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Reparations in the Wake of the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

September 5, 2021

The humanitarian catastrophe precipitated by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised a difficult question for the international community: how can foreign powers help a people newly subjected to Taliban rule without keeping boots on the ground?

While most on the left have focused on accepting larger numbers of refugees, some progressives have floated an alternative and provocative answer in recent weeks: reparations.

Journalist Spencer Ackerman, for example, writes that progressives’ push for the US to take in large numbers of refugees “moral floor that functions as a moral ceiling.” Instead, Ackerman advocates reparations, writing “There is simply no substitute for ending a war and paying the debts that American policymakers did not understand themselves to be accruing.” In the UK, MP Richard Burgon, the former shadow justice secretary under Jeremy Corbyn, has raised the idea of a UN-monitored reparations program aimed directly at the Afghan people, circumventing the Taliban regime. In a recent online discussion, left-leaning Phyllis Bennis and Republican Lawrence Wilkerson agreed about the appropriateness of reparations.

To be clear, the odds of a meaningful reparations agreement in the near future between the US and the new Taliban-led Afghan government or even a UN-administered reparations program are exceedingly small. Nevertheless, the end of the US two decades-long imbroglio provides a good opportunity for thinking about the role of reparations in securing global justice—a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about since reading Catherine Lu’s phenomenal Justice and Reconciliation in World Politics. The issue of reparations, in my mind, involves asking not only what the US did wrong in Afghanistan, but also, in the words of TM Scanlon, what the US and Afghanistan (as well as their citizens) now owe to each other.

Given the complexities of the war, disentangling who might owe what to whom is complex.

To begin, it’s worth raising a distinction outlined by Pablo de Greiff between reparations as understood in juridical contexts and reparations as it is employed more broadly in academic and media debates, indicating a wide array of official apologies, monetary and material transfers, service packages, symbolic reconciliation, and even a particular type of development aid.

If we understand reparations solely according to international law, then answering the question of ‘who owes what to whom’ most likely involves asking what (war) crimes were committed and who the victims and perpetrators of these crimes were. Such an understanding would likely emphasize the Taliban regime’s support for al Qaeda, which launched unprecedented and unprovoked attacks against US targets. But it would also surface war crimes committed by the US, including torture, the targeting of civilians, and more. In theory, payments could move in multiple overlapping directions according to crimes’ adjudication. And, depending on the forum in which they’re considered, such crimes might be understood as attacks on individuals or on entire states with compensation for parties likely oriented towards restitutio in integrum, however that is interpreted in context.

While this sort of legalistic approach might be intuitively appealing for some and certainly more realistic than broader programs, it would undoubtedly neglect the vast majority of Afghan civilians who have dealt with decades of untold turmoil. If reparations are directed towards individuals, most Afghans would not have access; if they are funnelled through states, it’s unlikely most Afghans would ever see the benefits. Despite the appeal of legal standards for reparations payments, there are few historical examples of international law securing necessary reparations for victims of protracted conflicts.

Given these limitations, many international political theorists have interpreted reparations according to de Greiff’s second, broader definition, floating alternative frameworks for conceiving of reparative responsibilities beyond the limitations of international law.

The issue of reparations… involves asking not only what the US did wrong in Afghanistan, but also… what the US and Afghanistan (as well as their citizens) now owe to each other.

One prominent alternative comes from the Oxford political theorist Daniel Butt, whose Rectifying International Injustice argues for considering which contemporary parties benefit from past injustices, and which experience lingering harm. By employing counterfactuals that probe what conditions would have occurred had past injustices not taken place, Butt argues we can determine optimal amounts for reparation payments. In the case of Afghanistan, I imagine Butt’s framework would involve asking what might have been had the US not invaded, had the Taliban not harbored al Qaeda, or even what would have happened had Afghanistan not been manipulated by so many foreign powers.

Initially, I’ll admit that I was drawn to the idea of charging corrupt US defense contractors for their role in perpetuating the war or even taking reparations payments from the late Donald Rumsfeld’s approximately quarter billion dollar fortune. However, in my mind, Butt’s approach proves an imperfect fit for the case of Afghanistan—a country which has suffered from so many intertwined injustices and has witnessed such diverse types of violence that isolating discrete harms proves impossible. As I have argued previously, complexity makes a fool of such simplified, linear causal analysis.

Alternatively, the approach advocated by Lu in her aforementioned book draws on the work of Iris Marion Young to emphasize how, beyond isolated harms, structural injustice shapes international relations. Lu’s analysis focuses, in particular, on the role of colonialism in perpetuating the international system’s unjust hierarchies—a point that resonates deeply when thinking about Afghanistan’s tragic history.

While both Young and Lu are skeptical of reparations’ ability to address structural injustice, recent articles by Maeve McKeown, as well as Swati Srivastava and Lauren Muscott, have argued that reparations payments could be incorporated into a structural justice framework. In the case of Afghanistan, imagining such payments would likely expand well beyond the US-Afghanistan relationship to implicate the former Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and a wide variety of other actors. By treating Afghanistan as their plaything, all of these foreign powers have contributed to the country’s long-term subordination, perpetuating structural injustice.

Though recognition of structural injustice is certainly important to understanding Afghanistan’s history, numerous critics have argued that the structural injustice framework diffuses responsibility too widely to craft meaningful reparative and reconciliatory programs. If we are all implicated in the social structures that perpetuate injustice, how can parties achieve finality and move on from conflict? Even if reparations payments are imperfect means of repairing broken social structures, can they not promote some meaningful progress?

In my mind, all the frameworks discussed have their benefits and drawbacks in thinking about the debts incurred during the US’ failed 20-year experiment in Afghanistan. They all provide imperfect, but nonetheless useful approaches to helping imagine and calculate these debts, as well as differing models for how such a debt might be repaid to relevant parties. To be honest, I’ve yet to make up my mind on how best to combine their insight.

But, despite my uncertainty, I do think considering the issue from these multiple angles helps surface an important fact lost in much coverage of the US withdrawal: even without American troops in Afghanistan, this two-decade war has created constellations of relationships (and, in many cases, grievances) that will simmer into the future. While repairing Afghanistan through international reparations program may be unlikely in the near future, considering what a reparations program for Afghanistan should look like is vital to unravelling these relationships and coming to terms with the war’s failures.  

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Adam B. Lerner is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and Deputy Director of Royal Holloway's Centre for International Security (RHISC).