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Was Afghanistan Worth It?: Part 1, “Was it Worth it For America?”

Was Afghanistan Worth It?: Part 1, “Was it Worth it For America?” September 1, 2021

Afghanistan is once again newsworthy. To me this is unfortunate (often, from a military perspective, the old maxim “no news is good news” is true). As such, I feel compelled to write something about it. In this article I will try to tackle the question that is on many minds: “Was it worth it?” However, that question is not really valid, as it implies another question, “for whom?” “Was it worth it for whom?” is therefore the question we should try to address. Thus, I will apply this question of the value of the US-led war in Afghanistan to three groups: 1) to the United States as a nation, 2) to Afghanistan as a people and 3) to the individual soldiers who served in Afghanistan and their families. In doing so I will not be offering an exhaustive treatise on each, but just a few reflections.

Some Personal Background First

I should caveat these reflections with some personal details. I do so, because I do not want to present myself as some expert authority on the US counter-insurgency of the last 20 years. In spite of being a veteran of that war, I think it takes more to be an expert than just having fought in it. The idea that having served in Afghanistan makes one an automatic expert on the manifold complexities of something like Afghanistan is nonsense.

Unless one has really spent a great deal time both studying in theory and carrying out in praxis the art of war (and this kind of war), then one usually should remain silent on these things. Therefore, these musings should be seen as just that–mere reflections and not authoritative statements. They are just thoughts of a middle-aged veteran with a penchant for theological and philosophical reflection. Of course, perhaps some truth might still get through even this broken vessel.

A second reason to make this personal statement up front, is because I am someone who takes the idea of “stolen valor” quite seriously. There is a rabid tendency in the human heart to exaggerate one’s accomplishments, hyperbolize one’s abilities and embellish one’s experiences. The military is no exception. In fact, the temptation may be greater to do so given the nature of military service as well as how much deference the culture gives to those who serve, not to mention how many Hollywood movies are made about our wars (a mixed blessing, to be sure). And so in writing on this topic, I do so not as an expert in military history or operations, nor as someone who has “seen it all” in war. I have not.

My Distinct Experiences

While I cannot go into detail about everything I did while in Afghanistan, or in the Army generally, I can say a few thing that others might not normally mention:

  1. My time in the Army was mediocre. I was in the Army for a relatively short time, 5.5 years, and only deployed once to Afghanistan. That deployment was also short– exactly 6 months– a relatively quick stint. Before my deployment, I had successfully qualified for the Army Special Forces’ “Q-course,” only to then spend a rather unfruitful (and painful) 17-months learning the hard way that I was not really cut out to be a Green Beret. Like life itself, there were victories and defeats, obstacles overcome and obstacles that overcame me. But that is an article for another time.
  2. While I performed well in Afghanistan, and in my overall career, I would be hard pressed to say I did anything astounding or special. I worked as hard as I could at my job and tried to be the best intelligence professional I could be while in theater. Then I redeployed, finished my contract in garrison and left the Army. There was not a lot of glory nor was there much gore in my time in country, although there was some of both. But my stories, while often fascinating to those who have not served, are horribly commonplace to those who have deployed.
  3. I was not of high rank. I ended my career as a buck sergeant, E5 intelligence analyst. What I saw of the Army and Afghanistan was but a sliver of a much larger picture.

However, In spite of this normalcy, I did have some interesting opportunities in Afghanistan. Further, I was there during a very interesting time in my life, as I had been converted to Christianity about 18 months prior to my deployment. My newfound faith in Jesus made my time in Afghanistan feel as much a missionary trip (in the Great Commission sense) as a mission (in the military operation’s sense). A few more points of interest:

  1. Even though I was only an E4 Specialist when I arrived in Afghanistan, I had earned the respect of my leaders and was given special training that allowed me to do some things that a normal E4 Intelligence Analyst would not have done otherwise in country.
  2. These opportunities allowed me to get a little “closer” to both the fight and Afghan culture than others in my rank and position.
  3. Being a new Christian at the time, I tried to reflect carefully on what I saw in country. Those reflections have greatly shaped how I think about the world today.

This personal experience possibly puts me in a place to say something of interest about this topic. Or maybe it doesn’t. Either way I am going to try. Perhaps it is part of my own therapy to at least try, since, like all soldiers, I did not escape war unscathed (physically I did, but not when it came to my family life).

Was It Worth It For America?

The first question to consider is whether it was worth it for the United States. This question, I feel, I have the least chance of answering adequately. It is far too complex a thing to tackle as a lowly theologian and novice in the history and art of war, let alone global economics. After all, I tend to deal in grand narratives, universal questions and underlying motivations, not in fine-grained, unreflective analyses of immanent causes and effects. I will leave such tasks to the various, utilitarian think tanks of cost-benefit analysis.

However, there is one issue that I see repeated often that has always bothered me. That issue is related to how we as Americans understand the nature of war, or at least contemporary warfare. Specifically I am talking about the claim that wars should have definite and recognizable ends and, subsequently, if they do not, then they must be considered a failure. I simply don’t see the logic behind that kind of thinking, at least not now.

