Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Christianity, Afghanistan and 'Just War'

Below is my column in today's edition of the Grand Haven Tribune. 

The withdrawal of United States troops from Afghanistan, along with the collapse of the Afghanistan government and the resumption of control by the Taliban, has been a painful episode to watch play out over the past couple of weeks. So, I’d like to reflect on this experience a bit, and also take a moment to look at what Christianity traditionally believes about war.

First, I believe our country could have done all of this better. At the same time, I’m grateful for the insight of an American history professor at Boston College, Heather Cox Richardson, who has provided some helpful analysis I’d like to share with you.

The roots of the end of this war occurred when the Trump administration cut a deal with the Taliban in February 2020, agreeing to release 5,000 imprisoned Taliban fighters and to leave the country by May 2021.

That’s right, this is the deal the previous administration cut. And it was a deal that did not involve conversations with the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

When Biden took office in January, only 2,500 troops were left in the country. Biden had to decide whether to go with Trump’s agreement or to begin a new troop surge in violation of the agreement, putting even more U.S. service people at risk after 20 years of war. He delayed the exit date to the end of August (prompting Trump to publicly complain), but proceeded with the withdrawal.

And, as we all know, the Afghan army crumbled in the past weeks. The Taliban has been restored to power, claiming victory over the United States. And the United States government is working on evacuating the remaining Americans in the country, several of whom are Afghan-Americans who are still unsure whether they want to leave or stay.

The violence has not yet stopped. From the attack on the airport in Kabul to the United States attack on a suspected terrorist vehicle that killed 10 civilians, including children, we are seeing more and more the horrible human cost of war, a cost that has been borne for 20 years by all sides in this conflict.

All of this gets us to the question: How do Christians understand war?

Far from thinking America needs to go to the ends of the earth to fight for democracy, as has sometimes been the apparent view in American Christianity, most modern Christian theologians hold to a “Just War” view of the question.

Though “Just War” theory goes back to Greco-Roman philosophy, it was best laid out in Christian understanding by Augustine of Hippo, and later by Thomas Aquinas. In “Just War” theory, there is a resistance to the required violence of war while also recognizing that sometimes it is the lesser of two evils.

In the view of Aquinas, the war must be waged by a lawful government, for a just cause due to a wrong done by those attacked, and with those fighting having a just intent to promote good and avoid evil. Aquinas was also clear that war should always be the last resort, done in the pursuit of justice. Later developments also made it clear that there must be a probability of success and that noncombatants must be protected.

What is so difficult to me about the Afghan conflict is that the original reasons for the conflict have long since disappeared. The original reason for the war given by President George W. Bush was to bring the al-Qaida leaders – who coordinated the 9/11 terrorist attacks – to justice. The Taliban refused to turn them over and so we invaded the country to go get them. Within months, however, al-Qaida fled to Pakistan and the war turned into a battle against the Taliban and us as we sought to build a Western-style democracy.

In the years that have passed, almost all forms of this being a just war have evaporated. It no longer had anything to do with al-Qaida and the wrong done on 9/11, particularly after the capture and death of Bin Laden. The war became a proxy battle, with the Taliban having not inflected any injury on our country other than fighting against our establishment of a different government in their country. Far from a last resort, war became the only tool we used. And as the probability of success dwindled the loss of non-combatant life continued to grow.

As a Christian, I think much of the past 20 years was an immoral use of violence and money with no backing or support in the Christian tradition. I wish we would have exited differently, but even more so I wish we would have exited so much earlier, before the situation had become as bad as it did. And I think, in the end, exiting when we did was simply the lesser of two evils was the path we took.

And I hope we are chastened, as Americans and as a country, and that in the future we will give a much deeper consideration to whether the use of war is indeed the right, just and proper solution to the issues that face us.

About the writer: The Rev. Dr. Jared C. Cramer, Tribune community columnist, serves as rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven. Information about his parish can be found at


  1. I've some mixed feelings about this, Fr. Cramer. While I share your assessment of both our motives for invading Afghanistan, and the conduct of military operations in the country over the years. But it's a mistake I think to boil interests in the nation down to American interests. The forces present in the country were a coalition of nations, so just war theory about action against us specifically does not fully apply. But more importantly, surely it is part of Christian doctrine that we act on behalf of the vulnerable. Harm against us is NOT the only reason to undertake protective action; harm against our neighbor is also a reason! So, given the fact that we were already there, and that we stood between the Taliban and the vulnerable, I'd say our Christian duty was to stay until the threat was ameliorated. The strong must care for the weak, and in this case we left the weak for the wolves.

    1. I suppose the question from a just war theory perspective would be whether or not the threat could ever truly be ameliorated.

    2. If not ... then so much the worse for just war theory. Camus' The Plague describes a doctor treating patients for a virus that he cannot cure. But he refuses to give up treating them, because as long as you can help, you do so for those who need it. As a veteran of the Iraq war, I can say that we have both the military personnel, the technology, and the strategy to break the infrastructure of oppressive cartels. Moreover, we were part of an international coalition there, and we are morally compelled to hope that the international community can come to the aid of the vulnerable.

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  2. Rev. Cramer, some thoughts responding to yours. Blessings in Christ.