Where is good and evil in Afghanistan?

Tom Bowring writes: I fall into writing this piece from a place of unwilling necessity following a period of reflective silence. If you were to ask my wife, she’d tell you I never talk about Afghanistan and, as psychologists do, go on to suggest this is as much about personal growth and transition as it is theological discussion and spiritual conviction. 

I joined the Royal Air Force in 2004 at the age of 18 and, before my feet hit the ground, my friend and I, who had formed a bond through training and were posted to the same squadron, found ourselves loaded onto a bus to Brize Norton ready for a journey to a place we’d only heard of in the papers. The land of lawless intolerance, murderous Muslims, drug production, dirt, mountains, camel spiders and fundamental Islam—Afghanistan, the heart of the fight of good verses evil, logic verses intolerance, freedom verses terror. And how that rhetoric has stuck. 

I spent an initial 5 months in Kabul and then Kandahar with the US military as part of an early action team headed up by the International Security Assistance Force, and then returned to southern Afghanistan in 2008 along with the British Armed Forces. I didn’t find Christ until I hit 26, some years after my experiences of Afghanistan, yet I recognise the part that the moral and spiritual reflections I gained from the experience have played, as all things do, in the tapestry of the journey to conversion God weaves for each of us. In no small part it contributed to my further journey toward pacifism and my eventual call to leave the RAF in 2018 to enter full-time ordained ministry.

Rage and Anguish

As the dramatic and tragic events have unfolded over the past month, I’ve been contacted by previous colleagues who see me as a safe space with shared experience to whom they can relate, vent and cry. Their reflections and opinions range from bewilderment, through anger and even some to the sarcastic joy of “we told you so.” I have talked to friends sending medals back to Downing Street and others in fits of both rage and anguish. From one person to the next there have been no matching outcries; each has their own unique reaction. 

I’ve also read numerous theological reflections, pastoral pieces and ministerial engagements around the Afghanistan crisis from very well-intentioned and respectable sources, as well as the inevitable few from less well-intentioned and thoughtful contributors. 

As we try to work through the reasons behind major events and find God’s sovereignty amongst chaos we’re often led to gravitate toward an idea of good verses evil—the grand cosmic battle of both the physical and metaphysical realms that forms the overarching narrative of existence. And true to form, the spiritual battle of the Godhead versus Satan has been referenced in abundance in relation to recent events. It is a preacher’s illustration gold mine if you’re that way inclined, but I’m hoping this reflection might cause us to pull back from that imagery, rethink our analysis and move past the notion that we, as western post-Christendom nations, still carry the ancient Israelite’s combat blessing into our conflict with the enemy. This is not and was not a battle of good versus evil; it was and is a consequence of evil infecting the perfect world of God.

Good versus evil?

Firstly, we need to note that this exact same rhetoric of good versus evil is one that extremist Islamists have been declaring for many years and now transmit freely from the minarets that used to wake me and my friends up first thing every sunny Friday morning in Helmand. As any Bible reader knows, despite their losses, eventually the people of God will triumph over evil. They will face hardship and setback, and all will seem lost, but through their perseverance, martyrdom and unwavering faith they will repel Satan’s hordes and God will establish them as conquering rulers to experience the triumph of jubilee that they deserve for their commitment to the true faith.

It is exactly what the Taliban believe they have done. In their eyes, they fought the good fight against overwhelming opposition and God has rewarded them duly for their courage and faith by removing the evil from their land. This might be hard to hear, but it is exactly how they see it—and who can blame them? I dare say we’d be peddling the exact same story: “Our boys destroy evil and free the nation.” You can even imagine the front page with this exact type sitting below a red-topped banner.

Secondly, there is little in war that is God-given, honouring or “good” to face off against evil. From exploitation of the poor to fund the astronomical cost of conflict, the inherent inequality of military hierarchies, morally questionable tactics of people disconnected from the reality of combat, abhorrent calculations of acceptable causality losses and the frightening directive of collateral damage—I saw little in Afghanistan that was good and right as any veteran of conflict present or historical will tell you. 

What I did see was a local populace exploited by the materialist west, people driven closer to fundamentalist affiliation through grief, and friends and family torn apart by a lack of care and support back home for those called to carry out the will of a nation. We have come a long way in our care and support for our armed forces, and this is in no small part thanks to the dedication of those very same red tops I satirised previously. I remember distinctly following my return from Afghanistan in 2005 being called a baby killer and being spat at on numerous occasions in public, something that would be considered intolerable today. Despite the advances in support there are still huge distances to traverse as a society until we adequately address the wounds that war carves out of service-people and their families who suffer daily torment and pain in fighting against the horrors we as humanity were never created to experience.

