Friday, April 16, 2021
It's Friday, April 16, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
President Biden Announces Withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Afghanistan: The Great Game and the Lessons of History
Sometimes the world doesn't split into issues that are clearly liberal or conservative, sometimes not even clearly Democrat or Republican in the United States. We're looking at the fact that there are some issues that also have a very long history and represent intractable problems. Looking in the span of history, you're looking at some problems, you're looking at some enduring problems that seem to erupt century after century with no apparent right reason as to how to solve the problem.
An example of that is the problem of Afghanistan. And for centuries, it has been a problem. And by saying centuries, we really mean centuries. One of the issues that's true of Afghanistan, or what is now called Afghanistan, the Khyber Pass and other regions there along the Silk Road between Asia and the West, had to do with the fact that it was very contested territory. It was very dangerous territory, one of the nearly insurmountable problems for much of the commerce between Asia, particularly a nation like China.
And when you look at Europe, when you're looking at the trade in spices, you're looking at the trade in all kinds of commodities, you're looking at contact between those two great empires and very populous and influential regions of the world, when you look at the fact that the Silk Road, as it was known, was one of the most valuable conduits of trade and commerce throughout more than a millennium, you're also looking at the fact that that Silk Road went through some of the highest mountain passes in the regions now known as Pakistan and Afghanistan, many of the Stans as they're referred to on a map. And that territory was politically unstable.
It was often ruled by tribes that were often at war with one another. And one of their chief ambitions was to get at least something of the trade that was passing through those mountain passes. The pass has, by the way, historically meant that constrictions of the way, either from the East of the West or the West to the East, represented an opportunity for those who controlled those passes to control destiny. But when you're looking at Afghanistan, you're also looking at the fact that Afghanistan has been a direct present problem for the United States for some period of time.
There are those who would describe the United States's military effort and Afghanistan undertaken after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and now coming to an end by order of President Joe Biden on the 20th anniversary of that terrorist attack. There are those who have described the American military effort in Afghanistan as the nation's longest war in the nation's long history.
There is a sense of exhaustion as is so often the case in this kind of issue, exhaustion in the policy class, exhaustion amongst politicians, and a fairly thin and exhausted attention span when it comes to the American people. As you're looking at world affairs, this is a very big story, but it probably is not a big story when it comes to conversation down at the corner barbershop or, for that matter, even much conversation within the national media, even the cable news stations. They'll give it some attention for a matter of days.
They'll come back to it by the time you're looking at September and the withdrawal of about 3,000 American troops. But the reality is, Americans tend to tire of even giving much mental attention to this kind of issue. But we are talking about something that has been an intractable problem, and we're talking about something for which there is no automatically clear answer. What's the conservative position on Afghanistan? What's the liberal position? What's the Democratic Party's position or the Republican Party's position? Those are not irrelevant.
There's a sense in which, if you're looking at a political breakdown, that conservatives are probably more likely to call for continued American military presence in Afghanistan in order to avoid the country falling into further malevolence and mayhem, and becoming once again an even more significant outpost for world terrorism. There's a sense in which liberals in the United States are less likely to favor that kind of continued military action and military expenditure. But at the same time, it's not cleanly Republican and Democratic.
There are Democrats who think the president has made a huge mistake, joined by many Republicans. But there are also Republicans who think, joined by probably the majority of Democrats, that the president has done the right thing. If anything, making this decision on behalf of the United States a decade or so too late. This really is one of those excruciating issues of moral evaluation. What does the United States do? What is our responsibility? You're looking at some fundamental realities here that at least Christians ought to think about.
One of the things Christians have to think about is that we want the things that make for peace. We want order. We want a stable civilization. We want other peoples to enjoy the same kind of political stability and political liberties that we know. But that is unlikely ever to happen in Afghanistan. It has never happened in the past, and there is no evidence that there's a likelihood that it will happen in the future. Instead, when you are looking at quasi-constitutional order in Afghanistan, it is almost always imposed by a Western power at great military effort and expense.
One thing we need to recognize is that a constitutional form of government, any kind of stable democratic government in that sense, require some preconditions. Those preconditions include worldview assumptions that have everything to do with human dignity and human rights, with the reality of equal citizenship, with the understanding of the necessity of a government being grounded in the consent of the governed. All that's basically missing in Afghanistan.
As some had mentioned, going all the way back to America's first effort to try to create a constitutional and legitimate government there, that Afghanistan has everything that is necessary for the formation of a stable democratic form of constitutional self-government, except for four things: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. That's one way of saying there's no historic democratic commitment.
