Afghanistan Tragedy, Like Vietnam, ‘an Epic Bipartisan Failure’

Just-war expert Msgr. Stuart Swetland discusses the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war on terror and the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Afghan nationals queue up at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border-crossing point in Chaman on Aug. 17 to return back to Afghanistan.
Afghan nationals queue up at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border-crossing point in Chaman on Aug. 17 to return back to Afghanistan. (photo: - / AFP/Getty)

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, S.T.D, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Rhodes Scholar, is currently serving as the seventh president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, where he serves as professor of leadership and Christian ethics. 

His undergraduate degree is in physics. As a Rhodes Scholar, he studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, where he also converted to Catholicism.

He spent six years of line duty with the Navy before being ordained to the priesthood in 1991 for the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.  He has published numerous articles on the issues of just-war theory and the ethical use of the military. He spoke to Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond about the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the repercussions from the Taliban regaining power, as well as the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.


What is your reaction to the chaotic scenes at Kabul’s international airport? To many Americans, it feels like a tragic replay of the Fall of Saigon.

As one old enough to remember Vietnam, there are certainly similarities. Both are epic, bipartisan failures. There should have been an orderly, methodical withdrawal. Yes, President Biden was following the agreement signed by President Trump, but we had a year to plan this. The rapid chaotic breakdown of the Afghan military and government in light of the U.S. withdrawal reveals a shocking lack of leadership and/or intel.

In the military, there is an after-action report, where the mistakes made in any action or campaign are reviewed. We need to do a soul-searching, detailed analysis recognizing the mistakes made throughout the war on terror, so we do not repeat them. Thus far, we seem incapable of learning from the past. We keep hoping that the military forces and the government in the nations where we have gone will step up. But many are on the take, and as soon as we quit giving them backup, they collapse.


Where were you 20 years ago on 9/11?

I was at the University of Illinois, where I served as a chaplain. People began coming into the university chapel to pray, and we celebrated one Mass after the other. Responding to this barbaric act of terror, people desired to reach out to God and to their faith communities for solace and strength. 

As St. John Paul II said on Sept. 12, 2001, “Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say.” Man is capable of great savagery and evil, but God has overcome every evil by the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Our immediate reaction was one of shock, grief and, later, anger at the injustice — all the stages you go through when something tragic happens. 

Because of my work on just-war theory, I participated on many university panels addressing the attacks. The immediate question was whether there would be a U.S. military attack on the Taliban or some other kind of retaliation. During the panels, I would explain just-war theory, stating that retaliation or revenge is never an appropriate motive. The only justifiable reason is the defense of the innocent from real aggression. Obviously, al-Qaida had the means and the will to continue their aggression, so an argument could be made to intervene. But, after reflecting further with the audience, I would propose another possibility. What if we did not retaliate, even if justifiable? What if we had “turned the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40)? Could this great act of restraint be an example of peacemaking to others caught up in the cycle of violence, for example, in the Middle East or Northern Ireland? Ben Shapiro attacks me for this in his book Brainwashed. But 20 years later, I still think there was and is a better way.

I believe we should never have used the title “War on Terror.” The attacks on 9/11 were criminal acts and should not be elevated to a higher level. The militants were not acting as responsible members of the world community. They were criminals and terrorists, not combatants or soldiers. 


During the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks, there was a deep and palpable sense of national unity that we have not witnessed since.

For six to eight weeks, there was a revival in people coming to Mass and other religious services, combined with a great sense of national unity in the face of this attack. People donated blood, and some went to help at Ground Zero. People supported firefighters and police. But, gradually, that sense of national unity dissipated. Part of this was due to the president asking us, as an act of defiance and to restart an ailing economy, to “go shopping.” (Editor’s Note, on Sept. 29, 2001, President George W. Bush said, “I have urged our fellow Americans to go about their lives, to fly on airplanes, to travel, to go to work. Get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.”) But in the medium and long run, even the shock of 9/11 could not overcome the steady decline of religious faith we see in our nation.


After 2001-2002, Congress never formally authorized “use of military force” for ongoing military operations linked to the war on terror. Instead, the Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden administrations continued to deploy troops to various nations based on those resolutions.

Following 9/11, Congress passed the 2001 “Authorization for Use of Military Force” to allow the president to use military force against those responsible for the terror attacks. In 2002, a resolution was passed authorizing the use of military force against Iraq. Since then, these resolutions have been used to justify ongoing military action for close to two decades. And the result is that there has been no full-fledged national debate on the stated mission, purpose or goals of these military actions.

The weakness of that approach has now been exposed: If our political leaders can avoid difficult discussions about continuing the use of military force, they will. But the rightful “owners” of the use of military force are “we the people” acting through our elected representatives in the House and Senate, as the U.S. Constitution clearly lays out, not the executive branch. 

These resolutions should be specific and time-limited. This is important because, if the use of force needs to be reviewed, then people must go on the record, hopefully providing arguments that lay out U.S. goals and making clear how we will extricate ourselves from foreign entanglements. In this way, the decision to authorize force is closer to the American people.


