Vail Valley Voices: U.S. effort make sense in Afghanistan? |

Vail Valley Voices: U.S. effort make sense in Afghanistan?

Jack R. Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

Many military strategists, including President Barack Obama, insist U.S. troops must fight the Taliban in Afghanistan to save our nation from another terrorist attack on our shores.

Obama’s religious mentor, the late Reinhold Niebuhr would disagree.

During the Cold War era, Niebuhr believed strongly in the virtue of liberty. But he concluded that freedom fighters couldn’t save all enslaved people. Some nations’ cultural attitudes, religious convictions and political traditions poison the soil in which freedom takes root.

Reinhold Niebuhr, who was featured on Time magazine’s cover in the late 1940s, is no longer a household name. After serving a Lutheran parish in Detroit during the 1920s, Niebuhr distinguished himself on faculty at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary. He died in 1971 at 78.

President Obama attributes to Niebuhr his way of dealing with issues when the conclusion to a discussion is seldom right or wrong, clear or muddled. Niebuhr used theology as an intellectual tool to critique political issues by asking penetrating questions. This method of crossing theology with politics brought opponents around the table. Here they delved into issues rather than detonate inflammatory rhetoric.

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For instance, Niebuhr believed everyone deserves rights that guarantee personal freedom. But the U.S. can’t shove freedom down the throats of cultures that for centuries thrived on the few controlling the many. Although democracy may act as “the ideal instrument of justice in any culture,” Niebuhr cautioned, “the question remains whether democracy is not also a luxury which only advanced nations can afford.”

Certainly, Taliban-dominated Afghanistan doesn’t offer fertile soil in which the seeds of democracy can be planted. Its citizens have a life expectancy of 44 years. The literacy rate bottoms out at 28 percent, with the level for women several points lower. In this primitive country where isolated clans compete, merely a fifth of the population has access to clean drinking water. When compared to 182 countries by the United Nations’ Human Development Index, it falls next to last. Only Niger is worse.

If Niebuhr had access to these numerical comparisons, how would he coach President Obama? Long before our nine-year war in Afghanistan, Niebuhr wrote in the New Republic magazine (June 26, 1961, pp. 11-12) what he took for granted. It still is obviously true. We can’t remake Taliban-controlled society so that it conforms to the liberties Americans hold dear.

“What should be obvious,” declared Niebuhr, “is that Western-style democracy is not immediately relevant to non-European culture. They lack standards of literacy, political skill and social equilibria which would make viable political freedom as we have come to know it.”

Consequently, Niebuhr offers a conclusion that President Obama rejects. Both regard Western democracy as “an ultimate political ideal.” But they clash over where this ideal can become real. “Not in a place such as Afghanistan,”

Niebuhr might caution if alive today. Instituting our freedoms in a country whose traditions, identity, religious bent and cultural norms deny liberty “requires greater political skill, cultural adequacy and a fortunate balance of social forces than are available for many non-European or, more accurately, non-technical nations.”

Trying to trounce the Afghani Taliban isn’t unlike the bloody battles Israelite tribes endured in the Book of Judges. Leaders Moses and Joshua had died. Israel waited on nation-building under King David that wouldn’t arrive for years. With mediocre rulers judging military strategy, the Israelites battled in Canaan stubborn clans and corrupt tribal chieftains. The writer of the Judges sets the stage at the book’s opening, “After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the Lord, ‘Who shall go up for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?'” (Joshua 1:1). The Israelites waged war. They were mired in it for years.

Sound familiar? Doesn’t such history repeat itself in Afghanistan?

Like a contemporary Niebuhr, Rory Stewart, who once headed Harvard’s Carr Center for international study, describes why we can’t win against the Afghani Taliban. “There are no mass political parties in Afghanistan and the Kabul government lacks the base, strength or legitimacy of the Baghdad government. Afghan tribal groups lack the coherence of the Iraqi Sunni tribes and their relation to state structures. … Afghans are weary of war but the Afghan chiefs are not approaching us, seeking a deal. Since the political players and state structures in Afghanistan are much more fragile than those in Iraq, they are less likely to play a strong role in ending the insurgency.”

If President Obama heeded Reinhold Niebuhr’s voice, would he still express confidence that our troops could trounce the Afghani Taliban?

The Rev.Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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