe haven to a terrorist organization that organized strikes against the U.S. homeland. The broader justification was to assist in the transformation, modernization, and democratization of the Afghan state and society. Implicitly, it was also to validate U.S. approaches against previous Soviet and British failures to transform Afghanistan. The moral dimension was to cast the mission in Afghanistan as a liberation that would empower women and minorities, destroy the power of warlords and fundamentalist clerics, and create a government responsive to the needs and interests of the governed.

The problem has always been to connect the goals with the costs. Even with significant U.S. and Western help, those in Afghanistan interested in pursuing transformation along more democratic and gender-egalitarian lines have been unable to gain the decisive upper hand. Activists plead for even more U.S. involvement and investment, noting that the women of Afghanistan “desperately need our continued support. Withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan would plunge these women back into an even deeper quagmire of despair, violence, and poverty.” But that U.S. support is not unlimited. If more is devoted to Afghanistan, or even sustained at current levels, it means less is available elsewhere for other equally deserving projects–that have a better chance of success.

Then vice president Joe Biden embraced a triage approach in 2009 for Afghanistan, even if he didn’t label it as such: a laser-like focus on destroying or crippling groups using Afghan territory to launch attacks on the U.S. or its interests in other parts of the world, and providing assistance in more modest amounts to achieve more modest objectives, but not trying to engineer whole-scale transformation in Afghanistan.

In 2017, a triage approach might start with the Amitai Etzioni prescription of “security first” (getting the conflicts to end to allow for reconstruction) and a push for de-tyrannization, but with a recognition that Afghanistan is likely to be governed by a mix of illiberal and traditional norms. The bargain of preventing Afghan territory for being used as a base for external terrorist activities in return for effective non-interference, coupled with the right to carry out strikes, could satisfy the geopolitical imperative. The moral triage would be to insist on a right of free exit for those who are unable to live under such a regime or would face persecution (coupled with other countries prepared to offer asylum and refuge).

Such an approach would mean that most parts of Afghanistan would see backsliding from the modest gains in more liberal directions that have occurred, but if the security agenda could be achieved at a fraction of current costs and losses–and there was a concurrent transfer of those resources to other, more promising and fertile fields where even a modicum of U.S. assistance could lead to significantly improved outcomes–triage could provide the ethical justification for such a policy choice.

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