By George Clifford
Increasing violence in Afghanistan represents a significantly different problem than did the violence in Iraq. In Iraq, the recent surge in the number of United States armed forces appears to have produced results. In fact, those results are much more a function of paying Sunnis not to fight (the Awakening Movement), Sunnis and Shiites having largely segregated themselves, Shiites having at least temporarily resolved their internal differences, and growing internal exhaustion and opposition to al Qaeda perpetuated violence. Experts unanimously agree that the United States has never had sufficient troops on the ground in Iraq actually to end the insurgency. Some diminution of violence in Iraq is even attributable to the near unanimous sentiment among Iraqis that the U.S. should leave Iraq. Hence, some Iraqis have exercised restraint, postponing vendettas and attempts to grab power, hoping that the deceptive calm will encourage the U.S. to expedite repatriation of its forces.
In contrast to Iraq, the different characteristics and roots of the continuing violence in Afghanistan include:
• Although Afghanistan like Iraq has no real history as a nation its tribal and ethnic divisions are even deeper and more difficult to bridge than those in Iraq;
• Islam has historically united Afghanis who declare de facto truces in their internal disputes until they succeed in expelling foreign invaders, e.g., the Mongols, the British, the Soviets, and now the United States;
• Afghanistan’s central governments have consistently wielded little power, deferring to regional warlords;
• Geography significantly enhances the ability of Afghan warlords to grab and to keep power;
• Literacy and economic prosperity are at much lower levels than in Iraq, making establishing democracy far less likely than in Iraq (where the effort failed);
• Pashtuns, who comprise 40% of Afghanis, also live in large numbers in Pakistan yet unlike Iraqi Kurds have not achieved any autonomy;
• Afghanistan’s largely rural population adheres to a more conservative form of Islam than do most Iraqis, creating more sympathy for both the Taliban and al Qaeda;
• Afghanis take great pride in eventually ousting from their ruggedly mountainous terrain all foreign invaders for the last fifteen centuries and now view the U.S. and its NATO allies as foreign invaders.
In sum, relatively minor increases in the number of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan (seven thousand or even a hundred thousand) will not permanently alter our inability to impose the regime of our choice on the Afghanis. The Karzai government does not and has not ever had the ability to govern Afghanistan.
From a moral perspective, the U.S. needs to take several important steps. First, the U.S. must begin to speak the truth about the situation in Afghanistan. The elections did not create democracy. Without external backing (money and military might), the Karzai government would either openly function as one among several warlords or have ceased to exist. Second, the U.S. needs to focus on the primary reason it invaded Afghanistan, that is, to destroy al Qaeda. Third, the U.S., through the application of excessive force intended to protect its own military personnel, increasingly alienates Afghanis. The recent acknowledgment that an attack on the Taliban resulted in thirty plus noncombatant deaths is only one example of this. All humans are of equal worth in God's sight. A military operation that requires valuing U.S. lives above those of others cannot satisfy the just war criteria of proportionality (the good achieved outweighs the harm done) and of noncombatant immunity (only attack enemy combatants).
In view of the above, the U.S. must rapidly develop an exit strategy that will minimize the loss of life on all sides. Prolonged occupation of Afghanistan lacks both moral justification and a reasonable chance of success, however one might define that term. Concurrently, the U.S., NATO, and their international partners should employ force to apprehend or destroy morally legitimate targets (e.g., Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda training camps). This use of force must always satisfy a high moral standard (attacking only well-identified targets, inserting and then quickly removing troops once the attack is completed, balancing force protection fairly with the imperative to protect non-combatants, etc.). Adhering to this pattern of operations demonstrates that the U.S. does not want to occupy Muslim territory, does not want to impose Western culture on Muslims, but will defend itself against terrorists in a forcefully and morally appropriate manner.
The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.