Critics of the 2003 invasion of Iraq contend that it undermined the moral legitimacy of the war on terror, thus weakening the sense of national unity that brought Americans together after the attacks.

It should be very clear: The Iraq War was unjust. Pope St. John Paul II begged our nation not to do it. When you fight an unjust war, you can expect bad consequences. It didn’t meet several just-war criteria. Even if you could manufacture a just cause, such as the removal of the alleged weapons of mass destruction, it did not meet other conditions. 

The probability of success, including a peaceful outcome and the establishment of a free, democratic multiparty political system in Iraq, was low. Just-war criteria also require proportionality and that the use of military action be a last resort. But while Saddam Hussein was obviously a bad actor, he did not pose a realistic ongoing threat to other nations because of the degradation of his military in the Kuwaiti war, the economic sanctions, the air embargo and other measures.


The U.S. military’s mission in Afghanistan succeeded in removing the Taliban, which had harbored al-Qaida terrorists. But then the mission shifted to nation-building.

The war in Afghanistan did meet one critical goal: It helped prevent another terror attack on U.S. soil. But the Taliban always had safe havens in Pakistan. We do not have a good track record in nation-building. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, since the invasion of Cuba in 1898, we have attempted “nation-building” 17 times. Only four of these have ended successfully (Japan, West Germany, Grenada, Panama). We should recognize our limitations and rein in our hubris. As Proverbs 16:18 teaches, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”


The shocking implosion of the Afghan government has stunned the world. Why do you think the U.S. is so bad at nation-building? 

No one trains our military in nation-building. And, personally, I think we should have a force trained to do nation-building and peacekeeping. But these are a different set of skills than war fighting.

The larger problem with our effort in Iraq and Afghanistan is that we were nation-building when our own nation was falling apart, not only structurally, but culturally and morally. We no longer have a shared understanding of the common good and what that even looks like. We have slipped into a facile relativism, and we’re not even courageous enough to embrace it. Instead, we have done so by default. We no longer believe in objective truth, so there is no common good. There is only your good and my good.  We should be sharing the best ideals and practices of our democratic system: the dignity of each person, religious liberty and a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the common good. But, all too often, consumerism and materialism, cronyism and corruption are what we end up promoting here and abroad.

This is one area where the Catholic Church can serve the nation. We have a robust understanding of the conditions necessary for human flourishing. We have a vision of the true common good. And we know that you can’t build a nation on the shifting sand of postmodern relativism. It must be built on the rock of the natural law and the common good and those truths that are self-evident. Ultimately, it should be built on the rock that is Christ.


Does this mean that all the sacrifice of our military men and women, not even counting the amount of money and resources that went into Afghanistan, was wasted?

Absolutely not. And when I hear people say this, it angers me greatly. Our faith teaches clearly that no sacrifice is ever wasted when it is united to that of Christ (Colossians 1:24). And every act of self-sacrificing love has its own merit. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

To this day, Americans remain united in our support for the men and women in the U.S. military. They have volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way at the behest of our political leaders, as our system is set up to do. And they have performed admirably and often heroically. After 9/11, with the best of hopes, our men and women in the military went to Afghanistan and Iraq multiple times at incredible personal sacrifice. 


It is not yet clear whether the thousands of Afghans who worked with our military and were promised safe passage out of the country will actually be able to leave Afghanistan

We have a moral obligation to protect those who served with us and who lives are threatened as the Taliban take power. 

In justice, the plan for our withdrawal from Afghanistan should have prioritized the lives of the Afghans who served the U.S. military, and the fact we have not secured their safe departure, leaving them vulnerable to retaliation by the Taliban, is wrong and a tragic failure of leadership. Hopefully, the deployment of additional U.S. troops to assist with the evacuation at the airport will address this shocking injustice. They trusted us, and we haven’t fulfilled our responsibility to them.


What can the Church do?

The answer begins with personal and communal sanctification. We need to live as good Christians and as good citizens, desiring what is best for our nation. Second, there are some immediate things we can do. The Church should lead the effort to take care of refugees fleeing Afghanistan and find permanent homes for them. But we also need to have a serious discussion about who we are as a nation and why that matters. We can’t keep papering this over, as we have for decades.

In this moment of national humiliation, I hope we will recognize a certain hubris that has led us to this place. Today, I was looking at President Eisenhower’s address warning of the military-industrial complex. Have we learned from him? We need to recognize the limits of military and economic power that is not backed up by moral truths and a commitment to justice.

And we would do well to study and teach the simple truths found in Scriptures. For example, the collapse of the Afghan army should have been foreseen by anyone familiar with Jesus’ teaching in John 10:12-13: “The hired hand is not the shepherd, and the sheep are not his own. When he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf pounces on them and scatters the flock. The man runs away because he is a hired servant and is unconcerned for the sheep.” 

Loyalty and fortitude cannot be bought, but only cultivated in those who understand self-sacrificing love.