If anything good is going to come from the WikiLeaks affair—the Internet dump of thousands of purloined classified documents from the war in Afghanistan along with their release to several print media—it will be that the incident provoked serious discussion of a fundamental question: What are we trying to accomplish in Afghanistan?
I say that as someone who has publicly supported this conflict as a war we have to win. Without retracting that judgment yet, I’ve lately begun to wonder whether the judgment—based as it is on the purpose of the war—still holds good. The possibility of achieving military success I leave to people with military expertise. The fundamental goal underlying the struggle is a question in which every concerned citizen has a stake.
People who try to think about such matters in just war terms—that includes me—hold that a morally acceptable war must have, among other things, a purpose which is reasonable, proportionate, and achievable. With the passing of time, it’s become less clear that our purpose in Afghanistan is any of those things.
It wasn’t so at the start, nearly nine years ago, when the reason for military action seemed obvious. America had suffered a grievous terrorist attack by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan gave sanctuary to al-Qaeda and wouldn’t back down. To get at al-Qaeda, something necessary in self-defense, the U.S. and its allies would have to take on the Taliban, too. Hence the invasion.
The situation was very different from Iraq, where the leaders of the American government offered an ever-changing kaleidoscope of reasons for war and the most persuasive of these—weapons of mass destruction—evaporated when it turned out the weapons didn’t exist. Significantly, by the way, Pope John Paul II supported the military action in Afghanistan, but he vigorously and publicly opposed it in Iraq.
That was then. So why are we in Afghanistan now? A senator says the war is being fought “for the future of Afghanistan.” I wish Afghanistan well, but why is it up to America to fight for its future? Michael Gerson, a commentator whose views I generally respect, says the interests of Afghan women will suffer a setback if we pull out. The advancement of Afghan women is a worthy cause, but it isn’t clear that warfare waged largely by the American military is the best way to promote it.
These days, the catchall term for objectives like these is nation building. But surely, with the lessons of Iraq fresh before us, it ought to be clear by now that using force to create nations with working democratic structures in countries with little or no prior experience of democracy is not an obligation of the United States and, as a practical matter, something that exceeds our capabilities.
If we are to remain in Afghanistan—and I do not argue now for cut and run—it’s essential to re-establish that we are engaged there in fighting the war on terror and not in a war for women’s rights or the creation of a democratic polity in a land unaccustomed to such a thing.
The war on terror, essentially defensive in nature, is a war responsible Americans can support. But Osama bin Laden is hiding out in a remote area of Pakistan, and al-Qaeda is operating in Yemen and Somalia. It’s not self-evident why we’re spending lives and treasure somewhere else. The case for war in Afghanistan needs to be made.