Abandoning Afghanistan: Trying to Process It All

by | Aug 23, 2021 | Current Events, Faith & Politics, Global Catholicism, In the News

I have yet to discover how I am supposed to feel about the abandonment of Afghanistan.  I can only imagine how it must be for the people who were more intimately involved in the war than I was.  As an Air Force officer, I served in an airborne command center that arranged close air support for ground troops under fire.  It is one thing to coordinate close air support from 30k feet  – it is quite another thing to fight the battle on the ground.  They carry something I will never know.

Regardless of how anyone served, every person who served lost something or someone over there.  For me, I lost the belief in the moral superiority of the Department of Defense.  When people who are responsible for the region around Herat, Afghanistan, lament that their situation is not as intense as the Afghan city of Kandahar (as some of my own teammates did), then there is a severe moral disconnect.  We were not sent to be excited by violence.  That said, my disillusionment does not amount to much at all next to the loss of even one human life.  We all lost and none of us gained anything but some combat pay and a few ribbons or medals to put on our uniforms – a consolation prize of sorts.  It’s a strange “thank you”, but how’re you supposed to thank people for waging a war to bolster an Afghan government that was perennially struggling with legitimacy?  You award them, promote them, and thinly pretend that they’re winning all along.

All I know is that my heart is breaking.  It breaks for the people of Afghanistan, especially our collaborators (interpreters, etc.) whom we abandoned to be executed alongside their families.  More than 300,000 Afghan civilians have aided the US government.  The US government has agreed to receive 22,000 of them.  Is there no more that the US can do?  Is this really the extent of our solidarity and hospitality?  I cannot help but feel that the US would have found a place for more of them if this had been a European war and they had been German or French, but this cynicism offers no comfort.  It only offers another reason for a heart to break.

My heart also breaks for my fellow veterans who were involved in Afghanistan.  I find myself asking if this was all for nothing?  Surely, we all wanted the horrible thing to be over, yet we Americans have this strange way of consenting to the pain of a prolonged war rather than deal with the pain of defeat.  When we tell ourselves that we must stay the course (or kick the can down the road) in order to avoid the shame of defeat, we lie to ourselves – clearly we are now stuck with both the painful memory of a long war and the pain of defeat.  Is there any healing from the pain that those who served suffer?  The loss of lives, limbs, friends, time, mental health, spiritual health, etc.?  Will we just ignore the pain like our country ignored the war for the better part of 20 years?

My heart breaks for the soul of the United States.  After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan fell off the government and media radar.  The Obama Administration showed renewed, if minimal, interest, but that died with the Arab Spring.  In all the presidential administrations from George W. Bush to today, a cold war with Iran was more important than a hot war in Afghanistan.  The people who waged the war were well aware of Washington’s boredom with war.  Presidents would take on new wars in Iraq, Syria, and Libya rather than focus on the war they already had.  Washington would constantly push a refocus on Eastern Europe or a pivot to the Pacific, all while still sending people to take care of the dirty job of Afghanistan.  It was clear to those who listened that Washington would have rather forgotten all about Afghanistan.  

Not even the citizens of the United States cared unless a loved one was deployed (as of 2019, 775,000 troops had been deployed to Afghanistan, not counting those who worked on operations in Afghanistan from other countries).  It was a vastly unpopular war, but the US citizens could not even muster the energy to protest it.  It was always a war best forgotten – a tedious and confusing war, one that embarrassed us if we chose to remind ourselves of it.

Where is God in the collapse of Afghanistan?  My answers feel like trite platitudes.  In my attempt to make sense of this all, I wonder if the situation serves as a reminder that we live in a fallen world desperate for a Redeemer.  Yet we already knew the world was fallen and we could have easily done without all this pain.  Perhaps God is trying to remind us that American Exceptionalism is true only insofar as America is exceptionally bad at resolving conflict, but that sounds more like my own agenda than God’s.  In my annoying and impatient search for God in the midst of so much suffering, I can take some solace only in knowing where God is not.  God is not in the excuses for the war.  God is not in the hatred and the bloodlust that pervades in Afghanistan and in the hearts of some who served.  God is not in the seemingly futile exercise of thinking about what we should have done about Afghanistan (something I fall into often).

Yet I must believe God is still here.  In my quieter moments, I can just barely find a mere silhouette of God – our God kneeling and crying on the flight line in Kabul, amidst the throngs of desperate people.  I can perhaps see our God mourning this damnable war and the senseless loss of life.  I can maybe see God’s heart breaking.

As is often the case with suffering and evil, I can only find God in the grief.  And while I remember that “blessed are those who mourn,” I certainly don’t feel the blessing.  Perhaps now is not the time to feel blessed, though.  Perhaps the sadness of grief is what I am actually supposed to feel.


Joseph Nolla, SJ

jnollasj@thejesuitpost.org   /   @JosephNollaSJ   /   All posts by Joseph