What does Christian faith have to say about the crisis in Afghanistan as the US closes the almost two-decade war? That question came from a dear friend and an Abundance Reconstructed reader this week. It is a question I am sure we are all asking.
The result of the request is this significantly longer-than-usual post where two key ideas guide my thoughts:
- A Kingdom of God framework that interprets reality through the lenses of power and love, and
- Jesus admonition to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Note: I am going to write things in this post that could trigger a deep emotional responses.This includes those who are sensitive to the plight of women and children, the sexually abused, and service members. I seek to do this with tenderness and care. Please take a few deep breaths whenever an overwhelm of emotions begins to stir. Feel free to set the post down or read it in chunks. Most of all, email me with questions or clarifications.
But first, we need a bit of background on how we got here. Just like we cannot understand the Bible without understanding the historical and contextual backdrop, we cannot make sense of what is happening in Afghanistan without knowing a bit of history and geography.
A Bit of Context
The lines on a map that define Afghanistan and Pakistan, sit at a strategic location. They connect China, India, and the Middle East. For thousands of years, armies have fought to control key locations enabling movement through the dense mountains of the region. This means occupying forces have come and gone for thousands of years making instability the norm.
Both countries are made up of segmented tribal cultures that often overlap national boundaries created by the English. They are culturally and geographically divided. This means there is no singular national identity as Afghani. Most important for our discussion, tribal lands in southern Afghanistan flow into northern Pakistan. This makes the border irrelevant for the people who live there because their loyalty lies with their tribe. As a result, central control from the capital is functionally impossible and Western approaches to government are largely irrelevant.
The Making of Modern Afghanistan
Both of these realities formed Afghanistan as we know it today. When the Soviets invaded in December of 1979, a proxy extension of the Cold War emerged. The United States funded the Afghanistan resistance. As the men went off to war, the women and children in the south became refugees in neighboring Pakistan. There Saudi Arabia funded free schools for boys with the intent of radicalizing them into extremist branches of Islam.
A decade later, when Soviet forces withdrew and US support disappeared, these boys returned home as the Taliban. Rather than seeking centralized control they operated as a decentralized network of extremists bent on bringing stability to the region. However, their understanding of stability is just another form of unhinged masculinity.
The Taliban vs. Al-Qaeda
It is important to note that, while similar, the Taliban is not the same as Al-Qaeda. The Taliban limited their regime to parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan while Al-Qaeda believed in global aggression. While the Taliban gave refuge to those who attacked the United States, they are not the ones who attacked. Given their refugee history, is it any wonder they maintained a sense of loyalty to Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, a Saudi from a wealthy family who initially made a name for himself as a humanitarian worker in northern Pakistan?
None the less, the US lumped those offering refuge with those who attacked. When the 2001 invasion began, the US was just the latest in a string of occupying forces. Like others they toppled provincial capitals but were incapable of maintaining control or bringing sustained change. While the US suppressed the Taliban early on, the corruption and human rights abuses that followed enabled the Taliban’s resurgence. Today, the Taliban is more powerful, sophisticated, and wealthier than ever before.
So what do we do when oppressive Taliban forces refill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of an occupier? How can we respond in a way that allows wisdom to serve innocence and love to prevail? After all, faith calls us to bring heaven to earth, not await for an escape to heaven.
Revisiting a Kingdom Framework
Take a moment to jump back to the first five posts I sent you (if you are not on this mail list, sign up here). They formed a series on rescuing Christian faith from broken Christianity. In them, I laid out foundational ideas that cut to the core of the systemic dysfunction in the American church.
The second post, Jesus Isn’t the Only Son of God, contrasted the visions of Jesus and Caesar on how to be human in the world. Caesar is about control, manipulation, oppression, and self-aggrandizement. In the context of my recent posts, you can call it is masculine energy unhinged. It is antithetical to the way of Jesus. As I concluded:
Following the Son of God named Jesus means embracing the way of love, or what the Bible calls the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the way of humility, vulnerability, and service to others … especially the marginalized.
Wisdom in Service of Innocence
That said, in a world bent on power, if you operate purely from love, it is easy to be manipulated. Jesus knew this. So sending out his disciples to share the good news of the Kingdom in Matthew 10 came with a word of caution. He told them, “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves.” More commonly, people hear wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
These words are striking. The first story involving a serpent and wisdom brought power, the unhinged and toxic masculine, into the world. Now Jesus invites his followers to essentially model themselves after the snake. They are to approach the wolves with awareness and engage in a way that brings about the desired end.
