In the days following the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden, some have called for a recalibration of our mission in Afghanistan, urging a swift exit from the country we have occupied for almost 10 years. Bringing bin Laden to justice was, after all, one of the primary reasons for invading Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban, who had provided him a safe place to plan and train for terror attacks around the world, including the awful attacks on 9/11.
Just last week, a bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to President Obama, arguing that bin Laden’s death “require[s] us to reexamine our policy of nation building in Afghanistan. We believe it is no longer the best way to defend America against terror attacks, and we urge you to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan that are not crucial to the immediate national security objective of combating al-Qaida.” In essence, these Congressmen believe that because bin Laden is no longer using Afghanistan as a safe haven and no longer represents a threat to our country, we should withdraw our troops from Afghanistan more quickly and shift to a less expensive anti-terrorism strategy that relies on special forces and intelligence capabilities.
Stewardship does indeed demand that we take careful stock of our limited resources as we pursue the mission in Afghanistan. But our invasion of Afghanistan was always about more than the pursuit of bin Laden. As Michael Gerson noted, bin Laden was not merely a criminal who needed to be rounded up. He was instead a leader of an army of enemy combatants and his death was an act of war, a strategic objective in an ongoing conflict. When the Taliban refused to give up the leaders of al-Qaida, they were publicly acknowledging their complicity in providing a launching pad for terrorism. We invaded Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and prevent the country from remaining a safe haven for terrorists.
Has this mission been accomplished? Do we need to stay in Afghanistan? At one level, this is a prudential, strategic question. Afghanistan represents only one front in our war on terrorism and experts must assess whether our current investment in the development of democratic institutions and infrastructure is reaping dividends.
At another level lies a moral question - a question of justice. Having invaded Afghanistan in our national interest, what are our current responsibilities to the Afghan people? Of course, we must evaluate this question in the context of our very real fiscal constraints. There is much good in the world we could do were our resources unlimited. But justice demands that we also weigh our role in the world as a defender of human dignity, our own imperfect human rights record notwithstanding. Our foreign policy should be directed both by our national self-interest and by the principle of loving our neighbor as ourselves.
We cannot help everyone everywhere. But we bear a measure of particular responsibility to Afghanistan to try, inasmuch as we have the means, to bring restoration and renewal in the face of the collateral damage we have inflicted. Any recalibration of our Afghanistan strategy must include careful reflection on the future of the Afghan people.
Michelle Kirtley is the associate editor of Capital Commentary, where this piece originally ran. She is also a trustee of the Center for Public Justice and a former science and health policy advisor on Capitol Hill.
(Photo courtesy of CRC Newsroom.)