Among the ways Christianity has influenced the world is the general acceptance, in principle anyway, of St. Augustine’s four criterions for a just war. They are:
The intent must be to prevent human suffering. All means other than military force must be judged unlikely to stop the aggressor. The military action must be proportional to the threat. The consequences of military action must not be worse than inaction.
These criteria felt met twenty years ago when Congress voted, with only a single dissenting vote, to authorize the use of military force in Afghanistan. The purpose was to remove the Taliban regime which provided Al-Qaeda a place from which to work its terror. (The catastrophic intelligence failure about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was yet to come.)
At the time I would have supported Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when he said: “The world should … know that there is a broad agreement not only in eliminating Osama bin-Laden and his Al-Qaeda network—as well as the Taliban which supports him – but there’s also broad agreement and support for the president’s resolve to keep a coalition together to help feed Afghans, as well as put together…a viable government that will be a source of stability and not a source of unrest after we successfully prosecute this war effort….”
In 2016 The Washington Post, through the Freedom of Information Act, obtained documents compiled by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) which are essentially lessons-learned reports. The purpose of the SIGAR study was to prevent the United States from repeating mistakes. In addition, the Post obtained from the Army’s Combat Studies Institute the transcripts of more than 600 oral histories of combat veterans of Afghanistan.
From these sources and others, the Post published a series of articles detailing how our political, diplomatic, and military leaderships misled us concerning the war in Afghanistan. The series prompted a long-remiss Congress to hold hearings. “It is a damning record,” said Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
An account of what the Post uncovered, titled “The Afghanistan Papers,” has been published in book form with reporter Craig Whitlock as author.
The dissembling, according to the book, spanned four administrations.
Donald Rumsfeld in 2004: “There is absolutely no way in the world we can be militarily defeated in Afghanistan.”
Admiral Mike Mullen in 2011: “We’ve made a lot of progress. From a strategic standpoint it really appears to have worked as we have hoped.”
Lt. Gen. Mark Milley in 2013: [T]he conditions are set for winning this war.”
It did not always seem so to those on the front. One combat soldier, six times deployed to Afghanistan, said to his debriefer: “[T]here has to be more to solving this problem than killing people, because that’s what we are doing and every time I went back security was worse.”
Each year, as our leadership insisted the situation was becoming more stable, more Afghans were killed as a result of war violence.
We poured, and wasted, tremendous treasure to build infrastructure and develop the Afghan economy, more wealth than the Afghan nation could absorb, and then wondered how there could be so much corruption.
We paid for an army and trained them to be dependent on our intelligence-gathering and air power, and then wondered how they could not function as a stand-alone force.
In maybe the irony of all ironies, the book conveys the possibility that the Taliban were willing to come to an understanding after they had been removed from power in 2001. One foreign-service officer observed: “Our insistence on hunting them down as if they were all criminals, rather than just adversaries who had lost, was what provoked the rise of the insurgency more than anything else.”
Perhaps the most haunting observation is that of a navy officer who served as a National Security staffer in both the Bush and Obama administrations: “After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan.”
So, maybe President Biden, not Senator Biden, is right in remaining steadfast in his decision to leave Afghanistan. But our departure can only be seen as our failure. Our failure does not absolve us of the duty to protect those who trusted us.
If it becomes disreputable to quote Abraham Lincoln, we are done as a nation. In December, 1862, in the depth of civil war and just before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln sent a message to Congress in which, referring to America, he said, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
The Taliban is apparently in control of whatever government there is in Afghanistan. Because of drought as well as war, the Afghan nation is threatened by famine. Many are homeless. Many of talented citizens seek to flee the country. The economy is in ruins. Then there is COVID. (Contrary to its usual position on things from the West, the Taliban is reportedly willing to take COVID vaccines.)
In wars we have won, America has a record of being magnanimous in victory. In regard to Afghanistan, our nation has the means to be magnanimous in defeat. Al-Qaeda is in no position to help Afghanistan. We are – if we are willing to extend a helpful hand in peace.
It is fair to appraise the Taliban as wanting power more than our money. It is more important to them to restore the work of their hands, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, than preserve the work of our hands, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The differences between Taliban and America give every appearance of being irreconcilable. Still, it is worth considering another statement often attributed to Lincoln: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.”
Hartley is a retired chief engineer in the merchant marine. His 33-year career was on the Great Lakes. Prior to that, he was a steel worker and an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. He has a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature from Brown University. He is the author of “Christy Mathewson: A Biography,” published by McFarland in 2005. He and his wife Cyd make Corry their home.