Conflict and corruption

However, I must also emphasise the positives I saw as a result of the conflict—women working in shops smiling and men joyfully dancing, young girls reading openly and boys playing freely. I don’t want to discredit what was achieved for a second; that would be dishonouring to the brave friends who laid down their lives as well as the commendable effort made by coalition forces as they tried to do what they believed was true and right, despite the lies and manipulation of politics.

But, despite the positives, this was not a fight of good versus evil. It was not the outplaying of events foretold by Paul or John; it was not a sure sign of an impending apocalypse or an eschatological warning. It was, at its heart, as all conflict is, a broken world corrupted by sin trying to fix an arterial wound with a bandage. Putting our personal political views aside, the reality is that it was corrupt, consumerist materialism driving the military machine using virtue as cover. 

If you need evidence of this, I urge you to read about the logistics and security arrangements made between the US and Taliban military commanders, rebranded as security chiefs, for the safe delivery of goods to troop bases (warning: it may very well change your view of the morality of the conflict). It was flawed reason and exploitative tactics trying to save face against the inevitable re-emergence of Afghanistan tribal nationalism once the political dust had settled and blame could no longer be attributed to those in power. It was men and women, often through a lack of social opportunities back home, being killed, injured and forgotten about by society. It was a broken world fighting another broken world. It was sin fighting sin increasing sin. It was pain causing pain and hurt breeding grief on both sides. It was many things, but it was not good versus evil.

The real good news

Many will have taken up the stage, podium, pulpit or social media platform this weekend with well intentioned reflections designed to encourage and inspire. Some will seek to bring peace and hope to those affected and lead them through the on-going trauma of Afghanistan, dressing reopened wounds that have been healing for over a decade. Some of us will be faced with renewed community hostilities in the face of immigration and will preach a message of loving your neighbour before your own desires. Some of us will offer a prayer and go on our way with no further thought, and yet others will be so torn by their personal experiences they will be unable to form the words to adequately express their pain and lament. 

However we approach the people of God this week, whether as a leader or as a brother and sister, do speak about Afghanistan and its effect on the world, but don’t speak about it as a battle of good versus evil. Talk about loss and speak about hope. Encourage people to care for those hurt by this conflict, and to give sacrificially as if all they had actually belonged to God. Prophesy to the powers and governments of the world about a better life that can be had, about the way we are lovingly and beautifully created. Tell them about the cry of your God who declares “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen 4:10) Share with those listening the glorious message of triumphal resurrection and the final peace and victory to be had through Christ.

Do all of these things and more because we, as God’s people are called to speak his wisdom into a broken and sinful world. Talk about Afghanistan, but don’t talk about the fight of good versus evil, for only God is good.

Rev Tom Bowring served for fourteen years in the Royal Air Force before leaving to be ordained as a minister within the Baptist Union of Great Britain. He currently pastors Oakham Baptist Church in Rutland along with his wife Jodi and their four children.


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22 thoughts on “Where is good and evil in Afghanistan?”

  1. Thank you for this Tom – very glad to see it.
    It’s not only western materialism it’s western hubris and a failure to see we are all made in the image and likeness of G-D. Which should lead us to wonder the more about G0D. Just who do we think we are????

  2. Helpful reflection from someone with personal experience. But too close to relativism for my taste. I didn’t understand all the references to materialism. Hasn’t the US withdrawn partly for selfish reasons, because it didn’t want to keep footing the bill of keeping the peace? How is it materialist to pay billions each year to keep peace and enhance justice in a different nation? Was it not more materialist to withdraw?

    Linked to this, I struggle to see how pacifism can be biblical. Doesn’t God establish rulers and give them the sword to establish justice as per Romans 13? Has God renounced violence after dabbling in it in the OT? I don’t mean to caricature, I just don’t understand how pacifism can be biblical or ethical – how can the violent be restrained or punished without rightly used force?

    • Will,
      I agree. It is a muddle, albeit well intentioned.

      I am not sure what this precisely means in the Afghanistan situation : “… the reality is that it was corrupt, consumerist materialism driving the military machine using virtue as cover.”

      And: ” … the inherent inequality of military hierarchies” – don’t all hierarchies have inequalities embedded in them? They are often expressed in pay differentials and virtually all societies find they need them, even if they don’t stretch to Bishops’ mansions. Are they all wrong?

    • I think is plenty of evidence of that. Alan Storkey has made some interesting points on FB. Here is one of them:

      What a nasty, bullying state the US is. “Earlier, the head of Afghanistan’s central bank said the US had cut off access to its assets – around $7bn of which are held at the U.S. Federal Reserve.” These are Afghan funds held in the US. They are blocked to try to make Afghanistan fail and will cost many, many lives. IMF funds are also being frozen. The bully who has lost hits back. “love your enemies” says Jesus. No, says the US Government. We won’t even be fair.

