Terrifying images of people clinging to the wheels of cargo planes taking off from Kabul and falling from the sky recall similar scenes of people falling from the Twin Towers on Sept. 11.
Like Sept. 11, the disgraceful events unfolding in front of our eyes in Afghanistan are the consequences of a misplaced, military-centric view of national security, instead of focusing on human security, which prioritizes education, health, food security, jobs, sustainable development, protecting the environment and climate, and helping cultures and communities thrive.
The premise of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was that the Taliban allowed safe haven for Osama Bin Laden and a base from which Al Qaeda could execute terrorist attacks on the U.S. — but even after Bin Laden was routed from Afghanistan, the U.S. presence continued for decades.
Failing to center human security led to practices and conduct that made the U.S. intervention appear as empire building. Those who brought about the Afghanistan debacle didn’t take responsibility for its damage to Afghanistan’s people or for pursuing military objectives too often at the expense of what really matters in people’s daily lives, which is always context and culture specific.
In modern Afghanistan, this failure is at the root of the Soviet invasion, U.S. training and funding of guerrilla warriors motivated by religious extremism, the invasion and subsequent massive bombings which impacted civilians as much as combatants. It encompasses funding of corrupt officials, military contractors at the feeding trough, think tanks enabling the debacle, and an intelligence community that failed to use common sense.
Spending trillions of dollars on mostly military intervention created the appearance of trying to impose a modern liberal nation state by force and fiat on a largely tribal society grounded in ethnic and religious traditions, where over 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas. The U.S. approach may have found some traction in Afghanistan’s few major cities, but it was utterly ineffective elsewhere.
Now the Taliban is back in power, and the U.S. and the international community must learn from their mistakes and not repeat them.
This is no time for playing “Great Games.”
The community of NGOs, including our own (the World Academy of Art and Science and the Global Security Institute), and many partner organizations are cognizant of the critical need for a human security approach and multilateral, coordinated, coherent global leadership to address Afghanistan and related regional crises, as well as the complex nexus of broader problems confronting humanity at large: the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the nuclear and digital arms races.
Redressing these threats exceeds the capacity of any individual nation and requires cooperation, on a level never before achieved, based on a new, realistic assessment of shared interests. Such cooperation is within human capacity, collective aspiration, intelligence, and determination. The world needs inspirational leadership that transcends partisanship and the limits of self-enclosed political, economic, and cultural perspectives. We need leaders who bring us together rather than divide us into competing factions and warring camps.
The collective power of human aspiration and cooperation might ultimately accomplish what no empire or nation or group of nations ever could.
The Afghanistan crisis is a failure to uphold human security and therefore injures the entire human community. Solving it will require leadership that reintegrates human values and ethics, beyond the limits of national self-interest, siloed disciplines, and conventional thinking.
To help Afghanistan, as well as any country where people are under threat, we need leaders and organizations who will reflect and serve the needs of humanity, not just the narrow interests of one nation or security bloc. We need transdisciplinary perspectives that complement and complete one another, rather than compete and negate one another. Growing chaos must be met with growing international coherence. The U.S., China, Russia, UK, and France as the permanent members of the UN Security Council must exemplify it. The United Nations must live up to its name.
There is no simple silver-bullet formula, no specific new set of policies that can fix the Afghanistan crisis. Seeking and finding solutions hinges on reaching a new, unprecedented level of international coherence. It will require a new leadership paradigm to meet real human needs, a new moral compass for leadership that is both practical and inspirational. Human security can point the way. Following it will take time and will not conform to the speed of the news cycle.
Successful leadership would promote the well-being and true security of everyday people, rather than nationalist, militarist, elitist self-delusion and the endless, fruitless search for security simply through the projection of military power. It would promote tolerance and a sense of accountability to human needs as opposed to military and religious arrogance.
Can this be achieved in Afghanistan? The Taliban arose in response to enormous corruption and gained power in proportion to our failure to understand the country. If our approach changes, it may be possible to temper Taliban fanaticism with pragmatic governance serving human needs. History shows that shifting from a military, nationalist conception of security to a human-centered one is the key to achieving this. It’s always worth trying.
In 1955 Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, who were among the founders of the World Academy of Art and Science, wrote a manifesto on the need to make this shift. It presciently describes the stark choice we face now: “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”
Jonathan Granoff is President of the Global Security Institute. Garry Jacobs is President and CEO, World Academy of Art and Science.