Alan Dowd’s recent Providence essay examining the US withdraw from Afghanistan includes a sustained comparison between the Afghan pullout and the 1975 American flight from Vietnam. It’s an apt juxtaposition and is similar to one that the late political ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain made more than a decade ago as she anticipated a US drawdown in Iraq. Even as she mused that critiques against the Vietnam War—including her own—were likely correct, she accepted the moral imperative to recall the fates of those we left behind—those “Vietnamese who signed on with the United States, tens of thousands of whom we abandoned, either to prisons or flimsy rafts or refugee camps.” In light of such dishonorable horrors, Elshtain affirmed the necessity of carefully thinking through an ethics of post-war exit.
This post bellum framework, Elshtain averred, arises out of an ethics of responsibility—an ethic, she noted, that was infused by the just war tradition. In numerous places (including here and here) I have stressed the same, adding to it that the just war tradition itself is a product of a christian realist understanding of creation, fall, restoration, responsibility, and future hope. At the heart of these post-bellum concerns is the question of what responsibility a victorious nation has for the State it has militarily defeated.
In my quiet moments of self-examination, I discover in myself something of a preternatural disinclination to accept, at least in principle, anything approaching a maximalist vision of post-bellum responsibility. I think wrong those who insist, simply and without qualification, that if we break it then we own it and have to pay to have it fixed. Such Pottery Barn maxims are misguided outside, well, the Potter Barn. At the same time, to say that we don’t have any responsibility whatsoever for putting back together a nation that we have broken is most often to say too much—even when regarding a nation that has viciously attacked us with neither cause nor warrant. For an appropriate case, one need only look at the post-war condition in Germany following the Second Word War. What obligations should the Allies have shouldered in the aftermath of the vile aggressions of Naziism?
I’ve written before about the theological dimensions of forgiveness. There’s application here. It’s no fun to say so, but victims have responsibilities. These responsibilities are not necessarily unilateral, indeed sometimes some things—such as attempting reconciliation—mustn’t be unilateral and to make them so might put us in peril as well as wrongly imperil the cause of justice—including potentially hamstringing the ability of the victimizer to move toward repentance. But certain responsibilities nevertheless do remain. Regarding relations between warring nations, one such responsibility that might exist post-bellum can be hinted at if we consider the so-called Responsibility to Protect, an ethic cultivated under the aegis of the United Nations. This mandate holds that “should a nation or a group within a nation be the victim of systematic, egregious, and continuing violence, the international community has a responsibility to guard it against further depredations.” This Responsibility to Protect helps identify when sufficiently deadly enough threats exist in a nation to warrant intervention by other nations. Just so, we can similarly assert that when these same deadly kinds of threats are present in a post-bellum context, that the same responsibility to prevent them also exists.
In light of such considerations, the general scope of Elshtain’s discourse regarding post-bellum responsibilities can be boiled down to providing as much of the assurance of defense and security until the occupied country can provide it on its own as possible. Constituent elements of this responsibility include the relatively low bar of leaving a situation better than when we found it—or at least not worse. Taliban rule was a horror show. But a return to such rule—this time with the added prospect of Taliban revenge killings and punishment of those who aided the US—is likely to inaugurate something even worse. The Allies would rightly never have permitted a Nazi regime to reemerge in Germany. It seems clear, at a minimum, that we mustn’t allow conditions in Afghanistan to collapse to the degree that its citizens once again become victims of the Taliban. Elshtain’s minimalism coheres with Providence contributing editor Eric Patterson’s own modest insistence on the presence of order as the basic ante for characterizing a minimally decent state—and the most modest determinative of a successfully ended war—even when other desirable goods such as justice and reconciliation are out of reach.
It goes without saying that even such a minimally decent state in Afghanistan is a heavy lift and has proved so. Some continue to deny that this should be our concern. In his defense of the US withdrawal, President Biden echoed the sentiments of many when he insisted, “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives.” Respectfully, one has to parse this assertion to the point of equivocation to have any chance of credibly defending it. It’s true that we have managed to avert the kind of large-scale terrorist attack that sent us to Afghanistan in the first place. And it’s certainly true that we smoked a lot of bad guys. But those achievements are past-tense and whether there are any durable present-tense achievements appears increasingly doubtful.
