A Just War or An Unjust Peace

Dennis Sanders

Dennis is the pastor of a small Protestant congregation outside St. Paul, MN and also a part-time communications consultant. A native of Michigan, you can check out his writings over on Medium and subscribe to his Substack newsletter on religion and politics called Polite Company.  Dennis lives in Minneapolis with his husband Daniel.

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62 Responses

  1. Chip Daniels
    Ignored
    says:

    This is unfortunately an example of how the motte of “We should have left in a better way” slides into the bailey of “We should have stayed forever”.

    Every argument by Applebaum and Young about how we are in danger from terrorists fails on the fact that there are Afghanistans all around the world, lawless places loosely held by local warlords.

    Not only that, but, even the 9-11 attacks themselves didn’t need Afghanistan- much of the planning and organizing was done in places like Florida and Boston.

    And even within the context of this argument about the justness of war and peace, one of the conditions of Just War theory is that it be achievable, which this was clearly not.

    Only a tiny minority of Afghans actually wanted to fight against the Afghans- we have witnessed this with breathtaking clarity last week.
    It simply isn’t possible, was never possible, to free Afghanistan from a force that the very people themselves would accept.

    I’m afraid that we are going to see more of this sort of argument, a constant drumbeat of interventionism where we are urged to play the role of Pax Americana and rule the world.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Chip Daniels
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      says:

      This, and the fact that Americans are not practiced at, and frankly don’t have the stomach for, empire.

      There’s this idea that just because we turned Japan around after WW2, we could do that anywhere. But everyone forgets the state of Japan at the time and the commitment we made to the country. Sure, we were in Afghanistan for 20 years, but there was no MacArthur directing a central plan. It’s just been a series of colonels & generals who get changed out every couple of years as Congress and the Pentagon get bored and want to put a new stamp on things because a new SecDef or Joint Chiefs is in charge.

      Frankly, we suck at nation building, and we really shouldn’t be trying to.Report

      • Philip H in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        Frankly, we suck at nation building, and we really shouldn’t be trying to.

        Examples abound. Iran under the Shah; Iraq post Sadam; Afghanistan; hell even Haiti. Or most of Central American in the 1980’s.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        It depends what you mean by nation-building. In fact, that’s a term we probably shouldn’t use at all. It implies a comparison between some place we just finished bombing to, say, 17th century France. We should be comparing the place to what was there before, or we could realistically hope the place to become.

        We don’t want to be empire-builders, and we haven’t been (outside the 50). We can’t be civilization-builders, because it takes time and a mindset we don’t have. We can be improvers. And actually, before we condemn America’s nation-building, we have to acknowledge the success of our efforts in Japan.Report

        • Philip H in reply to Pinky
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          says:

          Japan is the wrong comparison, in as much as we had bombed them into submission, and after surrender they followed our leads for a variety of cultural and economic reasons. They wanted to be rebuilt in a way we could work with.Report

        • InMD in reply to Pinky
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          says:

          I don’t think Japan, West Germany, or even South Korea are apples to apples. These nations already existed and had strong senses of themselves. Korea was messier but Japan and Germany also both were highly advanced countries with modern administrative states before we got there. It’s also maybe notable that we were willing to let S. Korea be a military dictatorship until its people chose democracy in the 80s. Bottom line is we weren’t starting from scratch like we are in these tribal and/or highly sectarian societies held together only by dictatorship or patronage.Report

        • Pinky in reply to Pinky
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          says:

          I chose Japan specifically and I think it’s a great example. We didn’t “nation-build” Germany, agreed. It was already a nation, and more civilized than America. We gave them a boatload of money, guarded their borders, and replaced only the worst of them. Likewise, we protected South Korea. permitting it to get caught up in the East Asian Miracle. We did rebuild some of Japan, but also built plenty of it, governmentally, culturally, economically.Report

          • Philip H in reply to Pinky
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            says:

            We did rebuild some of Japan, but also built plenty of it, governmentally, culturally, economically.

            I’m assuming you are joking, because if not the amount of hubris and blind exceptionalism in your statement is staggering.

            The country was economically, culturally and governmentally capable of waging a war that got all the way to Hawaii and conquered hefty chunks of China and Korea. we needed to rebuild all the stuff we bombed turning that back, but they were already a modern for the time county, ripe for said rebuilding – especially since they were also experiencing a blindingly huge amount of internalized shame after their defeat.

