Bring a Measure of Justice to the End of the Afghanistan War

A U.S. soldier surveys a training ground near Kandahar, Afghanistan, March 14, 2017.

u.s. air force photo by Senior Airman Jordan Castelan

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A U.S. soldier surveys a training ground near Kandahar, Afghanistan, March 14, 2017.

An Iraq War veteran reminds us of the debt owed to Afghans who helped American troops.

It was my senior year at Georgetown and I watched from my dorm room as the Pentagon burned and smoldered. The day after graduation, I eagerly enlisted in the Army and asked the recruiter to send me to Afghanistan — a just war, by all accounts. Instead, the Army sent me to Iraq, a preventative war that had no connection to the 9/11 attacks. It was a swift lesson: soldiers are mere cogs in the military-industrial complex and can’t pick and choose their conflicts.

Even though the Iraq war lacked a just cause — jus ad bellum — I still recognized my ethical responsibilities as a soldier to adhere to the jus in bello principles of military necessity, civilian distinction, proportionality, and humanity; in essence, to fight honorably.

I served in the Army as a ground combat leader in Iraq during the Anbar Awakening. During my 15-month tour to Ramadi, our unit made implausible gains in pacifying a brutal and relentless insurgency led by al-Qaeda in Iraq. By the time I left Iraq in 2007, our forces had won the peace in Anbar Province. My men and I fought justly in an unjust war. However, U.S. and Iraqi leaders failed to secure our military gains and protect those Iraqis who aided us during the war. After the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, many of these men and women were brutally targeted and killed by Sunni extremists. 

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Equally as important as the principles of jus ad bellum and jus in bello is the concept of jus post bellum: justice after war. The pre-eminent contemporary Just War theorist, Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars, writes, “Jus post bellum is most importantly about social justice in its minimal sense: the creation of a safe and decent society.” Sadly, due to the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, large swaths of the population will become vulnerable upon our exit, especially those Afghans that worked for the U.S. military. 

Walzer specifically addresses this class of people: “We must make sure that the men and women who cooperated with the occupation in any capacity will be safe in its aftermath—and if any of them are not safe, they must be given the opportunity to leave with the occupying forces and be taken in by the occupying state.”

Our minimally just responsibility is to protect those Afghans who contributed to our war effort.

In 2009, Congress passed the Afghan Allies Protection Act, which provides special immigrant visas to Afghans who have worked for U.S. forces and whose lives are threatened because of it. These special visas allow these wartime allies and their families to resettle in the United States. 

However, demand is drastically outpacing the allocated supply. Through 2018, the State Department had issued 10,705 of the authorized total of 14,500 special immigrant visas. But 10,955 more Afghans and their family members have applied. Unless more visas are authorized by Congress, only 35 percent of these remaining applicants will receive the chance to resettle in the United States. Even the ones who eventually receive visas will have spent far too long in peril. From application to final approval, the process takes 692 days — each of them spent in the crosshairs of the Taliban and ISIS. And this crisis will only get worse as U.S. forces begin to withdraw. 

Not only is the current special-immigrant-visa situation unjust, but it’s also unwise. We ask others, like the Afghans, to put their lives, and the lives of their families on the line in supporting our mission, yet we fail to provide them with sanctuary. We are establishing a deleterious precedent and sending the message to our future allies that there are no guarantees we will have their back.

We did better at the end of the Vietnam War, when we developed a large-scale resettlement program for those who supported our military efforts. In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, the U.S. evacuated 125,000 Vietnamese refugees. This first wave consisted predominantly of military personnel and urban, educated professionals whose association with the U.S. military made them targets of the communist regime.

Unlike the Iraq or Vietnam wars, our invasion and mission in Afghanistan was founded on a just cause, one of self-defense. However, just wars can end unjustly. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that we exit the war in Afghanistan honorably by providing due care for those who had our backs when we were deployed and in harm’s way.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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