U.S. Joins “Rules-Based World” on Afghanistan

Yves here. The Biden Administration is throwing so many punches on the geopolitical front, and at least in some circles, that belligerence is being called out, that some actions that might be going in a more measured direction may not be getting the attention they warrant. One is the surprising move by the US to have the UN act as lead negotiator in Afghanistan.

By Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Nicolas J. S. Davies, an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq

On March 18, the world was treated to the spectacle of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sternly lecturing senior Chinese officials about the need for China to respect a “rules-based order.” The alternative, Blinken warned, is a world in which might makes right, and “that would be a far more violent and unstable world for all of us.”

Blinken was clearly speaking from experience. Since the United States dispensed with the UN Charter and the rule of international law to invade Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and has used military force and unilateral economic sanctions against many other countries, it has indeed made the world more deadly, violent and chaotic.

When the UN Security Council refused to give its blessing to U.S. aggression against Iraq in 2003, President Bush publicly threatened the UN with “irrelevance.” He later appointed John Bolton as UN Ambassador, a man who famously once said that, if the UN building in New York “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

But after two decades of unilateral U.S. foreign policy in which the United States has systematically ignored and violated international law, leaving widespread death, violence and chaos in its wake, U.S. foreign policy may finally be coming full circle, at least in the case of Afghanistan.

Secretary Blinken has taken the previously unthinkable step of calling on the United Nations to lead negotiations for a ceasefire and political transition in Afghanistan, relinquishing the U.S.’s monopoly as the sole mediator between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

So, after 20 years of war and lawlessness, is the United States finally ready to give the “rules-based order” a chance to prevail over U.S. unilateralism and “might makes right,” instead of just using it as a verbal cudgel to browbeat its enemies?

Biden and Blinken seem to have chosen America’s endless war in Afghanistan as a test case, even as they resist rejoining Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, jealously guard the U.S.’s openly partisan role as the sole mediator between Israel and Palestine, maintain Trump’s vicious economic sanctions, and continue America’s systematic violations of international law against many other countries.

What’s Going on in Afghanistan?

In February 2020, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban to fully withdraw U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.

The Taliban had refused to negotiate with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul until the U.S. and NATO withdrawal agreement was signed, but once that was done, the Afghan sides began peace talks in March 2020. Instead of agreeing to a full ceasefire during the talks, as the U.S. government wanted, the Taliban only agreed to a one-week “reduction in violence.”

Eleven days later, as fighting continued between the Taliban and the Kabul government, the United States wrongly claimed that the Taliban was violating the agreement it signed with the United States and relaunched its bombing campaign.

Despite the fighting, the Kabul government and the Taliban managed to exchange prisoners and continue negotiations in Qatar, mediated by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who had negotiated the U.S. withdrawal agreement with the Taliban. But the talks made slow progress, and now seem to have reached an impasse.

The coming of spring in Afghanistan usually brings an escalation in the war. Without a new ceasefire, a spring offensive would probably lead to more territorial gains for the Taliban—which already controls at least half of Afghanistan.

This prospect, combined with the May 1st withdrawal deadline for the remaining 3,500 U.S. and 7,000 other NATO troops, prompted Blinken’s invitation to the United Nations to lead a more inclusive international peace process that will also involve India, Pakistan and the United States’s traditional enemies, China, Russia and, most remarkably, Iran.

This process began with a conference on Afghanistan in Moscow on March 18-19, which brought together a 16-member delegation from the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul and negotiators from the Taliban, along with U.S. envoy Khalilzad and representatives from the other countries.

The Moscow conference laid the groundwork for a larger UN-led conference to be held in Istanbul in April to map out a framework for a ceasefire, a political transition and a power-sharing agreement between the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appointed Jean Arnault to lead the negotiations for the UN. Arnault previously negotiated the end to the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1990s and the peace agreement between the government and the FARC in Colombia, and he was the Secretary-General’s representative in Bolivia from the 2019 coup until a new election was held in 2020. Arnault also knows Afghanistan, having served in the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006.

If the Istanbul conference results in an agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban, U.S. troops could be home sometime in the coming months.

President Trump—belatedly trying to make good on his promise to end that endless  war— deserves credit for beginning a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But a withdrawal without a comprehensive peace plan would not have ended the war. The UN-led peace process should give the people of Afghanistan a much better chance of a peaceful future than if U.S. forces left with the two sides still at war, and reduce the chances that the gains made by women over these years will be lost.

It took 17 years of war to bring the United States to the negotiating table and another two-and-a-half years before it was ready to step back and let the UN take the lead in peace negotiations.