      And another:

      As usual, we are not hearing about the underlying capitalist and economic interests In Afghanistan. They are crucial and we do not really know how they operate. This is an attempt to name them.

      One is opium. The Taliban in their rural warfare have used the opium trade for revenue and Afghanistan supplies 80% of the world’s heroin, with dealers and a network around the world. In 2000 the Taliban tried banning it and with UN help actually cut world heroin output by 75% but the US invasion in 2002 killed that initiative. US control has not stopped it, and we could ask why. What is the network through which heroin comes to markets around the world? It will not be run by Afghan peasants or the Taliban. They will merely receive a “good” payment for their crop. What is the western system that keeps the heroin trade in business despite it being criminal? Clearly, with the Taliban desperate for foreign currency, this trade is likely to get worse.

      Another is the range of American companies who are running the US aid programme that followed after the invasion. They will have been making big profits out of operations here, as Haliburton and other companies reaped $370 bn out of Iraq. They have lost this lucrative business and will be very angry. But this money probably only recycled among a few and possibly fuelled the corruption at the centre of the deceased government.

      A third is western companies seeking to invest in Afghanistan. Some may have been good, but other are predators. We hear that “In 2010, U.S. Pentagon officials along with American geologists have revealed the discovery of nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan.[94][95] A memo from the Pentagon stated that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”.[96] Some believe that the untapped minerals are worth up to $3 trillion.” Notice the Pentagon officials doing geology. Like the Congo, this is big western business.

      Afghanistan is very poor, largely through forty years of war. It would be good if those who cared about the country, without a colonial agenda of control, could be supported to help the new Government through to good peaceful development. In that task, without repenting, the US and UK governments, are useless, but others have long had better motives.

      • Perhaps if the Taliban end up being a half decent government despite their past, they will wisely use those mineral and metal deposits for the good of their people. Given the move throughout the world to electric vehicles such materials will be desperately needed. I won’t hold my breath but here’s hoping.

        As for cutting off funds, that’s understandable given they are viewed as terrorists by the West. But I’ve no doubt there will be negotiations for those funds.

      • The BBC says the IMF has done similar and that the funds represent less than 0.2% of Afghanistan’s liquid reserves. Surely this was done so as not to allow them to go to the Taliban until it was known what sort of government the Taliban might form?

        And the money Haliburton and others made came from the USA not from Iraq? The FT says:
        “The US has overwhelmingly borne the brunt of both the military and reconstruction costs, spending at least $138bn on private security, logistics and reconstruction contractors, who have supplied everything from diplomatic security to power plants and toilet paper.”

        Those on the left, in my experience, especially those that have never had experience of running large and complex organisations, nearly always see simple solutions to complex issues that they themselves have little direct knowledge of.

        A bit like theology then?

      • What is the western system that keeps the heroin trade in business despite it being criminal?

        I don’t understand this. There’s no ‘western system’ that keeps the heroin trade in business. What keeps the heroin trade in business is the demand for narcotic drugs. But that’s not a western thing, it’s a universal feature of humanity. And as long as there is a demand for something, there will be people ready to satisfy that demand. Again, that’s not ‘western’, it’s universal, in all times and in all places throughout all history.

        It would be good if those who cared about the country, without a colonial agenda of control

        Arguably it was the refusal to go in with a proper colonial agenda of control, to establish a permanent authority and make it clear that we-the-west were there for the long haul, but instead always keeping one foot out the exit door while pumping money into and propping up the corrupt local administration, which contributed in large part to the murderous debacle we now see playing out.

        could be supported to help the new Government through to good peaceful development

        The new government has no interest in good peaceful development though. So any help offered would be squandered.

        In that task, without repenting, the US and UK governments, are useless, but others have long had better motives.

        Oh yeah? Name six.

  3. This is a good article in many ways, but I do find myself sharing Will and Colin’s misgivings. I am not sure if there is a moral equivalence between the actions of the west and those of the Taliban. The US originally went to Afghanistan as a result of 9/11 where thousands of people were burnt alive in aviation fuel in an attack on one of their principal cities by a terrorist organisation aided and abetted by the Taliban.

    I don’t think the intention of the US was to colonise the country. Most western democracies do not condone stoning, amputations, oppress women or treat oppositions by murdering them in a cruel manner like the Taliban do. The west got a great deal wrong in how it dealt with the civilian populace in its pursuit of destroying terrorism particularly in imposing western values on an ancient culture, but let’s not imply that there is any moral equivalence between the cultures here. There is wrong on both sides but I’m sure most of us here in the west, would be pretty clear about which kind of society we would prefer to live in even if it does have some very ugly warts.

    If the Taliban have changed for the better then all well and good – but I’m not holding my breath- and I imagine neither are those who have not managed to escape.

