Ambivalence about Afghanistan

Tonight President Obama will give a speech justifying the deployment of an additional 34,000 US troops -- together with an increase in other NATO troops -- to in the mind of the Administration bring to an acceptable conclusion the war in Afghanistan. While I'm not thrilled about this eventuality, I'm not sure how to respond. I'm not a pacifist, so I don't argue on that basis. I am a Christian, however, and I always hope that force/violence can be avoided. I recognize that this is a conflict that the current President didn't start, but he is escalating it. Of course, had we not gone into Iraq when the situation in Afghanistan looked as if it had the potential for stabilization, we might not even be in this situation.

What I'm listening for is an exit strategy, which isn't necessarily a timeline. But what that might look like is a list of achievable objectives that will allow us to leave behind a stable situation that will allow a nation to evolve at its natural pace. We can't impose democracy on a country that remains largely tribal. The recent election, which by most measures was fraudulent, reflects the facts on the ground. The Pashtun majority would do what it could to retain control. Al Qaeda may not be as present in Afghanistan as it once was, and I'm not sure taking the fight to them in Afghanistan is a winnable proposition. But, maybe the point is giving Pakistan breathing room to bring its house in order. My hope is that in the end, knowing that we will be going in, we can help the country unify its security forces and take a step beyond its tribal identity. We can't solve all their problems -- they'll have to step up.

As for parallels to Vietnam -- I think we must be careful about imposing parallels. It may be true that this is a parallel to that earlier war, one that LBJ inherited, but then so did JFK -- in a sense -- but I think we need to give this a bit of time.

The one thing I want to urge my more liberal brothers and sisters to remember is that this is not the end of the world. We would like something different, but don't give up on the process. Remember too that there is no perfect process, and that there are lots of players in this. Don't think that because of this step, Sarah Palin is heading to the White House in 3 years. The commitment has been made, let's see where it goes.

I don't have a good answer to this question, which is why I'm ambivalent, and why I've been largely quiet. I will admit that I do trust the President's judgment -- that he took his time, consulted the proper folks, and took a direction, one he probably doesn't like, but one he believes needs to be taken. Let's pray for a quick end to this.


John said…
I am not ambivalent - we should bring our troops home at the earliest possible date.

Let me start out by saying that I have become a Christian Pacifist. I feel it my responsibility to oppose violence and call for a better strategy - as a Christian I am compelled to believe there is always a better strategy than violence. However, I acknowledge that circumstances may prevent us from finding an appropriate non-violent option it in time, and sometimes violent outcomes are the natural and unavoidable consequences of previous choices.

In Afghanistan however, there are very prudential reasons for our immediate withdrawal. First and foremost is that we have no clear and obtainable objective in remaining. And since we have no clear and obtainable objective in remaining we have no basis on which to determine a suitable "exit strategy".

Afghanistan, like Russia has eventually destroyed anyone who has attempted to subdue it - from Alexander the Great to the Soviet Union - we are no different. It is not, and never has operated as a cohesive nation-state. It is not, and never has been a democracy. It is not, and never has been governable by a central government.

The idea that the United States by force of will and arms could weld the disparate peoples and warlords of Afghanistan into a unified nation under a central government operating on principles of western democracy is foolish if not arrogant, and dangerous, not only to our soldiers, but to our own national fabric, a-la Vietnam.

If instead of paternalistic nation building our intention is merely to oppose the construction of a re-newed Al Qaeda stronghold, prudentially speaking, that objective (if it makes any sense at all given the ease with which such Al Qaeda bases have already been established in Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) can be addressed by ariel surveillance and precision air strikes whenever new bases are discovered in construction.

The option of not only remaining but of increasing our presence however is not defensible from either a prudential or a Christian perspective.

Our presence as a force of unwanted occupiers is a source of growing resentment both within and without Afghanistan. We are accomplishing no significant American security objectives. Instead our troops are targets, at best wandering the countryside shooting at those who shoot at us. And every gun fight costs us and them more than is gained. We die and they die. We kill and they kill. No one wins, everyone loses.

I understand the desire to share our cultural values and the blessings with the Afghan people, but what if they, as a whole, are not interested in surrendering their cultural values?