Dowd’s Providence essay mentioned above pairs with yesterday’s by Abijah Crawford to offer grim overviews of the advances the Taliban have already made and the dire predictions of top US and international military and political officials. Continuing reports only affirm the macabre projections involving Taliban territorial gains—potentially as high as 85% of the country—and their battlefield successes—nowhere more graphically illustrated than in the recent video depicting the their execution of surrendered Afghan special forces commandos. In light of the Taliban resurgence, any of the local goods we’ve attained—an Afghan constitution that enshrines democratic principles and human rights, a boosted Afghan economy, increased life-expectancy, decreased infant mortality, the existence of girls’ schools—are not likely to last long past the US departure. These gains are not self-sustaining. They require that minimally decent state that we apparently haven’t the stomach to provide.
This is not Biden’s fault alone. What every US President involved in Afghanistan has seemed unwilling to accept is Elshtain’s and Patterson’s assertion of the criticality of basic human security or, recognizing it, they have lacked the resolve—or ability—to obtain it and ensure its maintenance. Early on, President Bush seemed to get it. Despite having campaigned against state building adventures, by the spring of 2002 he had clearly changed his mind. At the Virginia Military Institute, he admitted:
We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.
Sadly, as is self-evident, the Bush administration did not match their rhetoric with sufficient resources or political will and the US state building efforts simply never went far enough. Providence contributor Paul Miller makes the case for this persuasively (here, here, and most interestingly here), and argues that this facet of American efforts in Afghanistan really only took place between 2008 and 2012.
But just as it’s not Biden’s fault alone, neither is it America’s fault entirely. As Dowd insisted, American efforts in Afghanistan the last 20 years have built a bridge—a very shaky, uncertain, not terribly well-engineered bridge to be sure, but a bridge, nevertheless. Not a bridge to democracy, certainly, but a bridge to becoming that minimally decent state capable of providing their own security and maintaining against both internal and external enemies. The kind of state that even if not a liberal democracy is moving toward such basic liberal principles as providing the coverage for your girls to learn their alphabet. But building such bridges is one thing, getting the Afghans to cross it is another. You can’t help those who don’t want to be helped. Whether or not we can say that about our Afghan partners, however, seems undetermined. It will be up to them.
But even if we set aside the lofty ambition of state-building, Biden’s assertion that we’ve achieved our war aims is wrong simply on the face of it. The Taliban and the terrorist groups they support have not been defeated. At best, they’ve only ever been displaced and quieted. Without the ongoing counter-terrorism activities that, it appears, are only viable with continued US support, those gain, too, will be lost. This underlines that continued commitment to Afghanistan’s security is not American altruism. It is a part of our national security interests.
In closing, two corresponding thoughts. First, our national interests in Afghanistan include not just keeping down the terrorists, but in keeping out rival powers. The basic characteristic of vacuums is that they suck, power vacuums most of all. The hole left by American withdraw will be filled by someone else. Against that certainty, we ought to recognize that it is in our interests–and that our regional allies such as India—to not leave a hole in the first place.
However, all of this seems moot. The ship appears to have sailed. So, secondly, we ought to do the good that we can even as we leave. This includes, at a bare minimum, that we learn the lesson of Vietnam and bring our friends with us. The Biden administration has pledged to evacuate the thousands of interpreters and other Afghans—and their families—whose assistance to US operations in Afghanistan has put them in grave danger. While this is right and honorable, it also matters to national interests. Building a reputation for consistently deserting our allies will make finding them harder the next go-around. American security is best served by a doubtless reputation grounded in the old maxim: no better friend no worse enemy. But, while the right move, there are enough doubts and concerns about how we are going about this that appropriate pressure must be maintained to be sure that we do this right. This is especially important in light of what seems a foreboding admission in Biden’s relocation pledge. The president has insisted that the odds of the “Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” His push to rescue the interpreters, however, would appear to betray his lack of confidence in his own words.