For most of this time, the U.S. tried to maintain the illusion that it could eventually defeat the Taliban and “win” the war. But U.S. internal documents published by WikiLeaks and a stream of reports and investigations revealed that U.S. military and political leaders have known for a long time that they could not win. As General Stanley McChrystal put it, the best that U.S. forces could do in Afghanistan was to “muddle along.”

What that meant in practice was dropping tens of thousands of bombs, day after day, year after year, and conducting thousands of night raids that, more often than not, killed, maimed or unjustly detained innocent civilians.

The death toll in Afghanistan is unknown. Most U.S. airstrikes and night raids take place in remote, mountainous areas where people have no contact with the UN human rights office in Kabul that investigates reports of civilian casualties.

Fiona Frazer, the UN’s human rights chief in Afghanistan, admitted to the BBC in 2019 that “…more civilians are killed or injured in Afghanistan due to armed conflict than anywhere else on Earth….The published figures almost certainly do not reflect the true scale of harm.”

No serious mortality study has been conducted since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Initiating a full accounting for the human cost of this war should be an integral part of UN envoy Arnault’s job, and we should not be surprised if, like the Truth Commission he oversaw in Guatemala, it reveals a death toll that is ten or twenty times what we have been told.

If Blinken’s diplomatic initiative succeeds in breaking this deadly cycle of “muddling along,” and brings even relative peace to Afghanistan, that will establish a precedent and an exemplary alternative to the seemingly endless violence and chaos of America’s post-9/11 wars in other countries.

The United States has used military force and economic sanctions to destroy, isolate or punish an ever-growing list of countries around the world, but it no longer has the power to defeat, re-stabilize and integrate these countries into its neocolonial empire, as it did at the height of its power after the Second World War. America’s defeat in Vietnam was a historical turning point: the end of an age of Western military empires.

All the United States can achieve in the countries it is occupying or besieging today is to keep them in various states of poverty, violence and chaos—shattered fragments of empire adrift in the twenty-first century world.

U.S. military power and economic sanctions can temporarily prevent bombed or impoverished countries from fully recovering their sovereignty or benefiting from Chinese-led development projects like the Belt and Road Initiative, but America’s leaders have no alternative development model to offer them.

The people of Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela have only to look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Libya or Somalia to see where the pied piper of American regime change would lead them.

What Is This All About?

Humanity faces truly serious challenges in this century, from the mass extinction of the natural world to the destruction of the life-affirming climate that has been the vital backdrop of human history, while nuclear mushroom clouds still threaten us all with civilization-ending destruction.

It is a sign of hope that Biden and Blinken are turning to legitimate, multilateral diplomacy in the case of Afghanistan, even if only because, after 20 years of war, they finally see diplomacy as a last resort.

But peace, diplomacy and international law should not be a last resort, to be tried only when Democrats and Republicans alike are finally forced to admit that no new form of force or coercion will work. Nor should they be a cynical way for American leaders to wash their hands of a thorny problem and offer it as a poisoned chalice for others to drink.

If the UN-led peace process Secretary Blinken has initiated succeeds and U.S. troops finally come home, Americans should not forget about Afghanistan in the coming months and years. We should pay attention to what happens there and learn from it. And we should support generous U.S. contributions to the humanitarian and development aid that the people of Afghanistan will need for many years to come.

This is how the international “rules-based system,” which U.S. leaders love to talk about but routinely violate, is supposed to work, with the UN fulfilling its responsibility for peacemaking and individual countries overcoming their differences to support it.

Maybe cooperation over Afghanistan can even be a first step toward broader U.S. cooperation with China, Russia and Iran that will be essential if we are to solve the serious common challenges confronting us all.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I hope it is a genuine change in direction, but a more cynical view of this is that they want to drop Afghanistan on the UN’s lap because they have already decided that the situation is unrecoverable and they want someone to blame for the inevitable collapse.

    As was discussed a few days ago BTL, there are signs that Bidens foreign policy team is just too institutionally incompetent to make the adjustments needed for a very fast changing world. Even if they happen across the right policies, they may well not be able to execute them.

    1. jrkrideau

      hey want to drop Afghanistan on the UN’s lap because they have already decided that the situation is unrecoverable

      That was my immediate thought. Still given some of the countries envolved it may be a real effort to get out reasonably decently.

  2. apber

    The problem with this somewhat hopeful post is that it ignores the true reason that the Empire got involved in Afghanistan in the first place. It’s all about the opium and the wealth of mineral resources such as precious metals and rare earths that are essential for modern technology. Then too, of course is the need to sustain the MIC with weapons and armament purchases. The opium production is relevant because it has been long rumored that the CIA uses the heroin derivative processed within, and shipped from, Afghanistan to fund black ops and payments to various corrupt politicians. The enemy, the Taliban, rose to power by torching the poppy fields and not surprisingly, one of the first duties of entering US troops was to guard the fields and prevent their destruction.