I also understand that when our troops leave, and they will eventually leave, there will be an internal war of consolidation between the most powerful factions in Afghanistan. It could be a blood bath. It could result in a return to Taliban style oppression (we apparently have no objection to such oppression in Saudi Arabia). Given that we are artificially imposing on their society and government an alien form of government, and propping it up with our troops - its collapse is inevitable when we pull out the support. That is unavoidable unless we remain long enough to subdue the country and nurture the sustained and sustainable growth of western democratic principles.

And if the reason for staying is to respond to domestic political concerns, then shame on us and shame on Mr. Obama. If a decision to pull our troops out of a country we should not be in should cost him his presidency, then so be it. The short term consequences of making right decisions are often costly - that doesn't authorize us to knowingly make bad decisions.

Anonymous said…
This whole thing started because of oil (or an oil pipeline). Is it continuing for economic reasons?

Oh well, the stock market is up- predictably.

I agree with John. I'm not ambivalent. This is insane and it makes the president’s professed concern about health care seem like a joke. Out in 5 yrs- wow.

David Mc
Anonymous said…
I hate to say it, but I agree with John also. (don't take that personal John). We need to get our troops home. Things should have been learned in is you can't force a democracy on a country that really doesn't want it, two is trying to force our cultural values on a country that really doesn't want them. Who is to say that our country has the "right" cultral values anyway, from what I've experienced of Middle Eastern culture, the difference is vast. They don't want to change their culture. They may want to change the political regime...but not their culture. I'm sure they have pride in their culture, as we do in ours.

I was (and to a degree am still) a huge supporter of President Obama, and I'm sure he didn't make this decision lightly but I can't defend him on this. He needs to pull us out of this mess that he didn't start...but can put an end to if he chose to.
Anonymous said…
"Here comes the orator, with his flood of words, and his drop of reason." - Ben Franklin

(not you John)
I appreciate the view that we should get out now -- both from a moral and an economic sense. I don't think that we can ultimately import democracy to a country -- that belief was what got us into wars like Vietnam and Iraq.

I'm ambivalent about Afghanistan, because I think we had the chance to at least give the people there a chance at stability. Although the Saudi system is deplorable, it's not the same as the Taliban system. What we need to understand about all of these examples is that this is likely less about Islam and more about tribal identity.

Anyway, I feel the need to not abandon a President I believe has potential to grow into a great leader. He is, by nature, cautious, which maybe why he's taking this direction. But let's see what he says!
Anonymous said…
"Change you can believe in" - Obama
Has anything really changed? We are once again sending more troops to a Muslim country. Guantanamo is still open, we are still in Iraq, and whatever happened to the oil "windfall tax"? As for health care, when was a public option EVER talked about during the election? We are bailing out more companies and Wall Street (Goldman Sachs) is all over the economy.

As one with a more conservative/libertarian bent, I find this conversation fascinating. I supported the Iraq war based on the evidence given at the time. Saddam was far from a nice guy and I do believe in justice. This was is even more confusing and interesting. What exactly are we fighting and who are fighting? At least in Iraq it was pretty clear.. this seems crazy. How would we even know we won? How would we know when to pull out? Exactly how is the war bringing about justice?

No offense Bob, but to be ambivalent is sort of a weak answer. Basically like taking a pass. This will be the hardest sell yet for Obama b/c no one "gets anything"(read free health care, mortgage money, car money, bailouts, etc) and will be fascinating to watch.

Chuck, you may be right -- I'm taking a pass here.

I think that what we're fighting for is giving Pakistan enough help so they can secure their country. I think this is less about Afghanistan than it is Pakistan and the specter of a hostile government with nuclear capability.

I'm ambivalent because I'm not a pacifist and thus can't give a good answer to the question of why be there or why get out. I don't think there are any good answers.
Anonymous said…
Bob.. I respect a pass over someone either repeating a "party line" without any thought behind it. I am with you too about taking a pass on this one. My personal feeling is there is SO MUCH we don't know and how great the threat is. It is why I was willing to give Bush a partial pass and would do the same with Obama in regards to areas we will never know the full story.
All that said.. whoa be to Obama if he is timing this issue with the Health Care debate... but I don't think thats the case. It is something that could be implied.

John said…
"I'm not a pacifist and thus can't give a good answer to the question of why be there or why get out."

