Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander in Afghanistan, was pictured in The Washington Post after his confirmation this summer with a broad smile and thumbs up, proclaiming, “We are all firmly united in seeking to forge unity of effort.”
No, we’re not, general. In fact, it’s time to unite the religious community against the war in Afghanistan. The real issue is not replacing one general with another; it’s the fatally flawed war policy that increasingly resembles a similar policy during the Vietnam War.
In February 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong attacks throughout South Vietnam showed that U.S. political and military leaders’ optimistic pronouncements about the end of the war being near were not true. By then, it was clear to many that the war was not winnable, yet more than half of U.S. casualties in Vietnam occurred from that spring until the end of the war (35,000 of the total 58,000).
I have walked the line at the Vietnam Memorial wall many times, with tears running down my face as I read the names of my generation who were killed. And the painful remorse is even greater when I remember that the majority of those who died were killed after we knew we would ultimately have to come home without “winning.” I recall President Nixon saying at one point that the reason for staying in Vietnam was so that we could come home “with our heads held high.” We didn’t.
After 9/11, an international police action to bring the perpetrators of that horrible crime to justice would have been one thing. But to begin a war and then an occupation of Afghanistan was the wrong policy, killing more Afghan innocents than American innocents who died on 9/11. It was then further compromised by the morally unjustifiable war in Iraq.
When will we ever learn? The failed policies are all too familiar: a counterinsurgency strategy requiring more and more troops, creating the continued presence of a large U.S. military force, increasing the resentment and hostility of the Afghan people at a foreign occupation, trying to impose a central government onto a tribal society, and depending on an incompetent and utterly corrupt political ruler and regime.
Applying the usual metric for an effective anti-terrorism policy, the question has to be asked: Has our primarily military policy in Afghanistan and Iraq killed more terrorists than it has recruited? We know the answer—the math of terrorism is against us. And our military obsession has made the most important question impossible to ask—it’s even deemed unpatriotic to consider: How might we reduce and defeat the causes of terrorism in the first place?
Nonmilitary strategies should lead the way, with the focus on humanitarian assistance, sustainable economic development, and international policing. It should be led by civilian nongovernmental organizations, both faith-based and secular, that have been in the region for years, are locally rooted, and are more trusted by the people than the U.S. government using aid as an adjunct to military operations.
After taking over the country, we do have a responsibility not to simply walk away. There are ethical and moral issues: protecting Americans from further terrorism; protecting the lives of U.S. servicemen and women; defending women from the Taliban; supporting democracy; and saving innocent lives from the collateral damage of war, to name a few.
Effective development needs security. We should start in areas that are secure and then grow to additional parts of the country, providing only the security necessary to protect the rebuilding. That kind of peacekeeping would be more likely to gain the international support we need in Afghanistan, from Europe and even from Arab and Muslim countries.
The current strategy will only lead to more casualties—U.S. and Afghan—while strengthening popular support for the Taliban as an anti-occupation force. It is a strategy of endless war that is ultimately doomed to failure.
A recent photo on the front page of The New York Times broke my heart. It showed the family of a serviceman just before he was redeployed to Afghanistan. He was in his fatigues, holding his 6-month-old son with a look of deep pain on his face, with his wife resting her head against his shoulder. The article told story after story about families being separated by repeated deployments.
Soldiers who are fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters are dying for a failed, arrogant, theologically unjust, and, yes, immoral war policy. Of course, most of those dying are not the young people headed for our best universities and successful professional careers—they are rather the ones who have fewer options, or who see the military as their only option. Those with the fewest opportunities, and their families, are again the ones to sacrifice and suffer. It’s not right and it’s not fair.
It’s time to end this war. Or should we just start building another memorial wall?
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.