Jean Bethke Elshtain, ethics professor at the University of Chicago, Chris Seiple, the president of the Institute for Global Engagement, and Will Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, discuss whether the U.S. should stay militarily involved in Afghanistan.
There's No Choice on Afghanistan
We're already there. Now we have to deal with it.
Jean Bethke Elshtain
It is irrelevant to debate whether the United States should be in Afghanistan; we are already there. The important questions must deal with the realities of the situation.
First, remember why we are there. We entered Afghanistan with the United Nations fully behind the operation after the attacks of September 11, 2001, an act of aggression that necessitated a response. U.S. entry into Afghanistan was an act of self-defense.
The notorious misrule of the Taliban came to an end, and the operation of Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan ceased for the most part. We did not intervene to end Taliban rule per se, but to put an end to Al Qaeda operations. At this point, a return to Taliban control would be a disaster—first and foremost for the people of Afghanistan.
Under the Taliban, those who suffered the most were women. Women were driven out of universities, and girls were not allowed to go to school. Women were denied all legal rights and were not permitted to go out of doors unless escorted by a man. Anyone who defied regulations was beaten or stoned. Women had to be seen by female physicians and remain covered during medical examinations. This meant, in effect, little medical care, as female professionals fled Afghanistan in droves when the Taliban took over.
We must contend with these realities now. Leave aside our own security concerns: Are we content to watch Afghanistan fall once again under Taliban rule? What on earth do people think would happen if we packed our bags and left the country tomorrow? That we would see the lion lie down with the lamb?
We would watch as women now in school were denied an education, and other women were beaten and executed. We would stand by as those who signed on with the prospect of a constitutional Afghanistan are slaughtered. The border with Pakistan, now the site of Taliban operations, would turn into a Taliban stronghold from which they could threaten the security of the entire region. Afghanistan sits astride one of the most dangerous zones in the world. Terrorist entities hanker to generate dirty nuclear weapons with which to threaten all "infidels," whether Jews, Christians, or the wrong sort of Muslims.
We might pack our bags tomorrow, but we would return as the situation went completely downhill. No American president wants to see Afghanistan lost when so much is at stake. So our present dilemma is not whether we should be there or not, but how we can best secure the situation and eventually withdraw.
We have adopted a difficult counter-insurgency strategy for the sole purpose of trying to spare civilian lives. If this strategy does not succeed, it will mean a much longer U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Let us hope and pray—for the sake of the Afghan people, and in order to somewhat minimize the horrors of this world—that we succeed.
Afghanistan is the New Normal
It is in America's interest to use "practical pluralism" to bring people together in Afghanistan.
The U.S. will be involved militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq for the rest of our lives. This is not unusual; it has been involved militarily in Europe and Japan since the end of World War II, and in Korea, since the 1953 armistice. We are still in the Balkans. Unfortunately, this is how stability and the opportunity for positive change come in a fallen world.
At its best, U.S. military involvement is consistent with the best of local culture and religion, but also deepens and expands a rule of law that protects minorities. The U.S. government is not Christian or inherently good. But it is generally staffed by Americans who are committed to principled pluralism, an idea that can be traced to Christians like Roger Williams, William Penn, and John Locke, who wrestled with how best to engage the world—especially minority populations—as it is.
In Afghanistan, we are fighting on the more tolerant side of an intra-Islamic conflict against an extremist ideology that enslaves conscience and women. Our side, however, is rampantly corrupt, containing elements of a culture and corresponding constitution that essentially denies pluralism's freedom to respectfully share beliefs. Welcome to the real world.
In this context, the U.S. military should continue to show unprecedented restraint in waging the war, while creating a space for, and modeling, principled pluralism. Such a process often begins with Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Such military teams coordinate with local and national officials, as well as Afghan and international nongovernmental organizations and, most importantly, Afghanistan's ethno-religious system of councils (the shura and the jirga).
A successful reconstruction team will leave the local government running more effectively and smoothly than before. It is here that a culture of collaboration and consensus can be demonstrated and developed. Over time, this kind of practical pluralism makes routine the gathering of individuals of deeply different ethnicities, faiths, and values, so that they can share their differing beliefs about how best to serve the people in that area.