            But sure, Japan is an analogue of Afghanistan.Report

          • Greginak in reply to Pinky
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            says:

            The Japanese were terrified of the soviets. Same with the Germans
            We went from enemy to protector from the soviets fast. They wanted us over the soviets. We did not have that advantage in Iraq or Afghanistan .Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        Even after the devestation of World War II, Japan is a very different place than Afghanistan. Japan was the most modernized and industrialized country in Asia with a strong central government and an active civic life. They already had at least some practice with liberal democratic institutions even if flawed. The population was literate and well-educated by world standards at the time. This made reforming Japan a lot easier than Afghanistan because we were starting from a stronger base.Report

        • Philip H in reply to LeeEsq
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          says:

          The biggest issue with Afghanistan – as with many middle eastern or near eastern countries – is they exist because various European powers wanted them carved up that way to control resource extraction. They aren’t really cohesive countries in the Western sense and thus always started on a different side of the 8 ball . . .Report

  2. CJColucci
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    says:

    Ought implies can. The Taliban running Afghanistan, to the extent anyone can “run” Afghanistan, sucks for the Afghanis, but, to be blunt about it, who “runs” Afghanistan matters far more to the immediate parties than it could possibly matter to us. As an old soldier once told me, unless you’re prepared to exterminate the brutes, a war is over when the loser says it’s over. And short of a war for national survival, a war of extermination is both impracticable and immoral.
    So what, exactly, can we do about the unfortunate condition of Afghanistan? At a price rational actors would be willing to pay. If you mean endless war, have the guts to say so. If you mean something else, say something specific enough to grapple with. No ponies.Report

  3. Chris
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    says:

    “More to the point, even if we are not interested in any of these nations and their brutal politics, they are interested in us. They see the wealthy societies of America and Europe as obstacles to be cleared out of their way.”

    This is exactly the sort of ridiculous thinking that got us into this mess. The Taliban saw as as obstacles, alright: obstacles in their country. Even when in power, they made no attempts at expanding out of Afghanistan. There’s no reason to believe they have designs on global domination, particularly when their own country is difficult enough to rule. The same is true for pretty much every country we’ve been engaged in some level of “forever war” with, or within.

    Argh, that is infuriating. People who say such things should never be listened to again, on any subject whatsoever.Report

  4. Saul Degraw
    Ignored
    says:

    The problem with the current state of media/punditry is that it can complain but not come up with any alternatives. The media, the defense industry, and the foreign policy establishment (aka the blob) are all saying that there could have been a better way or should have been one. They never say what that better way is and I think would go on the defensive if you asked them. They have created a whole defense to ensure they are never asked that question.

    The State Department has been advising Americans to leave Afghanistan for a month. Why did people remain including media? How much time has the media dedicated to Afghanistan for the last two years compared to the last week? Why do we call mercenaries contractors now?

    Biden is correct. If not now, when? And then answer is likely years down the road with more money wasted on a failed endevor and bloated corpse but with more defense contractors getting to remodel their kitchens so it contains a Viking Range or Aga Range. The whole thing is rot.Report

  5. Chip Daniels
    Ignored
    says:

    Courtesy Anne Laurie over at Balloon Juice, here is Sarah Chayes, writing about her decade long experience of working inside Afghanistan, and her experiences with the government there.
    https://www.sarahchayes.org/post/the-ides-of-august

    A different perspective, from a Marine who served:
    https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/readers-opinion/guest-commentary/article253641358.html?scrolla=5eb6d68b7fedc32c19ef33b4Report

  6. Chip Daniels
    Ignored
    says:

    Courtesy Anne Laurie over at Balloon Juice, here is Sara Chayes writing about her decade long experience of working in Afghanistan, living there and speaking their language:
    https://www.sarahchayes.org/post/the-ides-of-august

    and here is the perspective of a MArine who served there:
    https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/readers-opinion/guest-commentary/article253641358.html?scrolla=5eb6d68b7fedc32c19ef33b4Report

  7. Mike Schilling
    Ignored
    says:

    Presidents Trump and Biden wanted out of Afghanistan. They wanted it so badly that they were willing to make a deal with a devil, the Taliban, in order to wash their hands of the matter.

    “They” didn’t make the February 2020 deal; only one did. By the time Biden became president, that deal was old news, because of it the Afghan military had dissolved itself, and the alternatives were leaving or starting all over. Does anyone really think the latter could succeed?Report

  8. North
    Ignored
    says:

    I’ve noticed (possibly imagined) a note of apprehension creeping into the media howling about the Afghanistan withdrawal. Now that over thirty thousand people have been evacuated and the number keeps climbing without a major casualty debacle for the west the wheels on the “the withdrawal was a disaster” narrative have started to wobble a bit. Especially as we’re learning more and more about the details of the withdrawal: the weapons lost had been given to the Afghanistan army and thus couldn’t be removed; the westerners in Kabul had been warned months ago to leave and, as they are free people, couldn’t be compelled to depart etc.

    Biden definitely got caught flat footed by the optics but it seems to me that if things keep going the way they are going it’s going to get increasingly hard to sustain the “withdrawal was a debacle” narrative.Report

    • CJColucci in reply to North
      Ignored
      says:

      Biden definitely got caught flat footed by the optics but it seems to me that if things keep going the way they are going it’s going to get increasingly hard to sustain the “withdrawal was a debacle” narrative.

