Wrestling with Continued U.S. Military Engagement in Afghanistan
Genesis 32 has the story about Jacob, who wrestled all night with an angel and then received the new name of Israel.
The word "Israel" literally means the man who "wrestles with an angel."
One of the most unique things about being Jewish is the fact that we are not afraid to "wrestle with" very difficult questions. The question that I want to ask is whether the United States should still be committing forces to Afghanistan.
When we wrestled with the Vietnam War, it felt deeply personal for me. I had a low draft number. American Jews were quite vocal in their opposition to that war. Now without a draft and fewer Jewish young men in the armed forces, it seems to me that our voices are conspicuously silent.
First a little background. Our congregation has had several members who have served in Afghanistan. Two of them have been previously deployed in Iraq.
One recently told me that in addition to being hot and having lousy living conditions, the security situation there was much worse than in Iraq and that the level of personal danger to U.S. soldiers was quite high. He also expressed some reservation that the current government would ever be able to control the country.
A year ago after General Stanley McChrystal made statements which eventually led to his being relieved of command, it became clearer to me that President Obama had listened to the voices of the military who had called for an ill-thought-out escalation.
One year later, both Republican and Democrat voices are asking for a reconsideration of American involvement in Afghanistan.
This past month, 31 American soldiers died in Afghanistan. At our services, we read the names of all 31of these men and women. I feel so much for their families and I truly appreciate their loyalty and service to our county. To me, they are heroes! Each one of them represented a world unto himself or herself.
Nearly ten years have passed since the war in Afghanistan began. This is the longest running war in U.S. history. Moreover, the cost of this war is estimated at being ten billion dollars per month.
Now that Bin Laden has been killed, many American politicians on both sides of the aisle are asking whether it is worthwhile for America to still have troops in Afghanistan. This is especially true at this time of economic hardship when cuts to both healthcare services and education are being made throughout the country on both the federal and state levels.
In addition, it seems to me that the U.S. war in Afghanistan has paralyzed and distorted U.S. foreign policy in two far more crucial areas of the world.
First, over the last decade, the coalition of forces led by the U.S. have been preoccupied first with Iraq and now with Afghanistan. While this has occurred, the present Iranian government has pursued the development of nuclear technology. Despite the fact that Iran has repeatedly asserted that this is aimed at civilian nuclear energy, most observers have found much evidence to suggest that Iran is indeed pursuing a nuclear weapon.
We will never know for sure, but I feel that without the foreign policy preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan, our efforts to contain Iran's nuclear development could have been different and possibly more effective.
Second, it seems to me that the U.S. war in Iraq and Afghanistan created a lack of focus on our part towards a robust effort at civil society building within in the Arab world.
The recent events of the so called "Arab Spring" in Egypt and elsewhere illustrate how very important such an effort could have been. As dictators have fallen, the absence of the structures of civil society left a tremendous vacuum. This vacuum presents an opportunity to radical and anti-Western Islamic factions to exploit for the purpose of creating radical Islamic governments.
So here is my point.
Why are we being so silent about this war?
Cannot the $120 billion we are spending yearly in Afghanistan be used much more wisely both at home and in pursuing our foreign policy agenda across the globe? Do we really support continued American involvement in Afghanistan? Is it really fair to the men and women in our armed forces, some of whom have served more than three tours of duty, to ask them to continue such service?
I think we owe it to our armed services and to ourselves to "wrestle" with these most serious questions. I think we owe it to our country to consider whether or not now is the time to expeditiously bring our troops home.
Finally, there is in Jewish law a principle which maintains that a non-biblical rule which is not working, or is not accepted, or is not successful in meeting its goal, should be changed. Is now the time for such a change?
Fred Guttman is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.