Much is being made of our “abandoning” Afghanistan (they abandoned us, when they did not “cowboy-up” to defend themselves, is how I see it).


Civilized world governments have a doctrine against assaults on human rights of the kind the Taliban make their mode: it’s “Responsibility To Protect” (RTP). The United Nations itself was chartered as an institution that would “never again” allow such affronts to human rights.

Let’s take stock of the success of the aspiration with a back-of-a-napkin sketch of RTP(s) and “never again(s)”: one unfolds as we speak among the Muslim Rohinga of Burma. No RTP. One (a cultural one, that counts) is happening to the Muslim Uighurs of China. No RTP. One was forestalled in Libya (maybe, with very unfortunate sequellae for Libya’s people). One wound down in Darfur (it didn’t have to continue: the “unwanted” people there were all killed). No RTP. The Rwanda genocide was interrupted when the victims declined to cooperate, and fought the attempt off by themselves. They got no international help. RTP missions were flown to protect Kurds in Iraq; there is that. Bosnia got tepid (if not incompetent) UN RTP, after the Bosnians were mostly “chastised.” The Somali starvation-genocide was mostly a “success” (the Habar Gidir clan achieved its goals; its targets dead before we intervened). The Bangladeshi genocide, unleashed by Pakistan, was thwarted by India in old-fashioned, self-interested statecraft, not much having to do with RTP. The Khmer Rouge genocide against modern people was interrupted by Communist Vietnam. Again, by plain vanilla, old-school statecraft, not by any abstract RTP. The Biafra genocide worked; the unwanted people culled through starvation (I’m sure I’m forgetting a few, who can keep count?).

In all the cases of genocides by functional and powerful states (or, more commonly, the clients thereof), the UN’s “Never Again” credo was stymied by great power (mostly Cold War) geopolitics. Game of Thrones-style applied violence in pursuit of political goals, like has been done since before the day of the Israelites on the Shibboleth. The genocides happened (or are happening) because the world’s powerful states wants them to: China wants the Burma genocide. China wants the Uighur cultural genocide. China wanted Darfur. Rwanda was desired by France; the mess in former Yugoslavia was wanted by Russia; the genocide in Bangladesh went unblocked by the international community because America provided diplomatic cover for Pakistan (we didn’t like India at that particular time). Cambodia was left open for Vietnamese intervention by a defeated America (in Vietnam). Britain blocked against RTP in Biafra.

Sigh Clearly, RTP slogans on the lecterns of humanitarians notwithstanding, when a permanent member of the UN Security Council sees the slaughter as something that serves its interests, lots of people will die (but it would be nice if the perpetrators suffered more disgrace for it). This seems, at this stage of mankind’s development, just a hard fact of life.

But Afghanistan-like sorts of human rights affronts are not that. They are more like a global tragedy of the commons: everyone has an abstract interest in the suffering, it sells a lot of media content and makes people sad. But nobody wants to have to cough up folding money (it’s always OPM), much less to bleed, and bury their boys, to make protecting an actual responsibility.

As “right-thinking” nations have made RTP their doctrine, It’s been America’s protecting; America’s paying; America’s bleeding and burying. “Our” part of the abandoning of Afghanistan is in scare-quotes too, because all of those right-thinkers of the world committed themselves to Afghanistan by doctrine, same as we have. They might have taken up the cause after our exhaustion.

For the right-thinking global community to make their RTP doctrine relevant rather than ironic, it must move into the solution space left by a spent (and very broke) America. The solution space might be limited interventions in the “failed states” the great powers are aloof to. Somalia might have been one such. As has Congo: wars there have brought the worst butcher bill in human suffering since the Second World War. A UN mission, the most successful in its history, effectively stabilized the country.

How might actual, implemented RTP work? The simplest way of protecting genocide(s) victims is to allow them to flee to all the sundry nations crowing of their support for human rights (almost all of which are in population decline). Protecting the refugees as they escape would be a popular (and clear) mission. Alas, this way is a political loser (another hard fact of life).

Barring that, we have a few precedents to build on: France created their Foreign Legion to have necessary, though unpopular, blood spilled that would be beneath fully “French” Frenchmen: the prospects of citizenship were dangled as a reward for the ugly duty. Legionnaires also get a redemption from their past offenses, with a new post-Legionnaire French identity (very cool). A foreigner joining a modern intervention force might be offered similar redemption with EU, or American citizenship (preferably they would be brown people: the less the media cares about them getting killed for the cause, the better. Which would be Judo-flipping the disregard for brown people that drives the neglect-type of genocides, now). Most developed nations offer some kind of green card, a path to citizenship, for this kind of service, this very day. Arguments to expand immigration like this can be countered by pointing out the huge numbers of people crashing the developed world’s borders as it is. Everyone could get something out of it. Costs could be divided among those deeming themselves responsible (we already do that with the UN budget).

But the most fascinating prospect and precedent comes with mercenaries. Try to rinse the taste of that word from your mouth by observing things as they are today: a feature of modern wars is relatively low casualties among the combatants, with appalling “collateral damage” devastation among the civilian populace A modern heavy weapon can kill an unprotected civilian miles away from the battle zone. Dead civilians often outnumber combatants 1000:1. The number of refugees of the various Middle Eastern wars (post 9/11) has been greater than the refugees left by WW2. In Africa, armies avoid each other, since the political centers of gravity are each other’s armies. Those wars are fought by targeting civilians. The civilians then flee to the bush and die in appalling numbers, in the worst possible ways (again over 5 million dead in Congo). The armies of dysfunctional states are often a cure worse than the disease. Failed-state corruption steals the soldiers’ pay, and they become armed bands of prey, eating what’s looted from the locals. UN officials grant themselves vast liberties over the affairs of failed states as it is today (a protecting soldier is a mercenary, but a UN official functioning as a department of state is not?).

Africa had a mercenary company, Executive Outcomes, block two genocides for what the UN spends on RTP fundraising wine and cheese receptions. Here is an account of the genocide forestalled in Sierra Leone by, mostly, one guy (albeit well-paid) in a relic Hind gunship (incentives matter).

Another point of ethics: while the government holds a monopoly on force (rightly), there is no reason to believe it is any better at it than any of the other things it tries to do (Afghanistan/Iraq/Libya/Vietnam). If you lived in Africa, shouldn’t it be ethical to take steps to defend yourself, if the government cannot (or will not)?

If the ladies of Afghanistan were given a smidge of America’s monumental aid money to use in their own defense, independent from the state of Afghanistan (it’s aspiration, anyway), my bet is that the Taliban would not be so easily flogging them through the streets today (and maybe their yellow men would have risen, if only out of shame).

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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