I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
I have specific memories from the newspapers of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and of exactly where I was when the U.S. campaign against the Taliban began after 9/11, parking my car after dropping off the rest of the family as we met some friends for an outdoor festival in New York as things were just seeming to get back to a routine. I have less specific but still vivid recollection of the Today show too from farther back as the Vietnam War came to an end; I was 8 then.
Back in the early 2000s I was a supporter of the Afghan war and, I’m sure you’ll be surprised about this, the Iraq invasion as well, and I wasn’t quiet about it. I can’t imagine I thought that the U.S. would have any success in stabilizing these countries as democracies. We all knew we lacked the skill or frankly the respect for others to pull that off. My position was that the self-defense and humanitarian rationales for dramatic, extended but not time-unlimited interventions were solid, even knowing that the local democratic and civil society allies we wanted to help gain ground were weak. It wouldn’t be worse than not acting. That was my position, not identical for the two interventions but based on similar principles. I stuck to it even as the early attempts to constitute an Afghan regime after the Taliban’s defeat were not going great.
My touchstone on these issues since the mid-1980s has been Michael Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars, along with his subsequent published articles since 2001. His analyses are how I have framed the questions, and it’s worth Googling Walzer and Afghanistan together for articles other than this one (which is somewhat but not entirely moot today). I’m not saying he’s right on every point but he’s always worth engaging with.
One of the things that he writes about in the book, with reference to Vietnam, is democratic accountability, at least morally speaking even if none of us citizens will be held personally responsible anywhere for the death and suffering of people in the far-away places we sent our forces. For someone like me who does not reject American power overseas, the onus was on me and people like me not to let our elected representatives cede all decisions to the executive branch on this one. Looking back, the best you could say is, well we bought 20 years of extra breathing room in Afghanistan for women and girls, for the people whom Taliban rule will harm the most, and that counts for something even with the upcoming catastrophe. That seems like the best case I can think of for continuing to invest in a war that was clearly going to lead to what happened this week. There wasn’t any doubt that once we left the Taliban would take over again. We should have made our representatives better supervisors. We should have asked what it means to our soldiers and prospective soldiers to be sent to a war where they could lose life, limb, or wellbeing in service of at best a holding action, and what would we owe those who survived or who went again and again or the families of those who died or who lived. We should have asked long ago how we would make good on our obligations to those whose lives would be worse when we would leave, who didn’t have a say in our timing or our strategy.
So there’s more mulling to do – for me it’s knowing that our Jewish high holy days and season of reflection come around the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Would welcome thoughtful thoughts. There are concentric circles of people in Afghanistan we are still responsible for even as we are leaving.