Bob, Bob,

You can do better than this. Where is your prophetic voice? If there is no good reason to be there, then we shouldn't be sacrificing lives until a good reason comes along. The 'default' position must be withdrawal not inertia.

If the reason for our continuing presence is to provide a backstop to the internal Pakistani campaign then we should say so; then at least we would have SOME reason for being there (even if very limited) and some notion of the circumstances justifying our departure. Moreover, if that is the reason then we should be overtly working in tandem with Pakistani forces to secure the objective.

But you have offered no justification for your equivocation other than what seems to be your implicit position of 'my president right or wrong.' Not a good position for a prophet to take.

I hate to be too strong in my critical of the host and of my dear friend, but, like Gary, I have to speak what I perceive the truth to be.

Anonymous said…
"I'm ambivalent because I'm not a pacifist"

These repeated statements surpass all understanding. Did Jesus worry about being seen as weak? Quite the opposite if I recall. If we justify this war as being compassionate somehow (war is peace?) I guess that would be some sort of ironic, but twisted logic. Too many innocents have suffered already however and many more are sure to now. Don't be blind to this.

I think Obama got bad advice. Let's save the tough talk, the money, and our young men and woman for when the stuff really hits the fan.

If we continue to justify violence and suffering this way, we are living by the sword. Let's try harder to imagine God's will. He’s obviously not guiding all the shells and bullets for us. David Mc

To speak prophetically, one must have a sense that he or she has a word from the Lord to give. My ambivalence comes from the fact that I simply don't have that word present in my heart and mind. 8 years ago I expressed my opposition to entering conflict in Afghanistan. I did the same when we entered Iraq. In a previous pastorate I was severely criticized for not using patriotic hymns after 9-11, but instead spoke of the need to pursue peace and healing.

Perhaps I'm a bit snake bit here. More likely, I'm letting the President take this path, because we're in so deep, we need to find a way out. This isn't perfect, but it's the choice we seem to be left with.

I agree we need to attend to things at home, but can we afford to be isolationists? We don't have to be imperialists -- the former view -- but can we simply pull out? I'm not sure we can.

Again, we broke this -- with support from many of Obama's critics. He feels this is the best way we can fix it -- even if not perfectly.
John said…
"To speak prophetically, one must have a sense that he or she has a word from the Lord to give."

That is true. And you say that you are not a pacifist. Which together raises the question of whether you are open to a word from the Lord which may be calling you to pacifism.

For me, I equivocated on this for a long time, until I realized that there really was no middle ground for the Lord. Violence is simply anathema to the Lord. Vengeance is reserved to the Lord. Besides there are always enough folks exclaiming in favor of war and violence; what is need ed is a more robust voice calling for non-violence.

Are we to become doormats? Perhaps, in the most extreme of circumstances. Jesus allowed himself to be hung on a cross.

Certainly we humans have flaws that he did not have, such as our heartfelt need for personal security and to defend our homes and families. Are these stumbling blocks any less formidable than the wealth of the rich man?

John said…
Just because we broke it doesn't mean we are called to fix it, or that we are capable of fixing it. But Afghanistan was always a backward nation. I am not sure we did all that much damage.

The nation we truly broke was Iraq.


I think you sell me short -- I'm very open to the pacifist message. I have thought very long and hard on this, and I don't think there are any good choices. Am I saying that this is a position that I take on the basis of my discipleship -- no, I can't say that. I say this on the basis of my own human fraility. The same human fraility that prevents me from speaking a clarion on a lot of issues that would likely get me fired in a minute. Since I'm not appointed by a bishop, who has sole power to remove me, I must always remain cautious in my statements. Remember I got criticized because I didn't pray for the vets on Memorial Day -- and Memorial Day isn't even about veterans.

But, as to the issue at hand, I have, as I noted, strongly opposed the Iraq War and opposed the initial activities in Afghanistan. I'm not pro-war, but having been there for 8 years and having given the Afghan people a sense that we would be there for them, to pull out now (which few are suggesting) would probably be a disaster. Obama is adding troops, so that the troops there now can complete their job -- a job that the previous administration left to its own devices.

So, you may not like Obama's decision. That is your right to oppose it. I'm not thrilled, but at this point in time, I am trusting his judgment.
John said…
Life is complicated. Often we cannot say or do what we know should be said or done.


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