Afghanistan and the Irony of American History

The War in Afghanistan has been raging for more than nine years. Yet, we still regularly hear shocking remarks such as “If I had to choose sides today, I’d choose the Taliban” from figures as prominent as Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Such comments raise ever more sharply the question of “Why are we still in Afghanistan?”

As for fodder for thinking theologically about conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq, I find compelling the following reflection from Roman Catholic theologian Bill Cavanaugh:

The reason we should reject violence is not from a prideful conviction that we are the pure in a world full of evil. The gospel call to non-violence comes from the realization that we are not good enough to use violence, not pure enough to direct history through violent means. Peacemaking requires not extreme heroism, but a humble restraint in identifying enemies, and an everyday commitment to caring for members of one’s body in mundane ways: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, all of whom, Jesus says, are Jesus himself.

Public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) called the dynamic we’re experiencing in Afghanistan and Iraq the “irony of American history“; that is, too often U.S. interventionist foreign policy is despairingly ironic: “the consequences of an act are diametrically opposed to the original intention.”

In closing, despite the controversy over the context and intent of Richard Holbrooke’s final words — he was President Obama’s chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and died Monday — I still find them haunting: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

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