Why Are We in Afghanistan?

By "we" I mean we Americans, since I am an American and the question of the American presence in Afghanistan is the one that's most urgent and on people's minds. In 1967 the American author Norman Mailer published a novel about a hunting trip in Alaska, titled Why Are We in Vietnam? The question could not have been more timely or explicit, but -- ambitious writer that he was -- Mailer chose to address it indirectly. The real subject of his novel was the darker recesses of the human soul.

Last week I had an opportunity to speak to young people who soon will be on the front lines of the American military and geopolitical presence worldwide. The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs held its 19th Annual National Character and Leadership Symposium on February 23 and 24, and I was one of the invited speakers. Incidentally, NCLS speakers are nominated by the cadets themselves, and the cadet who nominated me was Mahhad Nayyer, who is the first Pakistani exchange cadet to study at the USAFA since 2004. I had the pleasure of spending two full days with Mahhad, and he is a fine young man who is representing Pakistan honorably and well in a challenging context.

The symposium's overall theme was "Walk the Walk: Leaders in Ethical Action." I want to forestall any easy or bitter jokes about ethics and the U.S. military by pointing out two things: that, while it's true that the U.S. military is responsible for many bad things, so is the Pakistani military; and that it's to the U.S. military's credit that it holds such a symposium annually. It would have been easy for the Air Force Academy to offer its cadets only flattery and nationalistic self-congratulation, and there was some of that at the symposium. But there also were some hard truths offered by speakers such as Sherron Watkins, a true American heroine who gained notoriety 10 years ago by exposing massive corruption at Enron Corporation. In my own speech, I felt compelled to address several recent incidents in which U.S. soldiers have made things worse in Afghanistan, first and foremost for Afghans but secondarily and importantly also for themselves and their own country.

"It's helpful to remember that some moral dilemmas aren't actually dilemmas at all," I said. (The full text of my speech is online here.) "We all know darn well, as my late grandmother would put it, that some things are just plain wrong. For example, you don't have to be a theologian or moral philosopher to know that it's wrong to urinate on other people, no matter who those people are or what bad things they might have done. You can be an uneducated farmer's daughter like my grandmother and know that.

When a video surfaced in January of four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans presumed -- but not known -- to have been Taliban, I wrote about it, and I took flak from many Americans, including readers who identified themselves as soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan, who were prepared to make excuses for them or to lecture me about how I should show more gratitude toward our proverbial men and women in uniform. But I know darn well that urinating on other people is just plain wrong. And, as a citizen of the United States of America, I don't want American soldiers urinating on other people in my name."

I wrote a full draft of the speech several days ahead of time. My father and a friend who read it both thought I might be hitting too hard on the urination incident. They didn't excuse it, but they feared I might alienate my audience. I had the same fear, and I did consider removing or revising references that might give offense. But wasn't the point of the references, and of the speech as a whole, the importance of taking care to avoid giving offense, especially in wartime and on another nation's soil? If I avoided confronting -- and asking my audience to confront -- the urination incident head-on, why was I there?

In any case, the question was rendered moot when I woke up last Tuesday morning to the deeply exasperating news that copies of the Koran had been burned as refuse at Bagram Air Field. I accept that the Korans was not burned with any intent to offend, and it's (slightly) helpful that both General John Allen and President Obama have apologized for the incident. But, as I told the cadets, such incidents need to not happen in the first place. Ten years into a vastly destructive yet inconclusive war on the soil of a Muslim country, America needs to do better than that.

Which brings us back to my original question: Why are we in Afghanistan? I really don't know anymore. We were in Vietnam because we thought that if the Communists took over South Vietnam, they wouldn't stop until they got to America. I guess we're in Afghanistan because, analogously, we fear -- with some real cause -- that "Islamists" hate America and want to bring us down or forcibly convert us. But does that fear justify committing atrocities ourselves?

My personal answer, the answer I shared with the U.S. Air Force Academy cadets, is: no, it doesn't. That's a hard answer to live with, because it means you can't make excuses. It also means that a nation accustomed to pursuing an assertive "forward policy" in the world might have to get used to being vulnerable like everybody else.