When the United States and its allies went into Afghanistan almost eight years ago, they had the support—quiet but real—of Pope John Paul II and the Holy See. But when, not long after, America and its friends attacked Iraq, the Pope and his people were strongly and publicly opposed.
These contrasting reactions by Rome to American military ventures struck me then and strike me now as reflecting eminently sound moral judgments. In light of recent events, it’s useful to consider why that is so.
Afghanistan was and is a just war. In early 2002, the U.S. had lately suffered the vicious 9/11 terrorist attacks plotted by al-Qaeda from the sanctuary provided by its Taliban protectors. Without a prompt American military response, there surely would have been more of the same.
In Iraq, however, the puzzle from the start has centered on why we were going to war there. Saddam Hussein was a bloody tyrant and no friend of America, but he hadn’t attacked the U.S. or its allies, and despite the dire warnings of the Bush administration there was no compelling evidence that he meant to do so, with weapons of mass destruction or without them.
So why invade Iraq? Six going on seven years later, many explanations have been offered but none of them has had staying power—beyond the embarrassingly obvious one of bad judgment.
Here, then, is the heart of the situation: legitimate self-defense in Afghanistan and a big question mark in Iraq. But there’s more to the story than that.
Once the allies had the Taliban on the run in 2002, a terrible mistake was made. Instead of pushing ahead to win a solid, lasting victory, America turned its attention and the bulk of its military resources to Iraq, leaving the wrapping-up in Afghanistan—as was supposed—to undermanned NATO forces and the CIA.
The results as we see them now were predictable. In Iraq, a shaky semi-peace, with the U.S. anxious to pack up and leave. Soon it will be up to the Iraqis to work things out—or fight them out—for themselves. This is exactly the outcome that was probable all along. Does it really justify all the killing and maiming, along with the destabilization of a crucial sector of the Middle East?
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the fighting drags on in what even American military commanders have taken to calling a deteriorating situation. President Obama has begun increasing the troop levels, and the generals are asking for even more. Whether they will get it, in the face of growing unhappiness with the war back home, is anybody’s guess.
Morally speaking, what should one make of all this? I reason as follows.
Afghanistan was a just war at the start, and nothing has happened to change that today. The same overriding consideration applies now that applied in early 2002—the need to spike the terrorist threat in its heartland. American failure would be a calamitous setback for the U.S. and a godsend for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
But for America to succeed in Afghanistan, the war must be waged seriously. The one thing the Obama administration mustn’t do—because it would be a military and moral disaster—is to carry out a token military buildup that would be sure to fail. Fighting a just war halfheartedly isn’t the way of moral sensitivity but the way of national cowardice. If we are going to fight this war at all—and unfortunately we must—we need to fight to win.