Afghanistan is called the graveyard of empires with good reason: the Afghans have not been conquered since Genghis Khan, though they have been invaded by imperial armies far richer and in some sense more powerful than they. In our own day, Afghanistan has outlived the British and Soviet empires, and Uncle Sam's attempt to subdue it has bled our economy and killed scores of innocent people with no benefit to anyone except the "masters of war, [those] who build the big guns."
Perhaps this invincibility is the provision of Allah; he has certainly ceded nothing—and most certainly not the moral high ground—in this present conflict against the saints of Jehovah, who pride themselves in being "more than conquerors." But despite the title of this post, I would like to think that there is no god but the Father of Jesus, who has built into his creation a foundational principle that the Afghans* are using but Uncle Sam has forgotten, and God is using them the way he used the Recabites in Jeremiah's day (Jer 35), to shame those who call themselves his people and exhort them to repentance.
The principle is this: things start small and spread. We see this in Jesus' parables of the mustard seed and the yeast (Matt 25:21), and in his statement that those who are faithful in little things will be faithful in big (Matt 25:21-23). We see it in Paul's admonition that we change our lives through changing our minds (Rom 12), not by submitting to outward regulations (Col 2:23). We see it in the history of the church, which began with a village woodworker and twelve undistinguished followers and has gone worldwide. We see it in the ant, who does his work without a commander (Pro 6:6-8). And, on the down side, we see it in our lives when we allow ourselves small sins; they eventually metastasize into big sins.
Afghan society is based on loyalty to family and tribe. The Pashtun are the best-known example of this—"I fight my brother; my brother and I fight my cousins; my brother, my cousins, and I fight the world"—those who are not on government payrolls (and probably many who are) are far more loyal to each other than to whoever is in the palaces in Kabul or Islamabad. And though—or should I say because—they are constantly fighting each other,* they also have strong networks below the surface. And those who survive the fights are by definition the best fighters. Who can defeat people like this?
As we saw in a similar situation in Vietnam, it certainly won't be a bunch of mercenaries who are members of an ungodly top-down system.
Yes, I said mercenaries: it is not uncommon for people to join the military in peacetime because they want a steady job, or the training for a peacetime vocation. These are generally not people who pride themselves in being vicious fighters; fighting is not in their blood, as it were. There is always the risk that war will break out, of course, but it's a risk such people are willing to take: they're in the army for personal gain, the trademark of the mercenary.
Then there are those who join hoping there will be a war; this is the mentality of the soldier of fortune—the mercenary.
Those like Pat Tillman, who join only because they are convinced that they are protecting their loved ones, are the most honorable of the bunch, but I would guess they are the exception to the rule. (And again, these are not generally people for whom fighting is a way of life.) Both sides of the War to Prevent Southern Secession, and all sides in the World Wars, relied on conscription—slavery at its worst— to build their armies.
Conscription, as is all slavery, is almost by definition top-down: the underling's duty is not to think, but to obey; thinking is the job of the commander (hence the title).* When the drill instructor says, "First I'm gonna break you, then I'm gonna make you," he means he's going to teach you that you have no mind apart from the will of the whole as expressed by your commander. Today Uncle Sam's army is "all volunteer," but the structure and mentality is still top-down.
The two World Wars were fought entirely between conscripts in top-down militaries, and the object, at least the second time, was complete subjugation of the other side. Today Uncle Sam is sending mostly unsuited mercenaries across the ocean to fight bottom-up volunteer networks on their home turf. Worse, the object is to prolong the fighting, not to vanquish the foe.
That's right. Christians soldiers are going off to a war in which the war itself is more valuable to its beneficiaries than victory.
Twenty years after World War II ended, Time magazine wrote that the ideas of John Maynard Keynes "have been so widely accepted that they constitute both the new orthodoxy in the universities and the touchstone of economic management in Washington." Keynesianism essentially takes Randolph Bourne's denunciation of war, that it is "the health of the state," and turns it into a paean: Keynes believed that war is good, at least for the economy. Why were "we" unable to win in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan? According to Keynesianism, the government spending necessary for war is a boon to the economy, so wars that never end will guarantee the prosperity of the nation.
Think of the narrative we were all taught in school: The stock market crash of 1929 came out of nowhere, or was a product of a laissez-faire economy. Herbert Hoover did nothing about it, and by 1932 things were so bad that only government intervention would save it. Indeed, they were so bad that only the government spending needed for World War II eventually saved it; we need to thank God (or the gods, or the fates, or Mother Nature, or our lucky stars) that the helm was taken by the likes of Franklin Roosevelt. Others have shown this narrative to be fiction; my point here is that it is almost universally believed in the US today, even by evangelicals.
So we have Christian mercenaries, some sincerely believing that they are defending their loved ones by occupying Muslim lands, fighting a war their true commanders have no intention of ending, not even with victory. As Frédéric Bastiat argued years before Keynes,
"Society loses the value of things which are uselessly destroyed;" and we must assent to a maxim which will make the hair of protectionists stand on end—To break, to spoil, to waste, is not to encourage national labour; or, more briefly, "destruction is not profit."
That is, World War II made the US poorer, not richer, though it did profit the "masters of war." The same is true of today's wars: Our unemployment rate continues to rise along with the national debt. Our only manufacturing jobs are in government-subsidized industries. Uncle Sam is borrowing money to pay off his present obligations, not to invest in the future, and there isn't enough money in the world to pay off his future obligations.
As the paraphrase of Margaret Thatcher puts is, "The trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money." And once Uncle socialist Sam runs out of other people's money, the troops will have to come home.
This blog is about being good neighbors: When the soldiers leave, will the Afghans mourn the loss of good neighbors who happened to be Christians? Or will they be singing some version of "Ding, Dong, the Witch Is Dead"?
I suspect they will be shouting exultantly, "Allahu akbar!" God have mercy on us.
*As will be made explicit in what follows, I use "Afghans" for the sake of brevity and clarity; there are, I would expect, few residents of Afghanistan who consider themselves Afghans. Afghanistan is a European construct, its borders a relic of the colonial era.
*Because the Islamic world has never embraced the idea of the fundamental equality of human beings and the corollary sanctity of life, property, and contract, Richard Maybury has coined the name Chaostan to describe it. The name has even gone mainstream.
*I don't know, but I would guess that a wise commander would welcome and even encourage independent thinking by his subordinates, but this goes against the natural human tendency to dominate others. And even the most permissive commander, if he's to live up to his title, will permit independent thinking only within specified perameters.