America needs to focus its energies on recovery from a multigenerational war that has left us wounded and divided. We also need to focus our efforts on the best citizens of Afghanistan locally and globally who can be a force for good, because conquest just never works.The date set by the Trump administration to pull out the remaining 2,500 American troops from Afghanistan was May 1, but President Biden has delayed that till September 1. It has been a long and strange American journey since 9/11/2001. Approximately 2,372 American troops were killed, over 20,000 American soldiers wounded, from 60,000 to 200,000 now suffering PTSD from Afghanistan or Iraq, over 100,000 Afghan civilians dead or wounded, and almost 3 million exiled. But for me Afghanistan is one dining hall. I relished a sumptuous breakfast buffet, stayed in a lovely hotel that was declared the safest place in Kabul. Just a few weeks later the same buffet hall was riddled with bullets inside the bodies of so many people. That is an image seared into my consciousness, as I can still feel the sunlight on my face as it seeped through the dining room windows.
I have been obsessed with wars and their prevention since I was a child, and Afghanistan was irresistible, especially since an opportunity arose in 2012 to do something small, dangerous but constructive. I have met veterans since then who entered Afghanistan as warriors, unlike my entry as a peacebuilder, and yet we are haunted by similar feelings of loss for people left behind, of incompletion, of longing, remorse—and terror, of course. I am a professional in peacebuilding, a professor, and we had managed to build a large gathering of Muslim clerics from across Afghanistan to discuss ways forward in peacebuilding. It was completely unprecedented, and I will never forget the weary, wise cleric, who looked me in the eye at this gathering and said, through translation, two astonishing things: “Where have you been all this time?” Everyone calls it a war about religion and extremism but never consult the religious people themselves, he explained. He was 100% right, as many of us had written in books and proved in our global projects. But the second thing he said changed my life. “There is no religious war here, if you want to understand the war and understand the Taliban then speak to ISI,” the name of the Pakistani intelligence agency.
The same America that was funding the conference, the same America that had been funding the war for so many years, was also the same America funding ISI. This was a circle of death, my taxes paying for American 18-year olds to kill and be killed, to wound and be wounded, to traumatize and be traumatized. I have no illusions about religious extremism or intolerant patriarchal structures after decades of research and practice. But this group before my eyes included a cleric on crutches because he was bombed the month before by the Taliban for speaking out on Friday in favor of women’s education, a nonexistent narrative in Western discourse and understanding of Afghanistan or the Muslim world.
Over the two years of the life of the project we did stimulate more conversation between women in Afghanistan and these clerics, and other excellent groups since then have worked hard on building civil society. Something was never completely right about the narrative of Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, everyone terrified of these clerics, when in fact the master criminal Osama bin Laden was found actually in Pakistan, right in a major military town.
I am haunted by American vets I have met who look at me today through eyes that say that they are back in Afghanistan. I know this look, because so am I. At the risk of my life, I went to Kabul as a Jewish American rabbi and professor, in order to meet what turned out to be a significant group of Muslim clerics risking their lives to end violence. The faces of these clerics haunt me, their good intentions haunt me, their sense of abandonment haunts me. War is rarely the right response to anything, no matter how noble and just the motivations sometimes are. But once engaged in war, the warriors and the peacebuilders often share common feelings of trauma, loss, remorse, guilt, longing, and debilitating empathy.
Now America needs to recover together from this multigenerational war that left so many wounds. We need to reestablish a focus on life not death, nurturing not killing, hope not despair. Maybe someday we will return to Afghanistan as we have to Vietnam, as wounded warriors, as humbler friends, and as fellow global citizens. For it is only in this kind of return that life and reconciliation can flourish where war once reigned.
Dr. Marc Gopin is James Laue Professor of World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, George Mason University, whose most recent volume forthcoming from Oxford is Compassionate Reasoning: Changing the Mind to Change the World.