Afghanistan and the Decline of Enlightenment Values

The withdrawal of the U.S. and its allies from Afghanistan, and its inenluctable consequences, represent a signal retreat by the U.S. and its democratic allies from the defense of democratic values and the ideal of democracy.

The great tragedy is that 20 years of support for the democratic project in Afghanistan had produced impressive progress, in what was necessarily a long-term project. The failure of U.S. military and political leaders to understand and accept the long-term nature of the project—framing the question of Afghanistan as one of “When can we bring the troops home?”–was the fundamental and ultimately fatal flaw in U.S. strategy in the country.

Powerless. That’s how I and many others feel in the face of President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw completely from Afghanistan. Despite the wholly predictable consequences of that decision, Biden remains stubbornly defiant, ignoring or indifferent to the realities unfolding before him.

Powerless, as undoubtedly many millions of Afghans in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and other cities must feel today.

Powerless. Powerless to affect the addled thinking of President Biden, or that of the sycophantic members of his foreign policy and national security team.

We have turned our backs on 38 million people, after exhorting them for 20 years to build and defend democracy.

Americans make arguments such as the following:

1) The United States can ‘t be the world’s policeman;
2) It’s up to the Afghans to fight for their own country;
3) These people are backward and corrupt, and have a history and a culture that cannot support democracy;
4) It’s not our problem. It’s not our concern; and
5) If we couldn’t beat the Taliban in 20 years, we never could. It’s time to get out, and to bring our troops home.

Rarely do Americans have any more knowledge of or any more informed opinions about Afghanistan and the consequences of U.S. withdrawal than those suggested by the arguments listed above.

The experts and generals and soldiers who know Afghanistan and its history and possibilities have made their arguments, or perhaps remained silent given the absence of a serious policy review and the preordained outcome of any debate.

The United States will get out of Afghanistan, because that’s what Biden in his gut wants to do. He and his team are not susceptible to being influenced by rational arguments.

Those who have made reasoned arguments have lost.

Those who argue, as does the Trenchant Observer, that Congress should rise up and demand a reversal of this disastrous decision, or that European leaders should try to get members of the United Nations Security Council to save the day, know that such developments are unlikely, however great the urgency of pursuing them.

The lights are going out for democracy in Afghanistan.

The lights are also going out in America, that former beacon of democracy that once shone so brightly both as an ideal and through its example.

We are beyond reasoned argument.

History’s tragic course, leading the world back to barbarism over and over again, resumes its flow. The bright vision of democracy and human rights and the values of the Enlightenment are in retreat, everywhere.

We have forgotten the lessons of the 20th Century. International Peace and Security cannot be taken for granted. They depend on support for and adherence to international law, and the constant reaffirmation of international law, including human rights law and humanitarian law.

We have fogotten the lesson that aggression and crimes against humanity and war crimes must be vigorously resisted, or their perpetrators, like Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, will triumph.

We have forgotten the lesson of Srebrenica, that crimes against humanity must be resisted, stopped, and punished.

Ultimately, there is no rational defense of stupidity. Stupidity may accompany a lack of empathy or sense of moral imperatives to defend sacred moral values.

Regardless of whether it is the product of callous indifference or brute stupidity, or a combination of the two, Biden’s withdrawal decision seems to be set in stone.

And even the rational analyst’s observations, like those of the historian’s, may fall like ashes into the dark canyon of oblivion.

Will the values of the Enlightenment be saved, resuscitated to light the way of a stumbling humanity which has lost its way?

It all depends on us. With deep faith in humanity, surely on a brighter day, those of us who are creatures of the Enlightenment and who still believe in the highest values of humanity, will again somehow find our way.

For we must.

The Trenchant Observer

The Trenchant Observer has been following Afghanistan closely since 2005, when he worked in Kabul as the Team Leader of group of six lawyers charged with advising the government on modernizing its criminal justice process to better meet international human rights standards.

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

1 Comment on "Afghanistan and the Decline of Enlightenment Values"

  1. Michael Mauldin | August 13, 2021 at 9:37 am |

    Great article
    Send it to the papers!

Comments are closed.