And, of course, when we say Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, just representative of America's founding generation, we're talking about men and we're talking about a generation, we're talking about citizens that had been shaped by centuries of a political development, of a political system and a political culture that would undergird that kind of self-government. But the moral equation really is difficult. What happens when America withdraws? Just about everyone on the ground understands what is going to happen. The government that is now in place is likely to fall.
If not fast, then without too much passage of time. The tribal forces, including the Taliban and a resurgent Al-Qaeda, are likely to reassert themselves. The kind of respect for some basic human liberties that have been put in place, including significant gains for women when it came to rights and dignity, those are likely to disappear in the existing worldview culture of most of the people who still live in Afghanistan. Tribal warfare is also likely now to emerge once again. What have we learned from history? Well, history takes us to what is now infamously called the European-Afghan Great Game.
What's The Great Game? Well, it wasn't a game. It was extremely bloody. It was extremely costly. But given the very issues we're facing right now and looking at the relationship between Britain and its colony India through so many years, again, Afghanistan was at the center of the problem. This took Britain into the very same effort as the United States to try to create some order, to try to create some kind of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
But instead, what Britain got was the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838, the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1845, the Second Anglo-Sikh war of 1848, and the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878. In other words, four wars, no progress.
What Is More Right and Honorable, To Stay or To Leave? Old and Morally Difficult Questions Accompany the Decision to Leave Afghanistan
By the time Winston Churchill came around as a soldier in the late 19th century, a soldier and a journalist, his very first published work was entitled, "The History of the Malakand Field Force," again, having to do with British military actions in that very place, military actions and hopes that were dashed.
Winston Churchill at age 23 understood that there were basically just three options: either Britain could withdraw entirely and suddenly and just hope for the best, or Britain could commit to basically having a military presence and a government responsibility in Afghanistan conceivably forever, or Britain could find some way of trying to find a point between the two, but there is no point between the two. And the three options that Winston Churchill mapped out when he was 23 years of age in the 19th century, they are basically the same options that the United States and its allies face today.
Either we can just pull and leave and just hope for the best, and there's very little hope for the best, or we can determine that we are going to stay virtually forever as what amounts to an occupying force with military forces, boots on the ground, or we try to find some kind of compromise between those two positions, knowing that in reality, honestly, there is no such middle position.
The situation is even more excruciating morally when you consider that a power like the United States having responded to the fact that it was a base in Afghanistan that gave Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group, the opportunity to launch that devastating attack on September the 11th, 2001 on the United States. The reality is that America looks at the fact that the American people would have demanded that the nation's armed forces intervene and at least put to an end and put to a route the forces of Al-Qaeda.
But another problem is that Afghanistan isn't surrounded by nations that represent allies to Western nations and democratic governments. Instead, Afghanistan is surrounded by other Stans, perhaps most menacingly Pakistan. When the United States came in and tried to drive Al-Qaeda out, it was relatively, if temporarily, successful in doing so, but it couldn't press Al-Qaeda out everywhere. Remember that when Osama bin Laden was finally found and taken out by American forces, he wasn't in Afghanistan. He was in Pakistan.
It is known and basically uncontested that the group known as the Taliban, an extremist group, is going to have the major influence in Afghanistan when America pulls out and trying to achieve that kind of third middle position. The United States has been in some kind of negotiations with the Taliban. But when American boots on the ground are no longer on the ground, then the Taliban can just ignore everything that it agreed to and negotiated with the United States. It can and likely it will, but that's the moral difficulty here. Then what's the right thing to do?
Should the United States keep the 3,000 forces on the ground, believing that stopping the forces of mayhem to some extent is worth that investment of American military power and even the potential loss of American military lives? And understand, that by the time you get to this 20th anniversary of September the 11th looming before us in September, there have been many Americans who have paid the ultimate price wearing the American uniform and representing the American Armed Forces not only in Afghanistan, but in Iraq and elsewhere. The question is, what do you do with that kind of investment?
What is most honorable, to stay or to leave? Looking at the realities on the ground right now, I believe, just to be honest, that the better case is for American forces to remain in Afghanistan. But I want to admit, this is not an issue in which there is a clear right and a clear wrong. Further adding to the evidence of turmoil in Afghanistan is the fact that the Soviet Union, far closer geographically to Afghanistan than the United States, was involved in a protractive, very badly, extremely costly war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.
