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It’s time at last for an ethical conversation about Afghanistan

What have 20 years of war done to our values?

The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building, Sept. 11, 2001, in New York. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)

(RNS) — Before Afghanistan leaves the front pages, before the 20-year conflict gets reduced to a campaign season one-liner, we need a national ethical conversation about what happened. We need to talk about why our effort there failed, what we learned, what it did to us and to the Afghans. 

We must not let other issues on our national table — the continuing threat of COVID-19, climate change disasters from Louisiana to the Northeast, partisan gridlock over critically needed physical and social infrastructure — distract us from the deep reflection about our values now required in the aftermath of the United States’ longest war.

We owe it to those who paid the ultimate cost of their lives on 9/11, in whose name the Afghanistan war was fought. We owe it to the thousands who died in the bloody and brutal days since.

The conversation we need is not just about strategic mistakes, faulty political decisions or tactical errors but rather the moral and ethical grounding of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which constitute our central response to that horrible September day 20 years ago.


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The truly embarrassing military collapse and final withdrawal that ended the war, and our ironic collaboration with our enemies at the end, show that it was exactly the wrong response. It has cost countless lives and so many moral losses to the soul of our nation.

Can anyone really say this war was worth the cost of the countless lives lost and families impacted in both America and Afghanistan?

This is a war that lasted almost two full decades, claimed over 170,000 lives (including almost 50,000 Afghan civilians) and cost more than $2 trillion. Intended to combat the threat of further terrorist attacks on the United States, the war in Afghanistan cost more than 50 times the lives lost on 9/11.

That doesn’t include the countless wounded and scarred or the more than 30,000 former combat veterans of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have since died by suicide. 

U.S. soldiers with 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, travel from Camp Zafar to Camp Stone, Afghanistan, Aug. 24, 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Marc I. Lane/Creative Commons)

U.S. soldiers with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, travel from Camp Zafar to Camp Stone, Afghanistan, Aug. 24, 2009. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Marc I. Lane/Creative Commons)

A war as traumatic as this one also impacts the ethics and morals of the nation. Like the war in Vietnam, it challenges not only the effectiveness, but more importantly, the morality of protracted military engagements and their consequences for the occupied and the occupiers.

For the latter, ignorance of local culture and history is an obstacle to producing stability and democracy from the top down by use of force. Cultures are changed by values over generations, by new generations of young people and not by outside intervention with its own agendas. Violence is not an effective means to changing hearts and minds, instilling trust or establishing genuine relationships and partnerships.

I am old enough to have seen the failure of Vietnam, and how my generation’s lives were changed — all of us, whether we went or not. The United States’ failure in Afghanistan has once again dramatically revealed the ethical consequences of endless wars. Politics starts wars, profit and power perpetuate them, and dead bodies sustain them. But only better ethics can prevent them or at least shorten or focus them.

Many of us worked hard to propose alternatives to the U.S.-led coalition at the outset of the Afghan war, advocating instead for an international police force to bring al-Qaida to justice and for conflict resolution to find our way to peace. The whole world was united around that cause and America, just attacked, had the moral high ground.

Instead we created a generation that has only known war and has accepted the terrible impact of endless and deadly deployments on a very small minority of American families, mostly on the lower end of the social/economic system.

It lowered the bar for allowing “contractors” — mercenaries or guns for hire — who came to vastly outnumber U.S. soldiers. Corporations and individuals became wealthy through the huge military contracts they won. Money corrupts wars and keeps them going.

Hundreds of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down a runway of the international airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021. Thousands of Afghans rushed onto the tarmac at the airport, attempting to flee the Taliban. Video screengrab via Twitter/@Mukhtarwafayee

Hundreds of people run alongside a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane as it moves down a runway of the international airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 16, 2021. Thousands of Afghans rushed onto the tarmac at the airport, attempting to flee the Taliban. Video screen grab via Twitter/@Mukhtarwafayee

The withdrawal of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, supported by the Taliban (the very group we initially went in to depose), would seem farcical were it not for the immense loss of life over the past 20 years of fighting, down to the final few days. 


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On 9/11 I woke up to the ghastly pictures of the towers falling. Washington was shut down for fear of attack and people were running out of the city toward their homes. I said to my wife, Joy: “This is bad, and is going to change us.” Indeed, it was and has.

Then, New Yorkers sacrificed to save each other, as did rescue workers in D.C., and passengers who risked their lives over Pennsylvania to bring down their plane, controlled by terrorists headed toward the nation’s capital.

After our two decades of war in response to that ugly terrorism, are we still as sensitive to human life and values? Are we able to be united together now — over anything — as we were then? Have we learned more about how to best respond to hate, or work to undo the injustices that help cause it?

The Rev. Jim Wallis. Courtesy photo

The Rev. Jim Wallis. Courtesy photo

For all of that, we need a new national conversation — now.

(Jim Wallis is the inaugural holder of the Chair in Faith and Justice at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, the founding director of the Georgetown University Center on Faith and Justice and host of the “Soul of the Nation” podcast. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)