What has happened in Afghanistan is extraordinary.  It is infrequent for an insurgent movement, a guerrilla group, to win a war – even more so when the government forces have received unprecedented weapons and training.  All this investment has been lost in just a few days, and this collapse aggravates the drama of all the human lives that have been sacrificed in a war lasting twenty years (forty, including the Soviet occupation), after which the situation seems to have returned to the starting point.

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban will mark a change of era.  It is the latest in a series of failures of the policy (or discourse) of promoting democracy through war.  Hopefully, it will also be the last case of the ephemeral illusion of ending autocracies by eliminating (assassinating) their visible leaders.  Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi and Osama bin Laden are all dead.  Yet, their deaths have not led to peace but chaos, triggering new cycles of violence.

The USA, NATO and its member countries will have to spend some time reflecting on their failure.  Apart from the difficulty of justifying the waste of public resources on a useless war, it will be necessary to explain to families and public opinion the reasons for the sacrifice of dead soldiers and the drama of thousands of ex-combatants affected by the trauma of war.  And it will be necessary to assume the consequences at home: today, the main internal security threat in the USA comes from extreme right-wing groups, which find a strong recruiting ground among war veterans.

We hope that this will help Europe rethink its foreign security policy.  Afghanistan is the perfect example of the risk of arms proliferation and how easily weapons change hands.  Under the euphemism of a European Peace Facility, the European Union is preparing the transfer of arms to the countries of the Sahel region for their soldiers to confront the multiple armed factions that operate in the area – again, an attempt to end violence with more violence.

The global scenario is grim.  Although the first decade after the Cold War brought an air of hope, with the number of armed conflicts reduced by half, this trend has been reversed, and the dynamics of violence have not only resumed but have become more complex: geopolitics and its war games are back (Syria, Yemen, Ukraine); new, extremely violent actors are emerging (today, for example, more people are dying in Mexico than in Afghanistan); and political tensions are rising as a consequence of climate change.  The world has not seen so many people fleeing violence and despair since the Second World War.

Returning to Afghanistan, messages of all kinds will now proliferate warnings about international jihad; speculation about geopolitical shifts; concern about violence against women, children and ethnic and sexual minorities; and calls for increased humanitarian aid.  All are very relevant – just as they were twenty years ago.  Afghanistan is the most recent symbol of an international policy that needs to be thoroughly reconsidered.

And this also applies to those of us who strive for a world without war because complex problems do not have simple solutions.  It is not enough to say no to war.  When war breaks out, we are too late, and, in extreme situations (Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria), sometimes it is necessary to use force to avert greater harm.  Nor can we limit ourselves to reporting human rights violations: this is an essential but insufficient task.  We need more creativity, more ambition and more strength.  We need to innovate in analysis, discourse and alliances, and combine our necessary utopian aspirations with the humility to recognize the limitations of our knowledge.

Kristian Herbolzheimer, Director of ICIP