Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Now What? The Pursuit of Justice in a Post-bin Laden Afghanistan

Michelle Kirtley


May 13, 2011
by Michelle Kirtley

In the days following the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden some have called for a “recalibration” of our mission in Afghanistan, urging a swift exit from the country we have occupied for almost 10 years.  Bringing Osama bin Laden to justice was, after all, one of the primary reasons for invading Afghanistan and toppling the Taliban, who had provided him a safe place to plan and train for terror attacks around the world, including the awful attacks on September 11, 2001. 

Just this week, a bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to President Obama, arguing that bin Laden’s death “require[s] us to reexamine our policy of nation building in Afghanistan. We believe it is no longer the best way to defend America against terror attacks, and we urge you to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan that are not crucial to the immediate national security objective of combating al Qaeda.”  In essence, these Congressmen believe that because bin Laden is no longer using Afghanistan as a safe haven and no longer represents a threat to our country, we should withdraw our troops from Afghanistan more quickly and shift to a less expensive anti-terrorism strategy that relies on special forces and intelligence capabilities.  Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) have articulated a similar view.

Stewardship does indeed demand that we take careful stock of our limited resources as we pursue the mission in Afghanistan.  But our invasion of Afghanistan was always about more than the pursuit of Osama bin Laden.  As Michael Gerson noted, Osama bin Laden was not merely a criminal who needed to be rounded up.  If this were the case, then we could say “case closed” and begin to leave Afghanistan.  He was instead a leader of an army of enemy combatants, and his death was an act of war, a strategic objective in an ongoing conflict.   When the Taliban refused to give up the leaders of al Qaeda, they were publicly acknowledging their complicity in providing a launching pad for terrorism.  We invaded Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda and prevent the country from remaining a safe haven for terrorists.  

Has this mission been accomplished?  Do we need to stay in Afghanistan? At one level, this is a prudential, strategic question.  Afghanistan represents only one front in our war on terrorism, and experts must assess whether our current investment in the development of democratic institutions and infrastructure is reaping dividends. 

At another level lies a moral question—a question of justice.  Having invaded Afghanistan in our national interest, what are our current responsibilities to the Afghan people? Of course, we must evaluate this question in the context of our very real fiscal constraints.  There is much good in the world we could do were our resources unlimited.  But justice demands that we also weigh our role in the world as a defender of human dignity, our own imperfect human rights record notwithstanding.  Our foreign policy should be directed both by our national self-interest and by the principle of loving our neighbor as ourselves.  We cannot help everyone everywhere.  But we bear a measure of particular responsibility to Afghanistan to try, inasmuch as we have the means, to bring restoration and renewal in the face of the collateral damage we have inflicted.  Any recalibration of our Afghanistan strategy must include careful reflection on the future of the Afghan people.

In his 2005 inaugural address, President George W. Bush set forth these lofty goals:

“The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world…America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights and dignity and matchless value, because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and Earth…. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.”

While these idealistic aims may not always be militarily possible, diplomatically practical, or fiscally feasible, we must as a nation wrestle with our obligation to steward our gifts of freedom and democracy for the common good not only here at home, but everywhere we have the means and power to help. 

—Michelle Kirtley is the Associate Editor of Capital Commentary, a Trustee of the Center for Public Justice, and a former science and health policy advisor on Capitol Hill.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”