    I don’t see the US leaving anytime within the next decade; uniformed troops perhaps but leaving 1000s of mercenaries (Blackwater and its successors) behind to secure the assets.

  3. David

    This is easier to understand if you ignore the headline, and recognise that the article, like all such from US sources, is obsessed with the US military role in Afghanistan at the expense of all sorts of other processes that have been going on in parallel for a long time. Whilst the US took the lead in the original invasion, the Bonn Process to rebuild the country was already underway by the end of 2001, with substantial involvement from countries such as the UK, France, Germany and Japan. The UN, like the EU and various other organisations, especially development ministries, has been there for decades, and, even on the military side, very large numbers of troops have been deployed by NATO allies. As the article (perhaps inadvertently) reveals, the majority of troops in the country at the moment are not from the US anyway. It’s always been recognised that any final political solution would have to include neighbouring powers (Iran, Pakistan, China) and others, since they have so much influence, and would have to be multilaterally negotiated, probably under UN auspices.

    Whichever US government was in power would have had to accept this, and indeed, from the very beginning this has never been a “US vs. the Taliban” story, for all that much of the anglophone media tried to present it as such. This is not, in other words, Vietnam 2.0

    1. upstater

      I am not sure how the poodles from NATO countries or the odd non-NATO “allies” would ever be in Afghanistan if not at the behest and overwhelming presence of the US. And this applies whether it is “developmental” aid or military troops.

      You are correct that foreign militaries have more troops in Afghanistan; but disjoint platoons from Georgia or Latvia is meaningless multilateralism. For the larger European countries it serves the bloodlust of their special forces and to oil their creaky machines. And we have no idea whatsoever how many mercenaries are in country, on the payroll of the Pentagon, carrying out tasks previously performed by US soldiers or airmen; they surely out number US troops. I doubt that any NATO ally has come close to the “Haliburtonization” or “Blackwaterizing” operations as the US has.

      I have a difficult time seeing the US giving agency to Iran, Pakistan, China (and Russia!) plus others in some sort of multilateral settlement. Those countries rightly view the US as “not agreement capable” (cf JCPOA). And needless to say, if the US were to actually leave after 2 decades of meddling and 2 decades or occupation, all of our “allies” would beat the US in their exits. All these developmental processes cited would soon collapse.

      Afghanistan was never really a country anyway… it was a map construct between the Tsarist and Victorian empires. I think a more likely outcome will look like the smash-and-grab policies applied to Libya.

      1. David

        I can see that it might look like that if you depend on the US media, but the situation on the ground is rather different.
        Countries sent troops to Afghanistan for all sorts of reasons, most of which had little to do with US urging; some for domestic reasons, some because they wanted to give NATO a job to do, others to give their armies operational combat experience and so on.
        I don’t think we’re talking about a multilateral agreement, but rather an agreement on which all sorts of players have had an influence. In practice, it’s usually like that. China, Pakistan, India, Iran etc. will have an influence whether the US wants it or not, because of geography and history.

        1. upstater

          Depend on US media? Not. The typical CNN FOX NYT WaPo consumer thinks it is all cool. At least we agree there are more foreign troops, however. Allies are all well trained poodles and their presence has EVERYTHING to do with US demands and subservience.

          BTW, the GWOT surely is a Vietnam 2.0 thing. Vietnam was an outright loss. The GWOT has similarly delegitimized US global standing; while it proves the US can destroy infrastructure and governmental/societal structures, the US surely cannot impose it’s post historical vision even on a place like Somalia.

          Like Putin said, “Anything the US touches turns into Iraq or Libya”. Got any positive examples?

          Needless to say the arrogance of Biden’s foreign and defense policy teams increase the likelihood of confrontation with both Russia and China.

          1. Basil Pesto

            I believe when David was referring to US media, he had in mind alt media as much as mainstream.

  4. Sound of the Suburbs

    Thirty years ago.
    The Berlin Wall had fallen and a uni-polar world was born.
    The US reigned supreme.
    China was insignificant and Russia was moving towards the West with Gorbachev.

    How on earth did the Americans mess up so badly?
    They called it the “Washington Consensus”, they didn’t think it through.

    Let’s do the thinking now, to see where the Americans went wrong.

    Maximising profit is all about reducing costs.
    Western companies couldn’t wait to off-shore to low cost China, where they could make higher profits.
    China had coal fired power stations to provide cheap energy.
    China had lax regulations reducing environmental and health and safety costs.
    China had a low cost of living so employers could pay low wages.
    China had low taxes and a minimal welfare state.
    China had all the advantages in an open globalised world.
    It did have, but now China has become more expensive and developed Eastern economies are off-shoring to places like Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

    “We did try and reduce costs here, and we did loads of cost cutting, but we could never get down to Chinese levels. To maximise profit, we had to off-shore” the Western business community
    Now they tell us!
    They also gave away decades of Western design and development knowledge in technology transfer agreements.
    Some nitwit said the only thing that mattered was profit.