And that war, by the way, was one of the factors that weakened the political authority of the communist leaders of the Soviet Union. That war in Afghanistan and it's very costly nature to no effective result was one of the issues that removed the legitimacy of the Soviet Union's government in the eyes of its people. Also indicating the moral confusion in all of this, the United States had allies in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War that later became its enemies. In Afghanistan, you have a very clear lesson, no permanent friends, although you may have permanent enemies.
President Biden believes that history will record that he was doing the right thing withdrawing American Forces in 2021. No doubt President of George W. Bush is hoping the same in terms of the verdict of history when it comes to the American invasion of Afghanistan going back now almost 20 years. Between those two presidencies of George W. Bush and Joseph Biden are the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. All four of those presidents, as President Biden has indicated, had to deal with the issue of Afghanistan.
I'm simply going to close this issue by saying that one of the things we learned is that sometimes we have to deal with very, very difficult political, moral, even geopolitical issues for which there is no obvious right or wrong in a fallen sinful world. The other thing we have to recognize is this, and I am certain of this fact as you look at the course of history, President Biden believes that the right thing to do is to withdraw these troops. But make no mistake, Afghanistan, troops on the ground or not, will remain a problem.
Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, Dies at 99: The Frame of History in One Single Lifetime
But next, thinking of the lessons of history and the span of history, we think of Prince Philip of Great Britain, whose funeral is to be held tomorrow afternoon London Time. Prince Philip was married for more than seven decades to Elizabeth, first the princess, and then the Queen of Great Britain. And as the Queen's consort, Prince Philip was often at the center of world attention, living out his role as the husband in a marriage at the center of the world's most celebrated and famous monarchy. It was always an awkward role for Prince Philip.
Many Americans looking at the royal family wondered why he was not King Philip. After all, if you have a reigning king, his wife is known generally as queen. But it's not the case when you have a reigning queen. If she is married, her husband generally is not known as king, certainly not as king consort, because there is no such thing as a king consort. That tells you something about human history, the differences between men and women, and the fact that even in a supposedly feminist age, there are enduring reminders that there are certain things that simply won't change.
Had Prince Philip had the title of king, even though his wife was the sovereign monarch, it would have confused everyone. But looking at those seven decades or more when Prince Philip was the consort to the Queen of England, it was clearly awkward at nearly every turn. But the point I want to raise is that if you look at the life of Prince Philip, you are looking at one of the most amazing spans of human history. It's interesting just to contemplate how the world changed in one man's very long lifetime. Born in 1921. He died in 2021, just a matter of weeks, shy of what would have been his 100th birthday.
Prince Philip was born in the Island of Corfu. He was born as a prince of both Greece and Denmark. He was born the only son of the second son of the King of Greece, who had actually himself been born the Prince of Denmark. It's further evidenced of the fact that just about all the reigning heads and all the royal families in the expanse of Europe have some relationship, if not direct descent from Queen Victoria in the 19th century. But you're also looking at one of the strangest lifetimes that included all the dark and all the glorious twists and turns of the 20th century.
Consider the fact that his grandfather, the King of Greece, was soon to be the deposed and exiled king. Consider the fact that his father became a general in the Greek forces only to face the fact that he was handed a death sentence for what was considered the mismanagement of a crucial battle. Consider the fact that Prince Philip, as a young Greek and Danish Prince, had to be rescued out of Greece in order to survive, and he made his way through various parts of Europe until he landed in Great Britain. But that too turns out to be a very fascinating tale.
His father, who was later exiled just like his grandfather, had very little relationship with Prince Philip during the time that he was growing up and said the boy came under the influence of others, including some very interesting educators at the boarding schools for boys to which he was sent. Consider the fact that he was born just after World War I and the event World War I and the German defeat in World War I was the huge issue that defined his life. Because even as he was a Prince of Denmark and of Greece, his surname was extremely German, as was the family.
His actual family name was Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, a very German name at exactly the wrong moment to have a German name in the English speaking world. But that problem was actually shared by the British Royal family itself. Elizabeth's grandfather, George V, the King of Great Britain and Emperor of India, actually had the family surname of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, again, extremely German going back to Prince Albert who married Queen Victoria.
With anti-German spirit rising in Great Britain, King George V changed the name of his family from the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the House of Windsor, which it remains today. Prince Philip's grandfather on his mother's side was Prince Louis of Battenberg, again, extremely German. And just as the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was changed to the House of Windsor, given the anti-German spirit, given German aggression, the House of Battenberg was also changed to the family name of Mountbatten.