      Sadly, it won’t be hard at all. Your mistake is assuming that facts matter.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to North
      Ignored
      says:

      if things keep going the way they are going it’s going to get increasingly hard to sustain the “withdrawal was a debacle” narrative.

      I imagine that the “debacle” people will just have to show articles that talk about people falling from planes. If they are allowed to quote European leadership, they’ll also have a leg up. (Maybe “who gives a crap what Germany thinks?” would work?)Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird
        Ignored
        says:

        Tell us all the story about people falling from planes in a way that makes Biden look bad.

        Start with what alternative course would have prevented that.Report

        • Andrew Donaldson in reply to Chip Daniels
          Ignored
          says:

          For your specific question, a secure airfield, preferably two, which proper preparation would have considered.

          Biden the president isn’t wholly responsible for the bad deal and arbitrary deadline (and Taliban wanted, BTW, a massive failure of the Trump admin to agree to leave in the prime o fighting season but I digress) he was handed when he got into office. Biden as commander in chief is not blameless in how this withdraw happened. If nobodies like me could read reports in mid-June how the Taliban already had taken half the country and publicly stated you had two months or less till they had the rest, they should have known and prepared better.Report

          • Chip Daniels in reply to Andrew Donaldson
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            says:

            This a fair point, and I don’t have enough expertise to say if it is accurate or not.

            But you’ve at least put forward your alternate, which about 0.0% of critics have.Report

            • Andrew Donaldson in reply to Chip Daniels
              Ignored
              says:

              I try to be fair, as best I canReport

            • Michael Cain in reply to Chip Daniels
              Ignored
              says:

              No. By the time Biden took office, he was down to 2,500 troops (of unknown mix) and Bagram. How many troops would Andrew deploy and how many casualties would he accept in order to retake Kandahar or (more likely necessary) one of the western airfields? How much material and personnel loss to secure it, bring in tens of thousands of people claiming sanctuary, and airlift them out? How many embassy and NGO staff when the Taliban says, “You violated the agreement, gloves off.”?

              No matter what anyone says, the losses to this point are small compared to a single suicide bomber (or shoulder-launched SAM) taking out a C-17 full of people.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Andrew Donaldson
            Ignored
            says:

            10,900 people have been evacuated from Kabul in the last 12 hours and 48,000 in the past nine days.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
          Ignored
          says:

          Chip, the proposition was not “the stories about people falling from planes make Biden look bad”.

          The proposition was “the stories about people falling from planes bolster the narrative that the withdrawal was a debacle”.

          And… yeah, I’m pretty sure that I could argue that fairly well.

          The idea that the Afghanistan withdrawal was the best we could have hoped for is panglossian. And I’m not using the term in the complimentary way.Report

          • Chip Daniels in reply to Jaybird
            Ignored
            says:

            You COULD argue for it, but you very pointedly aren’t.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
              Ignored
              says:

              Because I care more about leaving Afghanistan than about leaving it well.

              You can’t make an omelet.

              Edit: Now, if you want me to say that it’s unfair that Biden is getting tarred with the fact that the withdrawal is a debacle, I’ll say that. I think that there are a ton of heads that need to roll because of this. It’s not Biden’s fault. He’s innocent. But Biden’s innocence doesn’t point to the withdrawal not being a debacle.Report

      • North in reply to Jaybird
        Ignored
        says:

        Oh sure, a few Afghanis falling from planes will make the neocons and their enablers stroke their chins and nod sagely in agreement that withdrawal was botched but if that ends up being the enumeration of the casualties from withdrawal the general voters won’t give a damn.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to North
          Ignored
          says:

          I think that the narrative that the withdrawal was botched is a separate one from the whole “is it good that we’re no longer there?” question.

          It is exceptionally possible to hold, at the same time, these two propositions:

          1. It is good that we are no longer in Afghanistan
          2. Man, the withdrawal was botched, though

          It seems to me that the best play is something like “you wanted us out of Afghanistan, hey. VIOLA! You can’t make an omelet!”

          This whole “well, sure, some bad things are happening but our current withdrawal from Afghanistan is the best case scenario and people who don’t agree with me are somewhere between ‘wrong’ and ‘bad'” doesn’t seem to be effective at persuading others. (Granted, everyone I’ve seen use it seems to be exceptionally persuaded by it.)Report

          • North in reply to Jaybird
            Ignored
            says:

            Quite possibly so. I don’t think the “big withdrawal botch” will hold up well unless the casualty math changes a lot with a lot more deaths on the ledger and, to be crass, deaths of people that the voters would care about dying.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to North
              Ignored
              says:

              I see “people caring” as a different proposition than “the withdrawal was the best one that we could have possibly expected, given the fallen and sinful world we live in”.

