Monday, July 19, 2010

Wallis on Afghanistan

Over at The Washington Post's blog, On Faith, Jim Wallis argues that the war in Afghanistan is immoral and that we should get out. His conclusion may be correct, but the reasons he gives for it are, in my opinion, weak and irrelevant.

Wallis opens his essay with this puzzling remark:

But to begin a war and then an occupation of Afghanistan was the wrong policy, quickly killing more Afghan innocents than the American innocents who died on September 11.

I don't know how he knows how many innocent Afghan civilians were killed by American troops, but grant that the number exceeds the three thousand killed on 9/11. Of what importance is that? Does Wallis think that we went to war in Afghanistan in order to kill as many of their civilians as the al Qaeda terrorists killed of ours? By Wallis' reasoning we should have stopped fighting WWII as soon as we killed as many Japanese civilians as were killed at Pearl Harbor.

Here's the metric: Has our primarily military policy in Afghanistan and Iraq killed more terrorists than it has recruited? I think we know the answer to that.

Well, if we do I don't know how we do, and I doubt that Wallis does either. The implication is that going to war has generated and inspired more terrorists than would have been arrayed against us had we not gone to war. How could Wallis, or anyone, know this to be the case? Could it not be just as plausibly argued that had we not gone to war, Islamic youth by the millions would have smelled weakness and joined up with Osama bin Laden to be in on the destruction of the Great Satan?

A new strategy in Afghanistan that focuses on humanitarian assistance and sustainable economic development, along with international policing, was also never tried. It could have been led by NGOs, both faith-based and secular, who have been in the region for years, have become quite indigenous, and are much more trusted by the people of these countries than are the U.S. military. But such assistance would have to be provided, as much as possible, by independent civilian and non-governmental organizations -- both international and local -- rather than using aid as a government adjunct to military operations.

Here again Wallis makes a claim for which he fails to offer any support. How does he know that the Afghan people trust these NGOs more than they trust the military? If the Taliban are kidnapping their leaders or stealing their property who do the people turn to, do you think, to get it stopped? NGOs or the American military? Moreover, if Wallis thinks that we have not already spent a fortune on aid to the people of Afghanistan then he just hasn't been reading the same stuff everyone else has.

Yes, after taking over the country, we do have a responsibility not to simply walk away. There are ethical and moral issues that need to be considered: legitimately protecting Americans from further terrorism; protecting the lives of U.S. servicemen and women; protecting the Afghan people from the collateral damage of war; defending women from the Taliban; genuinely supporting democracy; and of course, saving innocent lives from the collateral damage of war, to name a few.

And if all these missions require 100,000 troops, numerous operations and lots of dead Taliban should we declare that the price is just too high? Wallis says, on the one hand, that we should get out of Afghanistan for moral reasons and on the other that we need to stay there for moral reasons. Well, which is it?

Non-military strategies should have led the way, rather than the other way around, as counter-insurgency doctrine requires. We should not have made aid and development weapons of war by tying them so closely to the military; rather, we should have only provided the security support needed for the development work to succeed -- led by respected, well-established international organizations with strong local connections.

This is pie-in-the-sky nonsense. The fact is that we went in to Afghanistan to get the people who launched 9/11, not to deliver hot lunches to Afghan shepherds. Once we drove al Qaeda and the Taliban out we had an obligation to keep them from flooding back into the country as soon as we left, so we have tried to create a secure environment for the people of Afghanistan. We undertook to strengthen both the government and the nation's infrastructure. Humanitarian efforts only work in areas which are free of the fear of the Taliban, which means our first mission has to be to pacify the countryside. No international organization is going to be keen on sending their workers into areas where they're likely to lose their heads as soon as they show up.

The article told story after story about families being separated by repeated deployments in an endless war. Soldiers who are fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters are dying for a wrong-headed, ineffective, failed, doomed, arrogant, theologically unjust, and yes, immoral war policy. And of course, the ones dying are not the young people headed for our best universities and successful professional careers, but rather they are the ones who have fewer options, or who see the military as their only option. Those with the least opportunities, and their families, are again the ones to sacrifice and suffer. It's not right and it's not fair.

Set aside the fact that despite what he might think of himself, Wallis is not a prophet. He doesn't know that this effort is "wrong-headed, ineffective, failed, doomed, arrogant." We should remember that this is exactly what the progressive opponents of George Bush were saying about Iraq, which Joe Biden is now claiming as an Obama administration success. We should also bear in mind that we have a volunteer military which means that the people fighting this war chose to make the sacrifices that Wallis enumerates. Moreover, his claim that the ones who are making these sacrifices are young men and women who see the military as their only option is utter nonsense. They joined the military because they saw it as a good option, not their only option. Wallis, like Senator Kerry in 2004, would have us believe that our troops are really life's losers. It says more about Wallis' view of those who go into the military than it does about the young men and women themselves.

Neither has Wallis made even a glimmer of an argument that the Afghanistan war is "theologically unjust, and immoral." He simply asserts it and expects us to nod our heads in agreement. But, never mind. As I said at the outset, almost the entire thrust of his essay is irrelevant. I say that because Wallis is a pacifist and would oppose any use of force in Afghanistan no matter how it was carried out. In other words, his argument is disingenuous. He's not opposed to the way our troops have been used, he's opposed, in principle, to any use of troops. It would be nice if he had the forthrightness to tell us that up front, rather than try to convince us that the reason he thinks we should leave Afghanistan is that the war is being managed badly, that it can't be won, and that the military is not being employed to maximum effect.