Moral Questions After Afghan Massacre


KIM LAWTON, host: Religious groups were among those expressing sorrow and condemnation after a US soldier was accused of a shooting spree in Afghanistan that killed 16 villagers, nine of them children. US officials said it was an isolated attack and promised to seek justice.  The massacre triggered a new round of anti-US protests. Relations were already tense after American troops burned Qurans at a US military base.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, joining me is William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Bill, welcome.

WILLIAM GALSTON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Good to be back.

LAWTON: How does what happened in Afghanistan this week affect the moral calculus of how the US proceeds there?

GALSTON: In my judgment, this is a really tough one. On the one hand, as the defense secretary said, in the fog of war terrible things happen. To engage in a war is to commit yourself to a process that you can’t entirely control, and events like this unfortunately are almost inevitable. On the other hand, we are pursuing a kind of forward strategy, having our troops not just in the large bases but also interspersed with civilians in the countryside, and that makes it more likely that events of this sort will happen, but unfortunately the United States and its allies have reached the conclusion that this is the only way to prosecute the war with any chance of success. So now we have to choose between our strategy and the inevitable morally troubling consequences of that strategy.

LAWTON: When we first went into Afghanistan it was after 9/11, and there was fairly widespread consensus that we were morally justified to go in, that we had right intentions for going in there. Do things like this erode our moral credibility for that decision?

GALSTON: Well, I think the credibility of the decision, both moral and not, has weakened over time. It’s weakened in part because the war has just ground on for so long, more than a decade now. And it’s weakened in part because our objectives have changed. Some would say broadened. Some would say that they’re no longer achievable, that it was one thing to try to deny a safe haven to Al Qaeda and its sympathizers, and a very a different thing to try to reconstruct the Afghan nation and its central political institutions. People across the political spectrum, right to left, are beginning to wonder whether we’ve bitten off more than we can chew and if we are committed to a mission whose success is dubious now at best because of the way we’ve defined it. Then that makes it even more troubling that we are engaged in strategy and tactics that make events of this sort more likely.

LAWTON: And what moral factors should we take into consideration as we consider an ethical exit from there?

GALSTON: Boy, that’s another tough one, because we have a bunch of people who have worked with us, who have committed themselves to the joint cause. They are now very, very vulnerable, and we have responsibilities to them. We have responsibilities to civilians in areas that are contested between the allied forces and the Taliban, and we have an obligation, it seems to me, to do everything in our power to ensure that the people who have cooperated with us are treated appropriately. Regrettably, we have not discharged that responsibility very well with the Iraqi civilians who worked with us, and many of them are now in fear for their lives.

LAWTON: Alright, difficult questions still ahead. Bill Galston, thank you very much.

GALSTON: My pleasure.