The greatest example of this in the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus itself. Jesus hands himself over to power, knowing only through submission could he demonstrate how far divine love goes. He let power think it won so he could to sweetly whisper into the ears of people, “You are loved.” We hear these words from the cross as he says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Those who were drunk with power could not grasp another way of being in the world, and neither could you or I until love broke through.
So what might it look like to allow wisdom to sit in service of innocence in Afghanistan?
The Media Spins On
I usually do my best to avoid media funded by corporate interests. This week I maintained just enough awareness to know the story they are spinning. How are they talking about America’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan. While nobody predicted Afghan security forces we spent the last decade-plus training would drop their weapons and walk away, those in power prepared us for this moment.
This preparation began under the Trump administration. As he talked about withdrawl generals played the role of resistance heroes. They challenged the “bad orange man” and kept him from having his way. They assumed Biden would never order a withdrawal, but as soon as he did, they started speaking out against him.
Search engines no longer easily reveal the clip, but I recall the plight of women and children coming up months ago. Suddenly woke military officials feared the consequence of an Afghan withdrawal. They reminded us of what life was like before under the Taliban. There were reminders of the supposed freedoms that came with the American occupation. We were primed to respond to scenes of people desperately trying to leave. They prepared us to hear stories of violence that would stir our compassion. And the truth is, our compassion should be overwhelming us right now. But wisdom also calls us to be skeptical.
Facing Often Untold Truths
There is a side of the story that, with rare exception, has gone unshared over the past twenty years. It is the story revealed in the Afghanistan Papers (affiliate). They are a collection of more than 1,000 interviews and 10,000 pages of documents compiled by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. They are the candid and damning words of US military leaders spoken behind closed doors. It took a string of lawsuits for the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock to gain access to them. They reveal any notion of progress, any illusion of rights for women and children, any sense that the Afghan government could stand upon American withdrawal was at best self-deception and more commonly, an outright lie.
This includes inflated numbers on how many girls had the opportunity for education. They reveal how the US glossed over the rampant human rights abuses among the Afghan military. This includes US soldiers being told to overlook the keeping of child sex slaves. While there are instances of opportunity, they are dots of light peeking forth in longstanding darkness, not a new norm.
Yes, what happens to women, children, and all innocent civilians matters. Those seeking to follow Jesus should prioritize their well-being. But the media’s focus on the issue today, pitched out of the broader context, demands that we ask, “Why does it matter now?”
Did you know the world’s largest humanitarian crisis right now is in Yemen? Today half of Yemen’s population needs health care and more than eighty percent needs some form of humanitarian aid. It is a crisis created by the Saudi Arabia dropping American-made bombs on targets throughout the country. If the media is so concerned about women and children, why are they not outraged about Yemen?
Following the Money
In the end, the answer is simple. As with most things in America, all you need to do is follow the money. If you value voices from the political Left, consider The New Republic’s conclusion of America’s Afghanistan Generals:
Many of these generals have been rewarded with promotions to lead their service branches, to chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or to Cabinet positions. Those who retired have gone on to venerated and lucrative postmilitary lives. They sit on the boards of Fortune 500 corporations, are hired for six-figure speaking engagements, and bask in the glow of the nonprofit and academic communities, which seek the credibility of their endorsement.
Or perhaps you want to hear the same thing from the political Right, in which case I offer The Federalist:
Instead of profiles in courage, America’s military leaders deserve profiles in grifting. Current Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made $7 million once leaving the service. Gen. James Mattis is reportedly worth $5 million, including $150,000 annual payouts from Theranos for serving on their board. Theranos was a blood-testing company indicted for fraud. Not a single senator asked Mattis about the connection at his confirmation hearing as secretary of defense. Gen. David Petraeus, after leaving the CIA in disgrace after revelations of leaking classified information to his mistress and personal biographer Paula Broadwell, went on to a successful career in academia, public speaking, and private equity. His net worth is estimated at $2 million. The generals lied, America lost, and the people got looted.