    • It is worth remembering that Osama bin Laden et. al. cut their teeth with Western support in opposing the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Then remember that the offence which provoked the terrorists eventually leading to 9/11 was the presence of Western, i.e. infidel, soldiers in Saudi Arabia – regarded by many Muslims as a Holy Land. The presence of those troops was the result of the Western governments not wanting Saddam Hussein to take over Kuwait, probably because of the threat to oil supplies. Saddam Hussein probably thought he would get away with the invasion because of Western support in his war with Iran. The West supported him because Iran opposed the West. They did that because in the 1950’s the West arrange a coup when the Shah took over from the democratic govenment because that government wanted to nationalise the oil industry so that it could benefit the country.

      Going further back, the mess that is Iraq is at least partly due to the Sykes-Picot agreement which deliberately set up a country with different opposing factions, Kurds, Sunni and Shia, because “divide and rule” is a good strategy for an imperial occupier.

      There has been little virtue in Western policies in the region for over 100 years.

      • Then remember that the offence which provoked the terrorists eventually leading to 9/11 was the presence of Western, i.e. infidel, soldiers in Saudi Arabia – regarded by many Muslims as a Holy Land.

        That was the stated casus belli yes, but do you really not think that if it hadn’t been that some other excuse would have been found to justify attacking the primary international ally of Israel?

        The presence of those troops was the result of the Western governments not wanting Saddam Hussein to take over Kuwait, probably because of the threat to oil supplies.

        It was at least as much the result of the Saudi king realising that his best chance of survival was in accepting American military aid rather than relying on a bunch of ragtag irregulars. It’s not like the USA pressured Saudi Arabia into letting them save their hides: they were invited in.

      • Saddam Hussein probably thought he would get away with the invasion because of Western support in his war with Iran. The West supported him because Iran opposed the West.

        ‘It’s a pity they can’t both lose’ — Henry Kissinger, on the Iran-Iraq War

    • I thought 9/11 was perpetrated by people from Pakistan? And Bin Laden was hiding out in, yes, Pakistan. But Pakistan was left untouched. The US chose not to tell the Pakistan government of their raid to get bin laden, wonder why.

      • Al Qaeda did operate in Afghanistan with the Taliban They had training bases there and I think the Taliban operated with Al Qaeda as much as it suited them. The US military put such pressure on them that it drove many into the mountainous regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, continually moving from place to place as US forces bombed their encampments often indiscriminately, and making it harder for them to move about. It took American intelligence a considerable time to track him down when he moved eventually to Pakistan near the border

        And yes, I think you are right – the Pakistani government probably knew where bin Laden was -or at least some elements of them did -however, the war was played against a a backdrop of constantly shifting allegiances in porous geographical boundaries. I don’t think the US trusted Pakistan one bit hence a covert operation to take him out. There was nothing to be gained in having a military confrontation with Pakistani forces and I think both sides understood that.

        A case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend?

      • 15 of the 19 of the zealots who carried out the 9/11 attack were citizens of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia; 2 were from the UAE, 1 from Egypt and 1 from Lebanon. Congress’s report was redacted, but the CIA in one memo reportedly found “incontrovertible evidence” that high-level diplomats and intelligence officers employed by Saudi Arabia helped the hijackers both financially and logistically. The Saudi embassy in Washington and consulate in Los Angeles were both implicated.

        The UK government, likewise, has never published its finding that Saudi Arabia was funding and promoting jihadism in Britain. Saudi Arabia buys arms from the UK and is considered an ally. A long time ago Britain played a part in the rise of Saudi Wahhabism.

        I too share Will’s and Colin’s misgivings. That said, Afghanistan was an easy target, and it can hardly be said that the country as a whole attacked the US on that fateful day. David’s closing comment also seems just.

  4. I thought 9/11 was perpetrated by people from Pakistan? And Bin Laden was hiding out in, yes, Pakistan. But Pakistan was left untouched. The US chose not to tell the Pakistan government of their raid to get bin laden, wonder why.

  5. This contribution says little or nothing about the small but significant Christian population in Afghanistan. There is evidence from Christian sources such as Barnabas that already they are being hunted down and persecuted by the Taliban. So what exactly have these Christians done to antagonise Islamic sensiblities?

    Much of what purports to be Christian understanding of contemporary political issues is founded on the premise that the West is almost invariably, if not the cause of, then certainly the major contributary factor to the worlds ills.

    What is singularly missing here is that,in this instance, the Taliban does not see itself as the “victim”. On the contrary, the Taliban has its own distinctive religio/ political agenda. For them, this is a victory, and the flames of this “victory” have already begun to ignite an even greater commitment among movements such as Boko Haram in Nigeria to further the aims of radical Islam. And who will be the primary recipients of this “endeavour” ? It will certainly not be western- orientated oligarchs. It will be(among others) our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ!


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