If you are watching the gut-wrenching pictures of Afghans fleeing the impending rule of the Taliban and asking hard questions of your government I have a question for you – where were you 20 years ago?
There are and will continue to be political debates about President Biden’s decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan at this particular point in time, but what is shocking is how little reflection there is on why we invaded Afghanistan in the first place, either by our political and military leaders or even among leaders in the church. It is intriguing to hear so many people question the timing of pulling out of Afghanistan when I know so few of these same folks who questioned our initial invasion. The truth is we will only continue to invade countries, stay for decades, and then act shocked when we suddenly leave those countries in a complete mess unless we first reflect on why we were there in the first place and what is driving us to determine what is best for other nations.
With Afghanistan, we were originally told we were going in to get Osama bin Laden because he attacked the U.S. on 9/11. That sounded reasonable, though it was a full 9 years later under a completely different administration when bin Laden was assassinated. And since 2011, when bin Laden was killed and the Al Qaeda networks were largely disrupted, we were told U.S. troops were needed to remain in order to build up a stable and strong Afghanistan. Now, in all of ten days, all of those years of creating a stable and strong Afghanistan were dashed. I can’t say I am surprised.
I learned early on that our presence in Afghanistan was doomed to fail through a mission trip I led with some college students from Baylor University to Atlanta in the Spring of 2002. During that trip, we had dinner one evening in the home of a family who had recently arrived from Afghanistan. The son translated for his father as he told us their story.
Essentially, they were a Christian family who was persecuted for their faith by their government, fled to other countries to escape, experienced persecution in those countries as well, and eventually, after many years, were allowed to come to the United States. Because of the persecution the father experienced through beatings, he was unable to work. This created hardship for the family financially and in their marriage as the mother had to become their primary breadwinner. You could hear the pain in the father’s voice: the pain of him losing his status and especially the pain of him losing the country and culture he loved so much.
All the while we listened, CNN was playing in the background showing U.S. helicopters and tanks and troops moving across the Afghan terrain, taking over this man’s country. It was eerie, but there was some slight solace in the Taliban government—who had persecuted this man for his faith—now being displaced by the U.S. and what was then called the Northern Alliance.
The Northern Alliance was made up of various Afghan non-Taliban factions, with the former pre-Taliban government, the Mujahadeen, being primary. So, one of us asked the man how he felt seeing the government that had persecuted him now being thrown out of power. The father told us that the government that had persecuted him was not the Taliban government, it had been the Mujahadeen government—the very same forces our country were escorting back into power. Naturally, we were absolutely stunned.
I will never forget that night. It was the words of a refugee father, an Afghan Christian, persecuted by the people the U.S. had decided to aid, that radicalized us against the Afghan invasion and later, the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq. Few were questioning the wisdom of the invasion of Afghanistan at that time just as few are doing any serious reflection today on why we were there in the first place. Few seem to be asking what are the implications of the violence we have helped perpetuate on that country and their culture.
We invade. We occupy. We leave. Things fall apart. Rinse and repeat.
Now, the media and U.S. political leaders are saying we should feel bad for Afghan refugees and welcome some of them into our country. They are wrong. We should certainly feel horrible (isn’t that a part of repentance?) and make space for as many of them who want to come. We owe them as much due to the recklessness and short-sightedness of our policies and actions over the last 20 years. The number of refugees could easily go into the tens of thousands. Bring them all. If this end to our occupation of Afghanistan is like any of the other historical calamities that the U.S. has caused, we will never truly live up to what we promised when we invaded: an American tradition.
But our hospitality should not flow out of pity for the people of the country we ravaged and colonized for the past twenty years. Our hospitality must flow out of the reflection, acknowledgment of past corporate sin, lament for that sin, and honest repentance for policies that were clearly based on vindictiveness, cultural ignorance, and racism. We are all complicit. We are all guilty. We never should have invaded. We never should have occupied.
Our refusal to learn about the history of Afghanistan and to at least know more about the Mujahadeen with whom we partnered to remove the Taliban before we took over the country was beyond detrimental. Afghanistan has a long and proud history of resisting change from outsiders, which is common among most counties to be honest. We should remember that the next time we opt for invasion and occupation. And yes, there most definitely be a next time.
President Bush’s insistence that Afghanistan would become a U.S.-style democracy begs the question: Why do we assume other countries and cultures want what we have, which, if we are honest, is a proclaimed idea of democracy (an idea not widely experienced by most of our residents as can be seen with the plethora of anti-voting rights bills sweeping through state capitals right now). President Bush’s continued pleas even today for keeping a military presence in Afghanistan reflect his lack of understanding of how cultures change.
It is true that faith communities throughout the United States will rise up and welcome resettled Afghani refugees, and that is a good thing. This is what faith communities do best. But our hospitality, if not matched by passionate advocacy for an accounting of the horrific and racist policies started by President Bush and continued under Presidents Obama and Trump, will be something of a hollow effort. I have never met a refugee who actually wanted to be a refugee. They fled their home countries not out of joy, but out of sheer terror, without knowing where they would end up.
We should demand a political, economic, and spiritual accounting for how all of us created such suffering and violence in Afghanistan (and we should quickly move to Iraq while we are at it). This knowledge should lead us to lament the terrible damage we have caused, and this should then shape how we move forward. The U.S. cannot save Afghanistan. The U.S. cannot even save itself outside of honesty, lament, and repentance. And let that work begin with the House of God.