Taliban forces entered Kabul last Sunday, completing a return to power that was even more swift than their loss of power at the hands of the soldiers of America and its allies some 20 years ago. The resulting chaos across Afghanistan has been harrowing; the surprise expressed by the world’s leaders has been unsettling. Two decades of occupation by the world’s largest and best-equipped military has ended. Some US$2 trillion has been spent, much of it to equip the Afghan military to fight against the Taliban.
All is now gone. Like a flash of lightning in an ink-black night.
What happens now is uncertain. The Taliban have been seen with US military Humvees and M16 rifles, posing next to helicopters given to the previous Afghan government, and occupying the Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul. Foreign citizens in the country are scrambling to evacuate, as are tens of thousands of Afghans who have worked with the occupying forces over the last two decades. Everyone from cooks and interpreters to civil servants and military officers—women, in particular, face an uncertain and frightening future.
For some, the mission in 2001 was noble: a response to provocation and a disarming of violent factions. The Taliban’s government in Afghanistan had sheltered Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and US President George W. Bush responded by developing a “coalition of the willing”—allies from around the world to oust the Taliban and unravel Bin Laden’s global terrorist network.
For others, the folly of the war was apparent from the beginning. Around the world, tens of thousands protested what was seen as an inevitable American retaliation for the attacks of 11 September 2001. And yet the karma of American nationalism and American woundedness could not be assuaged.
The first lay precept for Buddhists is to refrain from taking life. As with ethical injunctions everywhere, it has been widely interpreted throughout time and Buddhism’s geographic spread. Almost universally, however, deliberately taking human life has been prohibited. Such acts have been seen as almost certainly arising from anger and ignorance—a lack of understanding about the causes leading to the decision to kill and the inevitable consequences of the action.
Speaking to a shocked world and wounded American public after the 11 September attacks, His Holiness the Dalai Lama counseled:
Terrorism cannot be overcome by the use of force because it does not address the complex underlying problems. In fact, the use of force may not only fail to solve the problems, it may exacerbate them and frequently leaves destruction and suffering in its wake. Human conflicts should be resolved with compassion. The key is non-violence. (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)
Nonetheless, America and her allies attacked Afghanistan and soon had a new government in place. Then came the hard part: building and maintaining the new nation-state, which has been ravaged by decades of authoritarianism, civil wars, and imperial incursions. This is where the world failed, and as many have suggested, it failed even before it began because the undertaking was impossible.
Having failed at an impossible task, one might ask, “what now?” Certainly, America and others owe a duty to their friends in Afghanistan—those tens of thousands of Afghans who are most at risk under Taliban rule. To fill aircraft after aircraft with refugees and to commit time and resources to ensuring a swift and safe resettlement is obligatory. As the Buddha advised in the Sigalovada Sutta: The Discourse to Sigala (DN 31), a true friend is one who “becomes a refuge when you are in danger.”
This Buddhist advice to laypeople surely extends to governments—themselves mere collections of laypeople. If America and its allies cannot follow through here, then other friendships will suffer as people around the world grow suspicious and seek better, more enduring alliances elsewhere.
Setting aside commitments to friends, saving and helping the people of Afghanistan provides as close a case of “pure altruism” as one could imagine: the risk is present every moment that foreign fighters remain in the country and the reward may be little or nothing for the foreign governments. And yet it can mean literal life or death for every person airlifted out of the country. For a Buddhist, this is a pure motivation—helping others simply to alleviate their suffering.
There is much wisdom to be found supporting simple—and grand—acts of kindness. As Buddhistdoor Global contributor Satya Robyn writes of her actions as a protester against governmental climate indifference: “I am hopeful that we will continue to make a difference, even if it is a small one. Like the small girl standing on a beach crowded with dying starfish, throwing them back into the sea one by one, she was making a difference to this one, and this one, and this one.”* In the face of so much suffering, it is easy to forget that an immense difference can be made for many people in dire need.
There is likewise much wisdom to be found noting the folly of war—wisdom that our leaders time and time again seem to forget. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: “In war as in life, it is often necessary when some cherished scheme has failed, to take up the best alternative open, and if so, it is folly not to work for it with all your might.” (The Gathering Storm 565)
In addition to the profound opportunity for nations and individuals around the world to provide refuge for Afghans in need, we are all offered yet another clear lesson in the harm and the hubris that comes from waging war.
* The Price of Speaking Up (Buddhistdoor Global)
Churchill, Winston S. 1948. The Gathering Storm. London: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Narada Thera, trans. 2013. “Sigalovada Sutta: The Discourse to Sigala” (DN 31). Access to Insight (BCBS Edition). http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.31.0.nara.html .
20-Year U.S. War Ending as It Began, With Taliban Ruling Afghanistan (The New York Times)
Relevant Comments by HH The Dalai Lama Subsequent to the Sept. 11, 2001 Terrorist Attack on the US (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet)
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