What's Tony Thinking

How To Make the War in Afghanistan Popular Again: End It


These days, one might think that until Joe Biden made the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and call it quits, the war was guided by sound strategy and we were on cusp of victory. Indeed, Presidents and generals had told us exactly that year after year. Biden called the thing what it is: a failure. For what “failure” means in this context see the comments of Andrew Bacevich here in a previous blog.

In calling it quits, Biden has galvanized the Afghan War’s remaining supporters and transformed many of those who quietly criticized the conduct of the war into protectors of this great cause. We didn’t know the 20 year war was such a necessary and sacred endeavor until someone said, “It’s over. That’s it. Time to wrap it up.”

I’m no expert on Afghanistan or this war. But I have noticed, in my own field of endeavor — pastoral ministry and church leadership — that there is no surer way to galvanize support for a program or project that should have ended years ago than to actually pull the plug.

Never mind that the Women’s Missionary Alliance or Pilgrim Youth Fellowship or Camp Frog Pond had been on life-support for years, that it is ill-suited to the present time, or that not even its erstwhile supporters, or their offspring, participated in it any longer. Should you move to eliminate it, it would turn out to be the most important thing the church does. By calling it quits you were, moreover, betraying it’s glorious founders and denigrating hallowed memory.

There is, of course, no equivalence between these church-world examples and a foreign war. But there does seem to be a similar dynamic afoot now that Biden has dared to call a thing what it is — a failure, or at least a venture whose time has come.

But, as Ezra Klein, has pointed out, now Biden is conveniently the problem, the scapegoat. The defeat in Afghanistan is his doing. Here’s Klein,

“Focusing on the execution of the withdrawal is giving virtually everyone who insisted we could remake Afghanistan the opportunity to obscure their failures by pretending to believe in the possibility of a graceful departure. It’s also obscuring the true alternative to withdrawal: endless occupation. But what our ignominious exit really reflects is the failure of America’s foreign policy establishment at both prediction and policymaking in Afghanistan.

“‘The pro-war crowd sees this as a mechanism by which they can absolve themselves of an accounting for the last 20 years,’ Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, told me. ‘Just think about the epic size of this policy failure. Twenty years of training. More than $2 trillion worth of expenditure. For almost nothing. It is heartbreaking to watch these images, but it is equally heartbreaking to think about all of the effort, of lives and money we wasted in pursuit of a goal that was illusory.'”

In 1931 there was a famous debate about a tough issue of the day in the pages of The Christian Century. Two brothers, both theologians, Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, squared off over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and U.S. response.

The more well known of the two, Reinhold, advocated U.S. intervention in Manchuria where the Japanese invasion had, indeed, been brutal. His brother, H. Richard, argued against U.S. intervention.

H. Richard responded to his brother’s call to arms by saying, “Just because we (the U.S.) aren’t doing something doesn’t mean nothing is being done.” So saying, he challenged his brother’s assumption, or maybe presumption, that the U.S. and its military and it alone, should and could right the wrong of Japanese aggression.

We seem to keep being invited to learn the lesson that the younger brother was urging upon the elder. Our power is great, but our control is limited. Having great power doesn’t mean things will turn out the way you think they should. Just because you don’t do something doesn’t mean nothing is being done. Others forces and actors are at work, especially in foreign countries. To overestimate our powers and underestimate all else seems an American foible that we can’t shake.

By putting all the focus on the messy and now bloody withdrawal from Afghanistan, and casting unremitting blame on the administration, the larger issue — an ill-conceived war without an achievable mission — is conveniently eclipsed, obscured, forgotten. “Joe Biden has humiliated America.” Well, if that’s true and I’m not sure it is, he had a lot of help.

Ezra Klein once more: “We do not understand other countries well enough to remake them according to our ideals. We don’t even understand our own country well enough to achieve our ideals.”

The choice, as Klein writes, is not between isolationism and militarism. There are other ways to be of influence. But all of them involve a certain humility or modesty about our knowledge, our certainties, and our virtue. They involve the humbling realization that just because we aren’t doing something, it doesn’t mean that nothing is being done.



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