The German Prince Louis of Battenberg, that's Philip's grandfather, became the very British Marquess of Milford Haven and his own son became Louis Mountbatten, who became First Lord of the Admiralty, who also became one of the supreme commanders of allied forces in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Later became the Viceroy of India and who had some influence not only in the raising of Prince Philip, but also in Prince Philip's son, the current heir to the throne and Prince of Wales, Charles.
If that sounds complicated, just consider the fact that when you are looking at Prince Philip, you're looking at a man who, as a boy, had four older sisters and all four of the married men who were German and became prominent Nazis or Nazi supporters. That was a complication. That meant that when in the 1950s he married Elizabeth, not one of his own sisters could come to the wedding.
If that's not weird enough, Prince Philip's mother, who had been after all married to a Prince of Greece herself, again, a descendant of the Marquess of Milford Haven, the former Prince Louis of Battenberg, she actually went back to Greece and formed an order of nuns committed to charity. That reminds us of something else. Prince Philip was baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. His, mother having after the war, after being deposed, going back to Greece and starting this order of nuns was eventually buried in a Russian Orthodox church in East Jerusalem.
How's that for strange? Why was Prince Philip when he got married to Elizabeth not a Prince at all? It is because in order to marry Elizabeth, in order, frankly, to survive in the British Royal culture and even the British nobility, he had to relinquish his titles and rights and privileges as a Prince of Greece and Denmark. By the time Philip married Elizabeth in 1947, he wasn't even a prince anymore. On the very day that he married Elizabeth, with the permission of her father King George VI, the King made him a Duke.
That became a major problem when Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had a son, their first child, Prince Charles. And it was relatively close to that time that the Queen issued the Letters Patent that established Philip as a Prince of Great Britain. If she had not done that, then Charles would have outranked his father. Also, a bit awkward, in a life that was already awkward.
There are a lot of dimensions to the life of someone like Prince Philip, who, after all, had to live his life out rather publicly for most of his lifetime, rather tragically at times, comically at other times, just strangely virtually at all times. But nonetheless, within the royal family, Prince Philip, though distant from just about all of his children, he nonetheless was a force of stability in a family that sometimes tremendously needed stability.
He was also famous for gafs or making outlandish statements that actually could never be corrected because he was the Queen's husband and the Prince of Great Britain. Any American politician, for example, would have had to come back and say, "I don't know why I said that. That was a ridiculous statement." But you didn't have many retractions when it came to the royal family and Prince Philip. As one royal observer said, "When the Prince spoke that way, whatever he said just stayed there." It stays there now.
I mentioned the Prince Philip was baptized as an infant into the Greek Orthodox Church, but it's rather awkward to have a Greek Orthodox, husband to the Queen of England, who is after all the supreme governor of the Church of England. So not only did Prince Philip prior to marrying Elizabeth have to relinquish his princely status coming from Greece and Denmark, he also had to switch his religious identity from Greek Orthodox to Anglican as a member of the Church of England. It didn't seem to matter much.
It's also clear that Prince Philip, who in a very awkward position wanted to be considered a serious thinker, wasn't actually capable of doing much serious thinking. When it came to religious matters in the 1960s, Prince Philip established something of a think tank at Windsor Castle, a house in which grand theological issues would be discussed. He also held a summit meeting of all the world's religions when it came to trying to deal with environmental issues.
And when you're looking at someone like Prince Philip as a member of the British nobility and indeed of the British royal family, the reality is it's very hard to know exactly what his theological beliefs were at any point in time. It is one of the key insights of biblical Christianity that empires come and empires go, kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall.
When it comes to the life of Prince Philip, his own personal lifetime included a span of human history with incredible change, a human lifetime in which he could be born with aunts and great aunts who were involved in the Russian Imperial House, including grand duchesses of Russia. His father was a Prince of Greece and there now is no monarch in Greece. He was born the Prince of Greece and Denmark, and yet most of the world will know him as the man who was married to the Queen of England and came along about two paces behind her for more than 70 years.
Philip gave up a life in the British Navy, which he seems genuinely to have loved, in order to serve his wife who became Queen. And at her coronation, he became known as the "liege man of life and limb," and he remained so to the end. It must have been a very strange life. Prince Philip was not a major character on the world stage, but he knew most of those who were. Born amidst ancient ruins, he would die in the age of the smartphone. In a life tremendously buffeted by the tragic world events of the 20th century, he made it almost to his 100th birthday.
As the hymn, "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past," reminds us, time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away. All of them. Prince Philip, 1921 to 2021. His funeral at three o'clock local time tomorrow.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.