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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Just War and the War in Afghanistan

Last November the National Council of Churches (NCC) sponsored an event to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the 1910 World Mission Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Four hundred people gathered in New Orleans to mark the event regarded by many as the birth of the modern ecumenical movement. The fact that only 400 people showed up probably reflects the sorry state of the ecumenical movement, at least among mainline Protestant churches in the United States, but that is a topic for another time.

In a meeting before the gathering the NCC's governing board issued "A Call to End the War in Afghanistan," which urged President Obama to "negotiate a withdrawal of U.S. and NATAO forces from Afghanistan to be completed as soon as possible without further endangerment to the lives and welfare" of troops and civilians.

This statement implicitly raises an important question: Just because a war is unjust (and I'm not arguing that that the war in Afghanistan is unjust although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many on the NCC's governing board believe that it is), does that mean we can leave a war unjustly? Put differently, even if we are engaged in an unjust war in a particular country, can we in good conscience leave before we have secured the safety and livelihood of that country's people?  I think not. As political theorist (and editor of Dissent magazine) Michael Walzer noted about the most recent war in a Iraq (a war that he opposed and considered unjust):
The American debate about whether to fight doesn't seem particularly relevant to the critical issues in the debate about the occupation: how long to stay, how much to spend, when to begin the transfer of power... The positions we took before the war don't determine the positions we take, or should take, on the occupation. Some people who opposed the war demand that we immediately "bring the troops home." But others argue, rightly, it seems to me, that having fought the war, we are now responsible for the well-being of the Iraqi people; we have to provide the resources -- soldiers and dollars -- necessary to guarantee their security and begin the political and economic reconstruction of their country (Arguing About War, pp. 163-164; you can find the entire article as it originally appeared in Dissent magazine before it appeared in book form here: Just and Unjust Occupations).
What Walzer is arguing for here is jus post bellum or "justice after war," a topic I have written about earlier (Christians and War, Part III: Justice After War). As Walzer puts it
[T]he debate... requires an account of postwar justice. Democratic political theory, which plays a relatively small part in our arguments about jus ad bellum and in bello, provides the central principles of this account. They include self-determination, popular legitimacy, civil rights, and the idea of a common good. We want wars to end with governments in power in the defeated states that are chosen by the people they rule-or, at least, recognized by them as legitimate-and that are visibly committed to the welfare of those same people (all of them). We want minorities protected against persecution, neighboring states protected against aggression, the poorest of the people protected against destitution and starvation (Arguing About War, p. 164; you can find the entire article as it originally appeared in Dissent magazine before it appeared in book form here: Just and Unjust Occupations).
And so it must be with Afghanistan. To leave Afghanistan before we have secured the well-being of the Afghan people would be unjust. I think this point may have been lost on the NCC's governing board. Maybe not. But my sense is that they think that withdrawal can happen sooner rather than later without endangering the lives and welfare of the Afghan citizens. Unfortunately, I think they are wrong. I think it could take a very long time before we reach a state where the ordinary Afghans will be able to flourish. I hope I am wrong.

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