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Why are we in Afghanistan?


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By “we” I mean we Americans, since I am an American and the question of the American presence in Afghanistan is the one that's most urgent and on people's minds. In 1967 the American author Norman Mailer published a novel about a hunting trip in Alaska, titled Why Are We in Vietnam? The question could not have been more timely or explicit, but – ambitious writer that he was – Mailer chose to address it indirectly. The real subject of his novel was the darker recesses of the human soul.

Last week I had an opportunity to speak to young people who soon will be on the front lines of the American military and geopolitical presence worldwide. The United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs held its 19th Annual National Character and Leadership Symposium on February 23 and 24, and I was one of the invited speakers. Incidentally, NCLS speakers are nominated by the cadets themselves, and the cadet who nominated me was Mahhad Nayyer, who is the first Pakistani exchange cadet to study at the USAFA since 2004. I had the pleasure of spending two full days with Mahhad, and he is a fine young man who is representing Pakistan honorably and well in a challenging context.

The symposium's overall theme was “Walk the Walk: Leaders in Ethical Action.” I want to forestall any easy or bitter jokes about ethics and the US military by pointing out two things: that, while it's true that the US military is responsible for many bad things, so is the Pakistani military; and that it's to the US military's credit that it holds such a symposium annually. It would have been easy for the Air Force Academy to offer its cadets only flattery and nationalistic self-congratulation, and there was some of that at the symposium. But there also were some hard truths offered by speakers such as Sherron Watkins, a true American heroine who gained notoriety 10 years ago by exposing massive corruption at Enron Corporation. In my own speech, I felt compelled to address several recent incidents in which US soldiers have made things worse in Afghanistan, first and foremost for Afghans but secondarily and importantly also for themselves and their own country.

“It’s helpful to remember that some moral dilemmas aren’t actually dilemmas at all,” I said. (The full text of my speech is online here.) “We all know darn well, as my late grandmother would put it, that some things are just plain wrong. For example, you don’t have to be a theologian or moral philosopher to know that it’s wrong to urinate on other people, no matter who those people are or what bad things they might have done. You can be an uneducated farmer’s daughter like my grandmother and know that. When a video surfaced in January of four US Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans presumed – but not known – to have been Taliban, I wrote about it, and I took flak from many Americans, including readers who identified themselves as soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan, who were prepared to make excuses for them or to lecture me about how I should show more gratitude toward our proverbial men and women in uniform. But I know darn well that urinating on other people is just plain wrong. And, as a citizen of the United States of America, I don’t want American soldiers urinating on other people in my name.”

I wrote a full draft of the speech several days ahead of time. My father and a friend who read it both thought I might be hitting too hard on the urination incident. They didn't excuse it, but they feared I might alienate my audience. I had the same fear, and I did consider removing or revising references that might give offense. But wasn't the point of the references, and of the speech as a whole, the importance of taking care to avoid giving offense, especially in wartime and on another nation's soil? If I avoided confronting – and asking my audience to confront – the urination incident head-on, why was I there?

In any case, the question was rendered moot when I woke up last Tuesday morning to the deeply exasperating news that copies of the Quran had been burned as refuse at Bagram Air Field. I accept that the Qurans was not burned with any intent to offend, and it's (slightly) helpful that both General John Allen and President Obama have apologised for the incident. But, as I told the cadets, such incidents need to not happen in the first place. Ten years into a vastly destructive yet inconclusive war on the soil of a Muslim country, America needs to do better than that.

Which brings us back to my original question: Why are we in Afghanistan? I really don't know anymore. We were in Vietnam because we thought that if the Communists took over South Vietnam, they wouldn't stop until they got to America. I guess we're in Afghanistan because, analogously, we fear – with some real cause – that “Islamists” hate America and want to bring us down or forcibly convert us. But does that fear justify committing atrocities ourselves?

My personal answer, the answer I shared with the US Air Force Academy cadets, is: no, it doesn't. That's a hard answer to live with, because it means you can't make excuses. It also means that a nation accustomed to pursuing an assertive “forward policy” in the world might have to get used to being vulnerable like everybody else.


Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (15) Closed

Mark Mar 02, 2012 03:20pm
Kuddos! deserve the Bin Qasim Peace award!
Robb Mar 02, 2012 05:07pm
Like many Americans who comment on the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, you don't ask yourself why much of the world hates America. There are good reasons.
Yaser Mar 02, 2012 05:38pm
what is wrong... is wrong..... no matter who does it...... btw nice see somone from america concrned about emotions of people here.
AL Khan Mar 02, 2012 07:36pm
Ethan, Nice of you to be truthful. If every nation presumed the worst from another nation and bomb them to stone age will any sane person accept the excuse. Americans need to wake up. The defence industry makes all sort of excuses to justify war. It is time Americans said no to this and held them accountable. Islam has never been spread by force and where ever Islam went, it gave full protection to all religions in contrast to what is happening in many so called civilised nations.
Banaras Khan Mar 02, 2012 10:31pm
Like the white lie of weapons of mass destruction expounded for Iraq War, the excuse of 9/11 for invasion of Afghanistan holds no water. Neither any Afghani took part in 9/11 attack, nor any attacker was trained in Afghanistan.
Josh Mar 03, 2012 12:04am Do you AL Khan have any grasp of reality... or even turn the pages of this same publication?
NASAH(USA) Mar 03, 2012 01:32am
I use to be a supporter of USA efforts in establishing a democratic, progressive secular Afghanistan post Talibans. After what happened post accidental Quran burning in Afghanistan I am no more. It is time for us Americans to come home at the earliest and let the Afghans sort out things in their own ways. The United States cannot rebuild Afghanistan the way it did Europe Japan or Korea -- these were not the medieval. countries. Afghanistan is. It is not expected that in a decade or two the Afghans will be building an equivalent of an Afghani Toyota. America -- it is high time to withdraw lock stock and barrel from Afghanistan immediately -- Afghanistan is not US priority -- America is.
Mohammad Masood Mar 03, 2012 05:42pm
Fear Fobia is self destructive. If Americans truly believe that Taliban/ Al Qaeda/ Muslims are out to destroy Americans and convert them, then they are on a self self destructive mode. Sometimes I feel offended at the lies thrown at us by the US administration. American may br naive, but not the world. The Administration is not making the world safer for American and their future generations. The whole world dislikes Amercian arrogance and one day (sooner that kater)will turn against it.
Akhlesh Mar 03, 2012 08:24pm
Burning a religious book and urinating on corpses are wrong. That said, I would like to see a lot of hand wringing and unconditional condemnation in Pakistan about the beheadings and bombings by extremist. I would also like to read of widespread and unconditional condemnations of forcible conversions of Hindu girls, degrading parades of Christian women, and the all-too-pervasive persecution of the Ahmadis. A lot of silence prevails in Pakistan.
akhtaruzzaman Khan Mar 04, 2012 11:13am
There are many 50 year old mosques and madrasas in Pakistan. Many Qurans are gifted or purchased in these mosques. Some of these Qurans get torn over the years and have to be disposed. The Imam most probably burns them, because it is not appropriate to bury old Qurans. If the americans had burnt the Qurans with full respect and honor, what is the big deal. Why did the americans come to Afghanistan? If they didnt come, they would have only bombed Afghanistan with planes and missiles. Would it have been better? May have been better ofr USA.
sja Mar 04, 2012 01:51pm
"""Why are we in Afghanistan? I really don’t know anymore""""""----- the answer is simple some learn the hard way and some avoid learning at all --- there is no more one way in war --- The Americans went to teach Democracy to the Afghans and help them rebuild their country --- a noble act and good intent --- if the teaching was without the state of the art armour and force may be the lesson would be understood easily but it was not one way ----- may be the Americans learn some lessons too from the Afghans that might may not always be right. When it comes to honor besides learning --- teachings also start. That makes it two way exchange and if you do not talk and listen --- fighting can go on for 37 years as was the case in Vietnam. So let us see this exchange comes to a good resolution and the sooner the parties talk and sort it out the better for all involved and side sufferers too. So as an American you please do not feel bad or confused. They always say it is better to be late than never. Pragmatism and use of intellect can help where all intelligence fails.
YK Mar 04, 2012 05:52pm
That's exactly what Americans did (Bombing Afghanistan with missiles and planes). And they sent ground forces and established bases to conquer as it is in nature of 'Powerful Nations' to dominate and conquer and malign the weakest. The answer to this question is simple "it is how human being behave".
Bakul Mar 04, 2012 07:22pm
"Islam has never been spread by force and where ever Islam went, it gave full protection to all religions in contrast to what is happening in many so called civilised nations" - Situation in Pakistan contradicts with what you are saying
JP Singh Mar 05, 2012 08:08pm
What would have happened had the Americans not intervened in Afghanistan or in Iraq for that matter? Thats the question you have to analyse and answer, to get the answer to "Why are we in Afghanistan". But the whole American game has benefited Pak, had it not been for American intervention in Afghanistan today Pak would have been declared as a Terrorist State by the International commnity.
NASAH (USA) Mar 12, 2012 07:55pm
Let's get out of Afghanistan right NOW and let Karzai deal with his Talibans. We Americans have no business being in Afghanistan killing Afghans and getting killed by Afghans. Bring our boys home President Obama - THIS YEAR.