There were no morally unambiguous options, no innocent choices, facing President Joe Biden when it came to deciding what to do about the 20-year U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan that has cost the lives of nearly 2,500 U.S. troops, 3,800 U.S. security contractors, 100,000 Afghan civilians, some number of allied NATO personnel (a detail that never seems to be mentioned in our media, which is telling), and more than $2 trillion.
If Biden had abandoned the deal struck by former president Donald Trump and decided to retain U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with the intent of maintaining the status quo, possibly the Taliban could have been prevented from gaining total control of the country for a while longer. The gains that have occurred in Afghanistan during these two decades for women’s rights, press freedom, access to education, and other important human rights and values might have continued. Meanwhile, the Afghans who had worked with U.S. and NATO officials would have continued to be safe (at least where the Taliban did not control the area) and would have felt no need to flee their country. Those were, and are, genuine, crucial goods, and the likelihood that they will all be lost under the Taliban is a genuine tragedy.
However, given the weakness of the Afghan government and military, and the gradual gains of the Taliban before the U.S. announced its departure, and despite the U.S. presence and support, it is not clear how long it would have been before the Taliban closed in on the victory they now have won.
It is also true that many in the United States, insofar as they thought about Afghanistan at all, were ready for our mission there to end, and in a democracy a war cannot be sustained forever apart from the support of the population.
That’s partly because of the basic human instinct to assess what moralists call proportionality — whether the good achieved by a course of action exceeds the bad.
A war that was at first about crushing Al Qaeda and capturing or killing Osama bin Laden — goals that were widely supported by the public and were achieved years ago — then became extended to a decades-long military presence to fight off the Taliban and protect a weak allied government and semi-liberalized Afghanistan. That extension ultimately was judged by many Americans, by this president, and by the one before him, to be no longer worth the cost.
“That extension ultimately was judged by many Americans, by this president, and by the one before him, to be no longer worth the cost.”
All leaders face proportionality judgment calls from time to time, and when they do, they are rightly held to account by the people they serve. That will be the case for Biden here. To say that the war in Afghanistan no longer was proportionate was not to say that its goods were not genuine goods, but instead to conclude that these goods were not enough to offset its evils, most notably the loss of American lives. If most Americans end up disagreeing with this judgment, the president will pay a serious price.
There were, of course, visible operational problems and now, consequent negative judgments of U.S. and presidential competence — judgments sometimes made by people who know Afghanistan, diplomacy, war, visas and refugee issues, and often by people who do not. It is easy to shoot from the hip about such things, especially if it is in one’s political interests to do so.
Disturbing claims, difficult opportunities
I have been disturbed by claims from our allies that this NATO mission was abandoned without adequate consultation with our NATO allies, which is corrosive of the alliance and has risked allied personnel; by the apparent U.S. intelligence failure related to how fast the Afghan military and government could and would collapse, making one wonder whether we had any idea who we were dealing with in Afghanistan after 20 years; and by the lack of a ready-in-place plan for evacuating all the people who would want to leave if the government suddenly collapsed.
Moving forward, though, if the U.S. military can run a massive, successful airlift of the 80,000 or so people who are expected to want to leave, if the Taliban decide it is ultimately in their interest to let that happen, and if the U.S. and the world can welcome far more refugees than governments earlier had planned or anticipated, the outcome of the immediate emergency will be about as good as one could hope — and will speak well of the competence and character of the U.S. and other governments and people. But this will be very hard to achieve.
“There were no morally unambiguous options, no innocent choices, facing then-President George W. Bush in the days after Sept. 11.”
The events we are witnessing today are the culmination of decisions made after 9/11. In the face of the carnage of these last two decades in Afghanistan, it is predictable that some will be reinforced in their rejection of all military action by Christians or indeed by anyone anywhere, and their special condemnation of the military activities of the United States around the world as little more than foolish imperialism.
But I would submit that there were no morally unambiguous options, no innocent choices, facing then-President George W. Bush in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, when he had to decide how to respond to the horrific attacks on New York and Washington that claimed nearly 3,000 lives and terrorized the nation and the world.
What if Bush had not responded?
If Bush had failed to respond to the attacks, he would have been drummed out of office as having abdicated his duties. But at a moral level, as British ethicist Nigel Biggar argues in his 2013 book In Defence of War, if Bush had refused to respond with force to 9/11, that would have represented a “failure to care for something that deserves to be cared for,” a failure to demonstrate proper moral valuation of the lives taken — and still threatened — by those intent on lethal violence.
“If Al Qaeda had been left free to perpetrate further terrorist attacks, this itself would have been wrong.”
I am arguing that if Bush had turned out to be a Christian pacifist, if he had taken no action to respond to 9/11, this itself would not have been morally innocent. That’s because he would have failed to respond to the loss of thousands or to protect the lives of the civilian population of the United States, for which he was responsible as president. If Al Qaeda had been left free to perpetrate further terrorist attacks, this itself would have been wrong. As Biggar writes: “On the one hand going to war causes terrible evils, but on the other hand not going to war permits them.”
Both those clauses are true. Wars, including this one, repeatedly demonstrate that even a morally justifiable effort to respond to murderous aggression and prevent it from happening again often unfolds in worsening spirals. A terrorist attack that took 3,000 American lives was responded to by a war that took 6,300 American and 100,000 Afghan lives.
Traditions of just peacemaking, to which my friend Glen Stassen contributed so greatly, know about all of this. They attend to creating the conditions for a durable just peace within and between nations, rather than focusing solely on abstaining from or prosecuting war. That work of just peacemaking, including fostering just and sustainable economic development, cooperative conflict resolution, reconciling dialogues about historic injustices and violence, and human rights, will continue in Afghanistan for years to come:
Probably the U.S. government will have nothing to do with it. But intrepid souls of all types will be doing it. Indeed, we can be sure they already are.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. He serves as Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and is the past president of both The American Academy of Religion and The Society of Christian Ethics. He’s the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
Afghanistan: A tragic example of an unjust war | Analysis by Chris Conley
Blame me for the situation in Afghanistan | Opinion by Craig Nash
Afghanistan and America: Bloodlust and the failure of prophetic imagination | Opinion by Wendell Griffen