    How could it possibly get any worse?
    China was a new, fast growing economy compared to the mature, slow growing economies of the West.
    Investors would be able to achieve better returns in the new, fast growing Chinese economy and this is where the money headed.
    US investors love China and know it’s the best place to make real money.
    George Soros, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos …..

    George Soros’s old partner in the Quantum Fund, Jim Rogers, is making sure his children learn Mandarin as he sees China as the future.
    He’s scarpered already, and now lives in Singapore.
    It’s closer to where the action is.

  5. tegnost

    If the UN-led peace process Secretary Blinken has initiated succeeds and U.S. troops finally come home, Americans should not forget about Afghanistan in the coming months and years. We should pay attention to what happens there and learn from it. And we should support generous U.S. contributions to the humanitarian and development aid that the people of Afghanistan will need for many years to come.

    Any time one sees “the US should” in any media product one ought to give a 90% discount to the possibility of whatever we “should” do happening. We should have $15/hr, we should have M4A, we should do something about rampant inequality…but we are absolutely not going to do anything to crimp the style of the MoU. The MoU are the people who make the rules for blinkens “rules based order”. When blinken says there’s going to be violence, he’s threatening china because who other than the US is going to make this massive violence? Putin?

    1. wilroncanada

      Secretary Blinken has certainly made a name for himself. In addition to Blinken, we know Nod(off) is in the White House. But where the hell is Winken?

  6. The Rev Kev

    I came across an odd headline which said that Germany has extended its military mission in Afghanistan until January 31st of next year. They have about 1,300 troops there so you wonder why they would announce such a thing if the US is leaving. Unless they are certain that come that date, that the US military will still in Afghanistan that is-


    1. Procopius

      According to U.S. media, the U.S. has about 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan. Given the U.S. military’s “tooth to tail ratio,” that doesn’t allow for many combat troops. Even with outsourcing food services, construction, and depot level maintenance, there can’t be more than 1,500 combat troops. They can’t possibly do anything useful against the Taliban, so I believe they just stay hunkered down in their compounds. Same with the soldiers in Syria, by the way. There are supposed to be less than 900, but even if there are a couple thousand they are to few to conduct combat operations, even against ISIS, much less against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA, the government regular forces). I believe it is the case that there were no American combat deaths last year. Anyway, whatever reasons other governments have for sending troops, I am convinced they are not protected by the American troops.

  7. JohnTh

    I am perplexed as to what substituting the UN for the US is going to do. No deal can be made without the explicit agreement of the US and the Taliban. The Afghan government is a complete disaster and although ostensibly the government in power in Afhanistan is only propped up by the US presence. No other country’s military presence has any real impact on the state of affairs in Afghanistan. Years of training of military and police personnel has achieved nothing. So now given that the US has reneged on their previous agreement with the Taliban, of course the Taliban is going to be happy to negotiate a new deal with the UN who can do nothing without the explicit approval of the US!?! Hmmm. That sounds like a logical approach!?!

  8. Michael C,

    Medea Benjamin had been a fearless advocate for common sense and peace for decades. All of us must remember that the privatization of war by the U.S. had resulted in private contractors being the bulk of those in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The profit motive dictates foreign policy and these private contractors and weapons producers have highjacked the ability to reach sane, forward-looking alternatives to endless war, not to mention the revolving door where former generals get cushy jobs in the arms-industry that has no interest in peace.

  9. Starry Gordon

    Substituting the UN for the US is going to provide what was called back in Vietnam days ‘a decent interval’. It’s a different kind of interval, but the purpose is the same: to allow the US to back out of one more failed aggression without losing too much face.

  10. Chauncey Gardiner

    Constructive action to resolve a complex and difficult situation that has become an absolute dog’s breakfast. After the failed policies of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and its successor, the Foreign Policy Initiative, this hopefully marks the beginning of a new and markedly different approach to the nation’s foreign policy that encompasses increased UN involvement and willingness to work with other nations diplomatically and economically, rather than military intervention as the default option.

  11. HH

    The US pubic will forget the lessons of GWOT, just as it forgot the lessons of Vietnam. We are a bellicose nation, a dragon that belches fire to see things burn. In a constant cycle, the US dragon lies quiet for a few years then breathes fire again. Only a serious military reverse will slay this beast. For every Medea Benjamin, there are 10,000 Americans cheering for war.

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