American “Tiredness” and War

This attitude is usually articulated by the pithy saying: “America is tired of war,” or “The American people are tired of war.” But clearly this is a vapid statement, as there is no thing “the American people” that is out there (that I can measure, touch, taste, smell, etc.) that has feelings of any kind. One Christian philosopher puts it this way:

“The American People” is an abstraction. It is a fiction. Yet pundits and politicians are always saying it. American pundits and politicians. When this began, I do not know. But to refer to fellow-citizens of the United States in this way is to fictionalize real people and to regard them as somehow separate from oneself. It’s silly. It’s shallow. It’s trite. It’s unthinking. And it’s often used with promiscuous presumption about what the American People think or feel, want or believe. It’s also a totally useless generalization when it functions as a stand-in for what pundits and politicians think fellow Americans want (or what they want them to want).

I think the American People would agree. Don’t you?

Doug Geivett, “The American People”

Thus to say that “America is tired” of x, y or z; or that “the American People” are tired of x, y and z is basically a non-statement (at least metaphysically, if not morally). Its function is purely rhetorical.

Theologically, I also think it is a very secular and unbiblical way to think about war. Jesus Himself said, “In this world, you will have troubles,” and the universal Church has historically referred to itself as the “Church militant” for centuries. Any Christian who thinks that wars must have a recognizable and definitive end in this world, seems to me ignorant of the constant spiritual battle that underlies all of human history. War is, at bottom, the true state of things in a fallen world (Hobbes got at least one thing right, after all).

While there can be clear ends to certain wars, like World War II, this does not mean there are clear ends to all wars. That would be a logical fallacy, a basic non-sequitur. I should caveat this, however, by saying that not all spiritual wars must manifest in physical combat. This is not an essay on just war theory versus Christian pacifism (both acceptable positions, if born out of the right convictions). It is only to say that to think that war or conflict has a clear beginning and clear end is wrongheaded, or that a war must have a clear end in order to be considered “worth it.” (We might even say that this is a very “White” way of thinking, for, as we know, anything that is wrongheaded is probably a manifestation of “Whiteness”).

However, one might contest, there are things like opinion polls. And opinion polls do seem to measure something, don’t they? Still, do we really think that the “average American” (another abstraction) is in the position to even know whether they are tired of a war in Afghanistan? How would that average American measure their tiredness of such a war? I think it is actually quite unclear whether very many average Americans were tired of the Afghan war over the last two years, or maybe even four. Tired of COVID-19 lock downs, certainly, but tired of Afghan security operations? Hardly.

What About Soldiers?

And so, it is worthless to bother with such a vacuous statement about American tiredness. If there are things that would matter about whether or not it was right to leave Afghanistan, the “tiredness” of something that doesn’t even exist is not one of them. What would matter is whether the operations in Afghanistan were fulfilling a certain function, e.g., keeping the Taliban at bay, preventing overseas terrorist operations, improving conditions for the marginalized in that region, etc. Also, the only entities that would need to be gauged for “tiredness,” would be the soldiers and families involved in those operations. It is their tiredness, their “combat readiness” in military parlance, that would matter.

On that note, it should be obvious to us all that this is not the case. The American military is not tired, and it is not incapable of continued operations in Afghanistan. It is not as if the same soldiers have been there for 20 years (although maybe a handful have been involved in some way for just that long). There are always new personnel to replace those who have completed deployments. And, if a country can be managed well with a relatively few number of soldier, e.g, 2500-3500, plus the appropriate technology and equipment, then why not?

One final thought on the combat readiness of soldiers. In my time in the Army I never met one soldier, male or female, gay or straight, black, white, blue or chartreuse, who did not want to be in a theater of operations. This was especially the case for anyone in a combat MOS or combat support MOS (which is basically all them). To think that soldiers go through basic training, or later airborne, air assault or ranger school with the hopes of sitting around Fort Bragg or Fort Benning to do “base beautification” maneuvers is only a thought that a civilian could have. Soldiers want to do hard things and they want to utilize the skills they have been taught. The best place for both is in a theater of operations. Everything else pales in comparison for the professional soldier.

Conclusion: It Was Worth It for America, Had We Stayed

There was no good reason to leave Afghanistan, as one former expert has also concluded. It seems to me from a theological and philosophical perspective that we abandoned a fight against a very real, very concrete and very cruel form of evil only because we are a fickle culture. As Americans, we have lost our sense of time (and the value of thinking generationally, something our enemy does quite well). Instead, as an instant gratification culture, we expect immediate results in everything: from our DoorDash dinners to complex military campaigns in foreign lands. In sum, the war in Afhganistan was worth it to America so long as we stayed there. Now, however, that question seems to have a very different answer. At most we can say that we don’t know whether it was worth it to America or not. Considering how things are turning out, it looks like it will be “not.”

In the next post, I will show how this fickle, temperamental and basically childish attitude toward reality has left many Afghans abandoned–turned over to the hands of relentless and deranged enemy.

 

featured image: Kyle McNally, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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