On August 17, 2010 The New York Times carried on its first page a story about the stoning for adultery of a couple in a Taliban-controlled area of Afghanistan. (The Times deserves credit—the story hardly supports the anti-war position of the newspaper). The man (Khayyam, aged 25) was married, the woman (Siddiqa, aged 19) was not. The couple, who defiantly stated that they were in love, had eloped after Khayyam’s family had refused permission for him to marry Siddiqa as a second wife (permissible under Islamic and Afghan law). She had been engaged to another man. The couple was lured back by a promise that they would now receive permission to marry. Instead they were handed over to the Taliban, who convened a Shariah court, which sentenced them to death by stoning. The execution was carried out before a large number of villagers. The woman died wearing a burqa, which covers the entire body and the face, including the eyes. Taliban fighters began the stoning, with many of the villagers then joining it—including Khayyam’s father and a brother of his, and a brother of Siddiqa.
A spokesman of the provincial council of religious Islamic scholars said in a telephone interview that stoning was a appropriate punishment for an “illegal sexual relationship.” Only a week earlier a national council of ulemas (Islamic scholars) brought together 350 of these individuals in a meeting with government religious officials (as in other Muslim states, the Afghan government has a department to oversee and support religion). A joint statement of this gathering called for more punishments under Shariah law, apparently referring to stoning, amputations and lashing. After the aforementioned execution, a government spokesman condemned it, adding that current Afghan law had ample provisions for prosecuting “adultery and other social crimes.” It is unclear whether he objected to the stoning as such, or just to its being carried out by an irregularly constituted court.
It is important to see these events in a wider political context. The Karzai government, with support from the United States, is working for reconciliation with “moderate” elements in the Taliban leadership. The latter are supposed to sever ties with international terrorists and to abide by the Afghan constitution, which affirms the rights of women. Given the favorable attitude of the government to Islamic law, even in its most conservative interpretations, it is unclear what these “rights” would mean once Taliban leaders are admitted into the political community. As to the United States, it is certainly in its national interest to separate the Taliban from al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates—after all, this is why the American invasion of Afghanistan took place to begin with. It is doubtful whether the national interest means preventing executions by stoning or other traditional Islamic penalties—or for that matter the whole panoply of women’s rights as understood in Western democracies.
In the same issue of the Times, on the op-ed page, Bob Herbert has a column entitled “No ‘Graceful Exit.’” The reference is to a statement by General Petraeus that he did not assume military command in Afghanistan in order to preside over a “graceful exit.” Herbert has for a while recommended an exit, apparently with little concern for its “gracefulness.” He says here: “We are never going to build a stable, flourishing society in Afghanistan. What we desparately need is a campaign of nation-building to counteract the growing instability and deterioration in the U.S.” Earlier in the column he decries “pouring staggering amounts of money… into a treacherous, unforgiving and hopelessly corrupt sinkhole in Afghanistan.”
It seems to me that the American national interest is unclear on the question of whether to stay in Afghanistan or to look for an exit as quickly as possible. There are reasonable arguments on both sides. On the one hand, an American exit which will be widely seen as a defeat would have potentially catastrophic consequences, not only on the international position of the United States, but in the wider Middle East and beyond—destabilizing Pakistan, encouraging radical Islamism everywhere, enhancing the power of Iran (more so, of course, if it develops atomic weapons)—and encouraging adversaries beyond the region, such as North Korea and Venezuela. On the other hand, Bob Herbert might be right that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, and that it will require years, maybe decades, of a useless expenditure of lives and resources, which will serve to destabilize American society itself.
A realistic assessment of the costs and benefits of policy alternatives is one thing, a moral assessment quite another. I am taking no position here on what course the United States should take in Afghanistan, not only because this blog is not a political column, but because I honestly don’t know. However, I do want to point out that there would be moral costs to either of the major alternatives. The moral costs of an endless, unwinnable war are obvious. The moral costs of an “ungraceful” exit should be equally obvious. But suppose that the effort to co-opt elements of the Taliban by some sort of peace agreement succeeds. The American national interest would be served if that peace meant separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda. Leaving aside developments beyond Afghanistan, there would likely be huge moral costs in that country itself. The price exacted for giving up the insurgency by the co-opted Taliban leaders will almost certainly be an extension of the reach and character of Islamic law. The major victims would be women—not only threatened with barbaric punishments for behavior deemed acceptable in most democracies, but legally subjugated to men (fathers, brothers, husbands), barred from education and public life, and forced to stagger around in disabling and demeaning garments. After all the moral posturing by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both our enemies and our friends will have learned a poignant (and morally weighty) lesson: The United States must never be trusted.
Both critics and supporters of the war in Afghanistan bring up the Vietnam analogy—the critics by seeing Afghanistan as a comparable “quagmire,” the supporters by saying that the anti-war movement at home was the major cause of the American defeat. I suspect that both have some valid points, though there are important differences between the two wars (especially in that the current one does not occur in the context of two adversary superpowers). However, in a moral perspective, there is a disturbing similarity, brought out by the horror described in the opening section of this post: the departure of the United States from Vietnam in 1975 was probably in its national interest. It had some terrible consequences in the region—the brutal re-education camps in South Vietnam after its occupation by the North, the many deaths on the sea of the “boat people,” and, most terrible of all, the “auto-genocide” by the victorious Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. When all is said and done, are we once more going to abandon to their enemies those who trusted in us?
A very old insight has to be relearned many times—that one cannot act politically without getting one’s hands dirty, often enough with blood. There are no reliable criteria to fall back upon in attempting the moral calculus of alternative courses of action—general principles, to be sure, as in the various versions of just war theory—but the principles are usually hard to apply to the empirical realities. Perhaps the only sure recommendation is to be humble in making the moral assessments that, inevitably, one should make.