Afghanistan and the Futility of War

By Rev. Ben Daniel, Pastor of Montclair Presbyterian Church, a PC(USA) Peace Church

One way or another, any American Christian who professes an affinity for pacifism eventually must answer a difficult question: “what about crimes against humanity and other tragic atrocities? Should not the United States’ military be deployed to prevent the unmitigated evil humans perpetrate against one another with troubling regularity?

The arguments in favor of employing military violence to preserve peace and human rights are compelling. After all, when tyrants, despots, and violent mobs use bombs, guns, and machetes to bully, rape, murder, kidnap, and otherwise devastate individuals and communities, how can they be stopped if not by taking an eye for and eye and a tooth for tooth? Is not violence the only language the violent understand?

On paper, it seems reasonable to assume that a victorious military campaign might signal the beginning of an era of peaceable co-existence, but the idea that war can make peace has been tested again and again and has failed to prove itself reliable; and there is no better argument against the concept of a peaceable war than Afghanistan.  

If the tragic images of folks trying desperately to rush the Kabul airport in hope of being airlifted beyond the totalitarian reach of the Taliban communicate anything to Christians dwelling in the relative comfort of American suburbia it must surely be this: military violence does not work. 

In the abstract, it’s hard to say “no” to the idea of American intervention on behalf of the downtrodden. Many of our most cherished national myths involve American men-at-arms showing up to save lives and defend liberty, and who wouldn’t want to bring about an end to the Holocaust or to save Bosnians from genocidal Serbs?

The two decades of American intervention in Afghanistan fit perfectly into this narrative. The Taliban are bad actors, who, in the past, forced women to wear burkas and prevented girls from attending school; they forbade women from having jobs or even walking alone outside of the home. During the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan prior to 2001, life was difficult for Shiite minority communities in the Central Asian nation. Almost no one believes things will be much different under the new Taliban regime. And while a concern for the wellbeing of Afghan women or ethnic and religious minorities played exactly no role in the United States’ decision to invade the central Asian nation known to be the “graveyard of empires” after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the military mission dragged on for twenty years in part because the United States saw itself as the savior of Afghan’s downtrodden population, especially women and girls. 

But it didn’t work. Over the course of two decades the United States spent more than two trillion dollars in an attempt to change the misogynistic tendencies of Afghanistan’s anachronistic cultural guardians; more than a hundred thousand civilians and fifty thousand US and Afghanistan military personnel died in America’s quixotic attempts at reforming the lifeways of people we made little attempt to understand. It turns out that human rights cannot be vouchsafed with bombs. 

The failure of American arms to guarantee the peace and prosperity of those living under the threat of those weapons should come as no surprise. Over the years, the American military has committed far more crimes against humanity than it has prevented. American soldiers defended the institution of slavery and perpetrated a series of genocides against Native American nations during the 19th century. During the 20th century the United States military sent Japanese Americans to concentration camps in the American west, and intentionally targeted civilians in Germany and Japan as the Second World War wound down. As the 20th century drew to a close, the United States provided aid and assistance to a band of guerillas fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a period of ten years when Afghan women had more freedoms than they’ve ever had before or since. That American-supported fighting force became the Taliban, which the American military spent the first two decades of the 21st century trying to oust.

The United States is hardly alone in its inability to invent an alchemy that creates peace from war. In fact, if ever there was a time in the history of human conflict that military violence brought about a lasting peace and the well-being of human communities on both sides of a conflict, I don’t know about it. The result of warfare invariably is either more war, or the complete subjugation on one antagonist by the other. Nor do the world’s various militaries have a particularly solid track record when it comes to preventing crimes against humanity, most of which, historically, have been committed by armies, not prevented by them. 

It would be nice to believe the United States military would never again deploy in an attempt to use violence to establish peace or to promulgate human rights through the bombing of civilian populations, but we have not yet learned that such efforts are pure vanity, and until we do, more tragic fiascos like unto the American exit from Afghanistan will come to pass, and American Christians will be called upon to proclaim with prophetic zeal the Gospel of peace.