              I mean, I think that there are a bunch of intel guys and military brass that need to be fired because of this debacle.

              The argument that this is not a debacle and is, instead, about as well as we could have possibly expected is an argument that doesn’t think that anybody should so much as get a letter of reprimand for this.Report

              • North in reply to Jaybird
                Ignored
                says:

                I am inclined to agree with that. I hope that we get treated to the spectacle of a line of civil servants and military brass streaming out of the Pentagon and various office buildings, boxes in arm. I don’t know if I’m willing to pay for it though. I fear the price tag is too high.Report

              • InMD in reply to North
                Ignored
                says:

                It would be nice but I think it’s unlikely. The length of time this has gone on is one of the more confounding factors is assessing accountability.Report

              • North in reply to InMD
                Ignored
                says:

                Yep, it’d require all out war with the DoD, what’s left of State and the Pentagon not to mention all the private sector entities with their snouts in the till. Biden could fire an absolute slew of people but they’d retaliate with a huge barrage of leaks with an eager assist from their handmaidens in the access media sphere. I doubt the Admin thinks the rewards would outweigh the risks of such a conflict.Report

    • JS in reply to North
      Ignored
      says:

      “Especially as we’re learning more and more about the details of the withdrawal: the weapons lost had been given to the Afghanistan army and thus couldn’t be removed; the westerners in Kabul had been warned months ago to leave and, as they are free people, couldn’t be compelled to depart etc.”

      Are you implying some people lied, omitted critical details, and spun this?

      Of course they did. There is a small, but rather vocal group of journalists, pundits, and quite a bit of the military-industrial complex, that really liked Afghanistan. Whether for ideology or for money, it was something they were quite invested in.

      And they’d have quite liked to stay.Report

  9. James K
    Ignored
    says:

    I have to say looking at the whole Afghanistan situation with the policy education and experience I’ve attained over that time is illuminating. Because what I see in the US’s Afghanistan intervention is something I see all too often in government policies.

    Something bad happens, so the government commits to making it better. This becomes a sprawling commitment to make everything better without putting any thought into how to do that, or even if tis possible to do that. So then officials (in this case, the military) are handled a bundle of money and told to fix things. They flap around doing random things because when there are no success criteria activity becomes a substitute for accomplishment.

    And that’s how you waste 20 years, billions of dollars and countless lives.

    I don’t think there was ever a way Afghanistan was going to work out, a narrowly-targeted intervention (attack the Taliban as a punitive strike for harbouring Al Qaeda) could have succeeded, but there is no known way of turning a country like Afghanistan into a modern liberal democracy. All Biden has done by withdrawing is acknowledge the failure. The way so many people have reacted is precisely why failed projects carry on for so long in government.

    The one thing I think Biden does deserve criticism for is the shambolic state of the withdrawal. The US government should go out of its way to ensure everyone who worked for the US government can get to safety, along with the people the Taliban are likely to kill once they have secured the countryReport

  10. Chip Daniels
    Ignored
    says:

    I posted those three links upthread, and to them I would add Andrew Donaldson’s essay in which he located the root of the failure in the American domestic political failure.

    Those are four separate perspectives by four very different people who had radically different experiences with Afghanistan.

    Yet there are some common threads in all of them.
    The primary thread is that the actors involved where themselves either wildly inept, or insanely corrupt, and definitely completely indifferent to the fate of the people of Afghanistan.

    All four writers agree that there never was a plausible outcome whereby the Taliban were obliterated as a political force, and Afghanistan became a liberal democracy, because of inherent failures with the nations involved.Report

  11. Motoconomist
    Ignored
    says:

    We should have left a long time ago.Report

    • Slade the Leveller in reply to Motoconomist
      Ignored
      says:

      Exactly. It took us 10 years in Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden living in Pakistan. 10 more of aimlessly driving and flying around shooting at stuff. We’re out a bunch of money and thousands of lives for nothing.Report

  12. Jaybird
    Ignored
    says:

    Check out the framing of this poll!

    Check out the answers anyway!

    Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird
      Ignored
      says:

      Yeah that’s why the beltway howling isn’t rocking me back on my heels much. The Afghan war is like libertarianism or woke twitter; the noisy people you hear on the media and the internet are all for it but the voting masses are not interested. If Biden keeps hauling thousands out of there and ends up departing without significant casualties* this’ll be off the news feeds by fall.

      *Obligatory cynical, awful note that significant casualties do not include Afghani casualties unless the number of Afghani casualties piles up to a truly astonishing number.Report

  13. Jaybird
    Ignored
    says:

    Here’s how bad it’s looking:

    NPR correspondent admits that Biden shares blame with Trump, Obama, and Bush.

    Report

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