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Peace activists gathered outside the Internal Revenue Service offices in Manhattan on April 15, 2021 to protest against spending federal tax dollars on the Pentagon and U.S. wars. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

9/11 at 20: Our Moral Obligation After Two Decades of War

First, Washington needs to stop killing people. Next, we have to challenge our nation's assumptions and priorities.

The day after President Biden’s speech defending the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a new poll indicated a significant majority of people in the U.S. supported the move. More than two-thirds agreed the U.S. had failed to achieve its goals in Afghanistan. That’s a far cry from the 88 percent who supported the war when it was launched in October 2001. 

Spending more on the U.S. military budget than the next 10 countries combined represents a huge part of the reason we have to struggle so hard to fund crucial social needs—from healthcare to climate to education and more.

In part, this is a movement victory. 

Movements against the war on terror emerged within days of the 9/11 attacks, even before the first U.S. bombers assaulted Kabul. This rising anti-war drumbeat played a major part in pulling public opinion away from support for Washington’s “forever wars.” It wasn’t a given that Biden would pull out of Afghanistan—other presidents have promised to do so and then failed. This time, there is no question that public opposition to the war was critical to Biden’s decision. 

That shift also shows that people across the U.S. have learned some harsh realities that anti-war activists mobilized around for years.

Americans now agree there is no military solution to terrorism. They recognize that governments and military forces that are created and imposed by occupying armies will never be, and never be seen as, fighting for the people or the country, but only as fighting for an unwelcome foreign government. They’ve come to accept that women’s rights and democracy can’t be won and that terrorism can’t be defeated, by acts of war. 

And most of all we’ve all learned that the costs of war—human, moral, and economic—are simply too high. 

President Biden was right to focus the country’s attention on the staggering economic cost of the war he was ending—more than $2 trillion, just for the war in Afghanistan, he reminded us. That translates to $300 million every day for two decades. 

And that’s just a small part of our government’s staggering spending on the militarization of our society during these 20 years of the war on terror. The National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies has calculated that cost at $21 trillion. Beyond the trillions spent on the military around the world, it includes spending on militarizing police and U.S. borders, as well as domestic surveillance and repression. 

For a fraction of that cost we could create millions of well-paying jobs, guarantee every child access to pre-school, transform our electrical grid to clean energy, and pay for vaccines for entire populations of low-income countries—all of which would have made us far safer than going to war.

And then there’s the human cost. According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the war in Afghanistan killed 170,000 Afghans. All told, 900,000 people have been killed in the post-9/11 wars overall, with the largest share in Iraq. And those are conservative estimates. Millions more have been injured and tens of millions more displaced, forced from their homes and too often from their country.

Finally, there is the moral and political cost. Neither the war of choice in Afghanistan nor the other wars that followed should have happened. Afghanistan was about vengeance, not justice, Iraq was fought for oil and power and bases, not for non-existent weapons of mass destruction... Yet our presidents waged these wars, and our Congress funded them, year after year. Countless lives have been lost or destroyed, and our democracy has been weakened in the process.

So what is our moral obligation now? 

First, Washington needs to stop killing people. Not only in Afghanistan but in Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and in all the places where U.S. troops, CIA operatives, and U.S. mercenaries work in the shadows and kill people. It needs to stop. We all also have a moral obligation to help the refugees and displaced peoples from these conflicts, and we owe debts of compensation and reparations to the people who remain in their war-torn countries.

For Afghans, the end of the U.S. war doesn’t mean an end of conflict and struggle. But it does mean the end of bombing of their hospitals, the end of missile strikes on wedding parties and funerals, the end of Special Forces operatives kicking down doors and killing people in their own homes. It means starting to reclaim their country.

Certainly, we must challenge the regressive and misogynist acts of the Taliban and hope that the transformations of the last 20 years—in the people of Afghanistan and their relationship with the rest of the world—will lead to major changes. But that does not diminish our own obligations, rooted in recognition of the harm that U.S. actions have brought to so many innocent Afghans.

Next, we have a moral obligation to challenge our nation’s assumptions and priorities.

We have to reverse the popular assumption that having the most powerful military and the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world somehow makes us a better, “exceptional” country. We have to challenge the notion that maintaining more than 800 environmentally and socially destructive military bases across the globe somehow wins us friends and allies among the world’s peoples. 

And finally, we have to broaden the understanding that spending more on the U.S. military budget than the next 10 countries combined represents a huge part of the reason we have to struggle so hard to fund crucial social needs—from healthcare to climate to education and more.

Many Afghans, though of course not all, agree with Mahbooba Seraj, founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, when she said the end of Washington’s long war in Afghanistan brought her “an absolute sense of relief.” For Afghans, the end of the U.S. war doesn’t mean an end of conflict and struggle. But it does mean the end of bombing of their hospitals, the end of missile strikes on wedding parties and funerals, the end of Special Forces operatives kicking down doors and killing people in their own homes. It means starting to reclaim their country.

And maybe, just maybe, this might mean the beginning of reclaiming our country, too—for people, for the planet, for jobs, for healthcare, for education, and more. For our democracy. 

Ending the war in Afghanistan is a start, but our movements still have a lot of work left to do.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, and co-chair of the the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. His books include: "The Third Reconstruction: How A Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear" (2016), "Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing" (2018) and "We Are Called to Be a Movement" (2020). Follow him on Twitter @RevDrBarber.

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