There is no moral, no legal, no political justification for the Obama Administration to insist that the Taliban must commit themselves to respecting human rights before the United States will agree to stop the fighting. Negotiations are now underway between Taliban leaders and the Karzai government that seek to end the hostilities. Although the U.S. maintains that these negotiations should be Afghan-led, it is setting conditions. These deserve careful examination.
The U.S. demand that the Taliban dissociate itself from Al Qaeda and not host terrorists in the future is fully justified. The United States forces are in that faraway country, and our troops have been taking casualties there for years to ensure that Afghanistan will not serve again as a basis for attacks on our homeland. This is a rather clear case of self-defense.
The requirement that the Taliban disarm is not as obviously justified. Our Supreme Court has just declared that every American has a right to bear arms. And many Afghans carry arms the way Americans carry credit cards: do not leave home without them. In effect, this American demand means that many Pashtuns--which most of the Taliban are--will be required to lay down their arms, while the members of other tribal groups will stay armed. These groups--the Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, and Turkmen--constituted the Northern Alliance that defeated the Taliban in 2001. They are reported to be gunning for Taliban again. Given that a general disarmament of the population is not in cards, the demand that one group lay down its arms is undermining the chance that the various groups will reach an accommodation.
The American position that the shooting will continue unless the Taliban commit themselves to observing human rights is hard to defend. The U.S. does not invade other countries who do not respect human rights, which include--among many others--Burma, Iran, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Indeed, many of the nations which we consider our allies and on which we rain foreign aid and military support have poor human rights records.
Moreover, even among free nations, each works out its own human rights profile. The German constitution includes a commitment to social and economic rights; ours does not. The French and Americans insist on the separation of state and church--most other democracies do not. And we keep changing the list of rights we honor. Thus, women's rights in the U.S. were recognized at a much later state of development than we witness in Afghanistan. We should let the Afghans work out with each other their human rights profile.
When I argue that the U.S. should not impose its list of human rights, I refer only to the use of force. There is no reason for the US to stop using non-lethal means--educational and cultural means--to promote whatever we hold dear. It is just wrong to kill and get killed to make another people acquire our legal precepts.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007).