The majority of the remaining US troops in Afghanistan have recently been withdrawn, with the rest due to leave by the end of August 2021. This withdrawal marks the end of nearly 20 years of US military presence in Afghanistan.
Support for the withdrawal is widespread in the United States, with the majority of Americans – whatever his political affiliation – in favor of the end of American military operations in Afghanistan. The war has been and will continue to be Dear, both in financial terms and in terms of American life.
But the current regime in Afghanistan is unstable, and some experts believe it could collapse during this year. If this were the case, the resulting lack of power would likely be filled by the Taliban, whose human rights history abuses include violence against women and children.
There are significant moral costs associated with staying or withdrawing from Afghanistan. Like a political philosopher whose work focuses on international affairs, I tried to understand how ethical reasoning could be applied to such cases.
The first and most important ethical question might be: is the United States justified in withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan?
A second question could be how the moral wrongs that may emerge in Afghanistan should weigh on the American conscience. Should American political leaders view these wrongs as, in some way, their responsibility?
More broadly, is it sometimes possible that by doing the best we can, we are nevertheless guilty of doing something morally wrong?
Power and moral tragedy
Many philosophers hated the idea that someone could make the best choice available and still be considered to have done moral wrong. Immanuel Kant, on the one hand, believed that this view was fundamentally in conflict with the goals of morality – which is to tell people what to do.
If a moral theory told us that sometimes there is no option available to us that does not involve doing evil, then that theory would sometimes imply that even a perfect moral agent might end up becoming A criminal.
This kind of theory would mean that there might be situations in which we could not avoid doing wrong. If we were unlucky enough to find ourselves in these situations, we would be responsible for wrongdoing because of this bad luck. Kant thought this kind of “moral luckWas simply implausible. For Kant, if we do the best we can, we can consider ourselves to have avoided hurt.
Other philosophers, however, have been more willing to consider the possibility of moral tragedy, which is understood as a state of affairs in which all the options available to us involve serious moral wrongs.
Michel Walzer, political philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, argues that those who wield power over others can often find themselves unable to do good to some without doing serious harm to others. Instead of believing that the good they do outweighs the evil, Walzer argues, individuals should accept that evil continues to be real evil.
For example, the politician who has to make a deal with a corrupt colleague to help protect vulnerable children is doing evil in the name of greater good. This individual does his best but nonetheless defiles his soul by doing so.
From this point of view, politicians who do wrong by trying to do what is right can do the best thing, but they should also be understood as having done wrong and defiled their conscience by doing so. For Walzer, it is difficult for a person to be both good at politics and really good.
Afghanistan and moral responsibility
If Walzer is right about politicians, his analysis could also help understand the morality of international relations – and the morality of withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Taken in this context, the benefits of withdrawal may be enough to do the right thing. However, the rights violations that are likely to follow in the aftermath of this withdrawal are genuinely reprehensible, and they are rightly blamed on the United States. Women and girls in Afghanistan are likely to face human rights violations, and the people of Afghanistan are likely to face significant violence as the Taliban seek to reassert their power. This should be of concern to politicians who defend withdrawal, and the voters who gave power to these politicians.
This view of international politics is echoed in the advice of former Secretary of State Colin Powell to then-President George W. Bush on the invasion of Iraq – codified as “Pottery barn rulerâAfter the store’s perceived policy: if you break it, you bought it. That is: if you make yourself rule over others, you are responsible for them, and what happens to them should be on your conscience.
There are at least two things that could follow this moral view. The first is that while withdrawal implies the appropriation of certain moral wrongs, the United States has an obligation to ensure that that wrong is minimized.
It could therefore acquire, for example, the obligation to provide safe haven to persons who have borne particular risks on behalf of the United States, such as the translators who worked on military bases on Afghan territory and were targeted by the Taliban for their work.
The second is, more broadly, that the United States ensure that it does not in the future find itself in such morally tragic situations. If Walzer’s analysis is correct, it might be impossible to avoid situations in which the United States is responsible for serious moral wrong. Having power over others always carries a risk of moral bad luck, and the United States has exceptional power in the global community.
But one might at least expect that the United States, in future conflicts, would take into account what the philosopher Brian Orend calls justice after war and enter into such conflicts only with some clarity on how and when to end them well.
The article has been updated to clarify that Michael Walzer is a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
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