The War Profiteers
But it is not just America’s generals who are getting rich from the war. Consider the stock gains of military contractors. Or the revelation in this Breaking Points piece that 80-90% of the money spent in Afghanistan ended up in the pockets of American consultants and contractors:
Despite all the rhetoric about human rights and spreading democracy, in the end, our presence in Afghanistan for the past twenty years is ultimately about greed. And now the voices of those who directly or indirectly benefit from this massive extortion of American taxpayers, point to the women and children of Afghanistan to tug at our well-intentioned heartstrings so we press our leaders to not withdrawal so the grift can continue.
How Does Love Respond To War?
So what does Christian faith have to say about this impossible situation where both the US and Taliban embody power run amuck? A place where decisions made decades ago create a situation where there is no legitimate solution?
First, we need to do everything we can to address the humanitarian crisis. As a nation, that would mean having the US receive as many Afghan refugees as possible. So contact your elected representatives and call on them to ask for resettlement in your state and city.
As for direct action that supports those still in Afghanistan, for twenty years America demonstrated on the ground corruption as they occupied another country with claims of moral authority. We no longer have any moral authority. Instead, we should do our best to identify those refugee organizations with a demonstrated history of using donations to do work, not cover administrative expenses. While you cannot access all the details for free, Charity Watch does reveal the grades of their top-rated organizations.
How Does Love Work To Avoid War?
Second, Afghanistan is a political problem. War is a political problem. Twenty years ago, there was only one elected official with the courage to vote against the War Powers Act that gave then-President Bush the right to invade. At the time she rightly said this set the stage for forever wars and received death threats for acting on principle. How might things be different if we listened to Representative Barbara Lee?
Politics in the United States has devolved into partisan hackery centered on a supposed culture war. The only thing the Right and Left seem to agree on is supporting the corporate interests, including those in the defense industry, that pay for their re-election campaigns and offer them cushy lobbying jobs after they conclude their public “service.” It has become so bad that popular policy with significant public approval has the same opportunity of becoming law as a policy with no public approval. The whole system is about the power of the politicians and those who fund them.
Anymore, most American voters just check the box next to whomever they see as lesser of two evils, never mind that the lesser of two evils is still evil. This means that until we fight for a better kind of politics and elect politicians who are public servants, our collective action will remain controlled by power.
What About War Veterans?
One more important factor needs consideration. The men and women of our military who served under the grift, not because they were part of it or benefited from it, but because of their patriotism, desire to do what is right and because it was their job.
In Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (affiliate), one area of trauma research he focused on were Vietnam veterans. His work concludes that a major form of trauma among vets is survivor syndrome. These soldiers grieved that they lived and their fellow soldiers died. Moreover, any suggestion that the war was conducted in vein triggered a traumatic response because it meant those they lost died for a lie.
For both the troops who have already returned and those who are finally coming home, we need to fight for their care, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Not just from the horrors of what they experienced while deployed, but as they react to the truth about what we have done over the past twenty years.
I titled this post, Afghanistan, War, and Becoming Human, because war reminds us just how far we are from being human. War always initiates as an assault on the belonging of another. The same is true of political medaling that focuses, not on the well-being of citizens, but the interests of those with power even as humanitarian efforts are used as cover for corruption.
Sadly, until we become more fully human until we place masculine power under the service of feminine wisdom, both individually and collectively, we will continue to live in a world where there are no good answers. This does not mean we disconnect from the world to engage in our own spiritual pursuits, rather it means we need engage with the world as part of our spiritual formation.
While I included a number of resources in the form of websites, podcasts, and videos throughout this piece, here are a few more that I found valuable:
Movie: Charlie Wilson’s War
This 2007 movie staring Tom Hanks explores the United States support (through the CIA) of the Afghan mujahideen, the rebel forces who fought the Soviets.
Podcast: Biden’s Pullout Game from the Bad Faith Podcast
Perhaps the most valuable segment of this hour long interview by Briahna Joy Gray is the one that explores what options might exist between intervention and isolation. You can also watch it in video form here.
Website: Costs of War
This website, hosted by Brown University, seeks to determine the overall cost of war. This not only accounts for military expenses, but the toll on human life and ongoing expenses.
Identify one wisdom informed response of love that you will take this week in response to the crisis in Afghanistan.
Pending another reader request, I will either finally offer a post on dominion over creation or I might offer further exploration on to my comment a couple weeks ago about the different experiences of Black and White women in the United States. Do you have a preference? Let me know!