Q: In the wake of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s dismissal as chief commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Congress is evaluating our policy and presence there. Is it time for the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan? Do we have a moral responsibility to stay or to leave?
There are three moral dimensions to the fight in Afghanistan amid the vital national/global security interests at stake — the future of Pakistan, NATO, and the regional geo-political-economic balance–each of which could have profound moral implications if they were to turn out negative.
First, the people of Afghanistan. They remember well that we were happy to help them make the Soviets bleed but abandoned them when it was time to build their country (as the last scene in Charlie Wilson’s War so vividly portrays). Will we abandon them again, when it is so clearly in our own self-interest not to? Do we really want to come back here again in 20 years?
Second, as I have written elsewhere, we are fighting on the more tolerant side of an intra-Islamic conflict against those who enslave conscience and women. In some ways, Afghanistan is essentially about how Muslims will treat other Muslims of different theological convictions. If we can help create an environment that is sufficiently secure and stable for that discussion to unfold, then the treatment of other minorities (e.g., Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, etc.) will largely take care of itself.
While it is generally not our place to comment on the theology of this intra-Islamic conflict, we have earned the right to comment on its political implications, to include the establishment of a protected pluralism where the minority can live in peace (which, incidentally, is consistent with the best of Islam). Indeed, it is too often forgotten how many Muslims worldwide are alive today, with the opportunity for a better life, because of American military efforts–from Bosnia to Kosovo to both Gulf Wars. We should not shy away from this interrelated discussion.
Third, Afghanistan demonstrates two basic characteristics of the 21st century. America will not succeed in its domestic or overseas efforts unless it can better coordinate the different agencies of its government. This is a moral issue, a question of how we–the greatest power in recorded history–steward our power.
Some argue that too many Americans have died there and too many billions of dollars have been wasted; therefore, nine years is enough. They are right–it is a national and moral tragedy that we have spent so much with so little to show. Foremost, it is a failure of civilian leadership. Another perspective, however, suggests that in those nine years, the United States has never had the right strategy or the right leaders in place to position ourselves to have an impact that is both moral and sustainable. I believe that we now do.
We have done Gen. Petraeus no favors by giving him this quagmire of mixed signals–itself immoral–regarding the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But his swift senate confirmation vote (99-0) should let all the differing civilians within the executive branch know that the nation is ready to follow his lead. (For more thoughts, I have blogged extensively about Afghanistan-Pakistan at the National Journal:).
In this context, what practical perspective do faith communities/leaders in America bring to incredibly complex issues like Afghanistan? How do faith communities think about the stewardship of American power, a function of the precious responsibilities of American citizenship, and the protected pluralism it provides?
For example, in my own limited and anecdotal experiences–nationally and globally–there seems to be an overwhelming trend line among younger Jews, Christians, and Muslims: they are becoming more orthodox in their theology. Like all trend lines, there are positive and negative possibilities. How will the emerging desire to better understand and “live out” their beliefs manifest itself? Will living out these beliefs result in a faith so cherished and thus so strong that it acknowledges irreconcilable differences (theological and political), yet works for the greater common good according to common values? Or will living out these beliefs result in a religion so certain and thus so weak that it needs to be defined against those irreconcilable differences, and therefore against the “other” faith, even the other American? Will orthodox believers transcend and transform politics or will they confirm partisanship domestically and the clash of civilizations internationally?
Put differently, how will American faith communities engage–and speak into–the most complex geo-political situations on earth as a result of their beliefs, and their American citizenship? Meanwhile, are our theological schools producing rabbis, priests/pastors, and imams capable such engagement? Or are they producing shepherds that are too comfortable to preach their religion on the one holy day of the week, leaving their congregants to live the rest of the week as six-day-secularists, their beliefs irrelevant to their vocations and the most pressing issues of our day.
These moral questions will not be solved overnight, but I do believe Afghanistan provides an imperative for their practical discussion…a discussion that might begin with how our government educates/trains our civilian and military personnel (please see this Government Executive piece:), as well as how our faith communities educate/train their shepherds.