Opinion: Shame in Afghanistan — this is not how the Biden administration should morally bow out of war

The catastrophic fall of Kabul just a few weeks after America’s withdrawal is the latest case in which a stunning lack of attention to jus ex bello is in evidence.

The Catholic fathers of the 13th century faced a daunting task. Given that many kings and princes in Europe now professed Christianity and allegiance to the Pope, their nations should ostensibly be living in peace. But they weren’t — they were still fighting wars. So the question was raised: Under what circumstances could a Christian king be morally justified before God and the church in going to war? They answered that question by positing principles of just war, and included as part of the justification how the war was conducted. These are known as the jus ad bellum and jus in bello principles, and they are taught in every national security class in the world.

But the Catholic fathers did not address jus ex bello — that is, what are the moral principles that should guide leaving a war? How does one bow out of a conflict in a moral fashion? This lacuna has left the matter unaddressed, and the catastrophic fall of Kabul just a few weeks after America’s withdrawal is the latest case in which a stunning lack of attention to jus ex bello is in evidence. We can all name others.

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But we can’t blame 13th century churchmen for the problem. The U.S. government has had almost two years, since September 2019, to plan for this moment and has utterly failed. The U.S. government should have been planning a massive Dunkirk-like operation to rescue not only foreigners in Afghanistan, but also Afghans targeted for assassination, especially women human rights defenders. A special interagency group to coordinate such an effort should have been in place since 2019, and certainly beefed up under the Biden administration, with funding and logistical support for any plans developed.

That’s not what happened, of course. There were no plans, no funding, no logistical preparations. The P1/P2 visa scheme was put together in an ad hoc manner, without even definitions of the scope of nongovernmental organizations that could cover their employees. The system was quickly overwhelmed and unfit for purpose. And then events on the ground overtook even these meager efforts. Those with airline tickets out of Kabul found their flights canceled as the Taliban encroached, demanding no Afghans be permitted to leave the country. The Chinooks took the U.S. diplomats to safety in a visual that will never be forgotten, and neither will President Joe Biden’s words of July 8, 2021: “There’s going to be no circumstance where you’re going to see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”

The specter of Kabul will haunt American foreign policy for years to come. The U.S. has been shown to be not only incompetent, but indifferent about post-deterrence planning. U.S. deterrence is built primarily on bluff, and we’ve shown it’s a good bet to call that bluff because the U.S. steadfastly refuses to plan for deterrence failure under the strange notion that post-deterrence planning undermines deterrence. 

Consider how that conclusion will certainly influence calculations over other areas of geopolitical conflict, such as the Taiwan Strait. Taipei must realize that it cannot count on the Americans to undertake any competent post-deterrence planning. And Beijing now knows the same.

The Taliban’s next targets

The haunting of American foreign policy will not only play havoc with deterrence calculations; it also brings into question the entire conceit that the liberal world order was important to Americans. Some so-called realists may applaud this unveiling of how truly narrow the U.S. view of its national interests really are. But vision has always been an important pillar of leadership, and the U.S. depiction of what could be was a strong support to its claim of global leadership. 

Consider, for example, that the United States has been a strong advocate of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and developed its own National Action Plan on the subject, mandating it as a national security priority in 2017 when Congress passed the Women, Peace, and Security Act. The abandonment of women human rights defenders in Afghanistan is thus arguably in violation of U.S. law. But when he was vice president, Joe Biden, in a heated White House conversation about Afghanistan, shouted, “I am not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights!” 

The ignominy of this moment will never be forgotten by our enemies, by our friends, by those who were persuaded by our vision.

Of course, it’s women’s lives that are at stake. One of my former students received “the” phone call — she is on a Taliban hit list for when Kabul is fully under its control. Fawzia Khoofi, the intrepid Afghan politician, told journalist Nadene Ghouri, “I’m not frightened for myself but for my girls. This isn’t just about me. It’s about all the women of Afghanistan. Were women’s rights just a bubble on the water?” 

A former U.S. secretary of state once famously said, “The subjugation of women is a threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country.” That was Hillary Clinton in 2012. All the available evidence backs up that assertion. And yet here we are, nine years later, and it apparently was all “a bubble on the water,” at least to the men in power now. In 2013 I visited the U.N. and asked about Clinton’s vision, and was told by many that Clinton would have “blood on her hands” — she encouraged Afghan women to stand up, and one day they would be slaughtered for believing her, for believing in the U.S. I am deeply ashamed of my country for leaving these women to be massacred.

The ignominy of this moment will never be forgotten by our enemies, by our friends, by those who were persuaded by our vision. This is the turning point where academic debates over whether America is in decline are put to rest because the horrors on the ground have revealed the extent of our incompetence and our venality for the whole world to see. We took no thought for what would constitute jus ex bello. We will surely pay a steep price for that sin of omission.

Valerie M. Hudson is a University Distinguished Professor at The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Her views are her own.