The training and education necessary to consistently convene such a forum in Afghanistan, however, is still lacking in the military (and, by extension, the rest of the U.S. government). For example, how does one engage a Pashtun-Islamic understanding of justice in presenting and implementing governance and development projects? What mediation and conflict transformation skills are needed? There are no easy answers.
It is in America's interest to train our military and government leaders in social-cultural-religious engagement. This kind of training is no panacea, but without it, we stand little chance of civilians learning from and taking over this role from the military.
Let Jesus Guide Afghanistan
We have capitulated to the nation that the qualifier 'American' is much more significant and determinative than the designation 'Christian.'
After an acrimonious debate about the Iraq war at the United Methodist Church's annual conference a couple of years ago, I declared a series of "Bishop's Conversations about War" all over Alabama.
I'll never do that again. I opened each discussion by saying, "We are going to talk about this war as Christians." I soon learned that it is virtually impossible for us to talk about war using any specifically biblical or Christian referent.
Most people were in favor of the war. We are a democracy; we are powerful; we have a responsibility to spread freedom and democracy around the world; when our government calls, we have a patriotic duty to offer our children. Missing was any reference to Scripture, church teaching, or any other specifically Christian criterion.
After hearing President Obama's inaugural address, I was not surprised that he would order a massive troop buildup in Afghanistan.ɗe are forced to do that as a powerful, aggrieved democracy. But how should American Christians think about this war?
Some years ago, I recall hearing Jerry Falwell being interviewed about President Bush's first (or was it second?) "war to end all wars" in Iraq. Falwell said that it was important to teach them a lesson, to liberate Iraqis, to stand up to oppression. Yada, yada, yada.
A humiliating moment came when the "godless" television newscaster asked, "But what would Jesus say about this war?"
With that, Falwell began perspiring heavily and said something about being "realistic," about evil people only respecting a show of force, about his great respect for President Bush, and so on. We are all realists now; 20th-century liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr has triumphed even among allegedly biblical evangelicals like Falwell.ɉn discussions of war and military might, Jesus Christ is irrelevant. Calculating justice trumps Jesus-love.
There was a day when my church had the theological and evangelistic chutzpah to send missionaries to Afghanistan. The Bible told us that they were our brothers and sisters, recipients of Christ's converting love. Now we are in a war with over 1,000 American military deaths and so many more Afghani casualties, mostly women and children, defending a corrupt regime that is anything but democratic and decidedly anti-Christian. We have capitulated to the notion that the qualifier American is much more significant and determinative than the designation Christian.
As a Christian, I'm forced to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and that all presumptive lordlets are not. So when our President declares that we have a responsibility to fight, to destroy, to force democracy and our brand of freedom anywhere, I wish I had the guts to ask, "Who is this 'we' of whom you speak? We are Christians; Jesus gives us some odd definitions of 'we.'"
I'm not sure that Christians in America could do much to stop these Bush-Obama Near Eastern wars without end. But could we have at least contributed to the national debate by offering an occasional, "But Jesus says that …"?
In our attempts to be good, responsible members of a democracy, we have given away the store. While we say Jesus Christ is Lord, we let Caesar call the shots.
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Jean Bethke Elshtain teaches ethics in the divinity school and the political science department at the University of Chicago. Chris Seiple is president of the Institute for Global Engagement and author of The U.S. Military/NGO Relationship in Human Interventions. Will Willimon is an author and bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Previous Christianity Today articles on Afghanistan include:
Hard Times for Christian Aid Groups in Afghanistan and Somalia | As Christians mourn murder of International Assistance Mission workers in Afghanistan, Somalia orders out Christian groups. (August 9, 2010)
Afghan Girls Poisoned for Attending School | Some Afghan groups believe educating girls is forbidden in Islam and corrosive to society. (Her.meneutics, April 29, 2010)
Christmas in Afghanistan | Why, Lord, do you allow this time, of all times, to become for some a memorial of searing pain? (December 22, 2009)
Unconfirmed report on martyrdom deepens gloom for Christians | Unconfirmed report on martyrdom deepens gloom for Christians. (October 1, 2004)
Previous Village Green sections have discussed Bible smuggling, creation care, intelligent design, preaching, immigration, Lent, premarital abstinence, aid to foreign nations, technology, and abortion.
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