Alongside the commemorations of the September 11 attacks, Americans marked twenty years since the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan. This invasion turned into a long and bloody war, which ended with the US’s hasty withdrawal at the end of August 2021.
Scholars of international law still dispute whether the decision to invade Afghanistan was justified. What is beyond dispute is the terrible price that ordinary Afghan civilians paid as result: at least 47,245 civilians were killed during the 20 years of conflict, millions more were displaced, and the lives of tens to hundreds of thousands of Afghans are now at risk because of the assistance they provided American forces during the conflict.
Given these very serious harms that the US inflicted on Afghani citizens, it is not surprising that many ethicists of just war argue that America now has important remaining obligations to Afghanis, even after it withdrew its forces. For example, obligations of reparation and compensation to those who were harmed by its actions, and an obligation to provide permanent shelter to those who had assisted the US and are now in danger.
But an important challenge to such demands is that they treat the US as a single entity while, in truth, it is comprised of millions of individuals. Were the US to discharge its obligations to Afghani citizens, it will be American citizens who will bear the actual costs. Do these individual citizens have the obligation to contribute to reparations or to welcome Afghani refugees?
We might seek an answer to this question by looking at more common scenarios where people incur a duty to put a bad situation right. Typically, we hold people responsible in this way if they had brought about the bad situation in the first place, if they benefit from it, or if they have some special relationship to the victim (e.g. he is a family member). But none of these reasons apply to many ordinary Americans with relation to the war: most did not benefit from it (indeed some have made huge sacrifices for it); most do not have special ties to Afghani victims; finally, while American taxpayers funded the war, they did not have much choice in the matter and many did not support it. To argue that they bear responsibility for the war, because tax money that was taken from them was used to fund it, seems to add insult to their injury.
So, do Americans who resisted the war or have not benefited from it bear responsibility for assisting its Afghani victims? I believe that they do. In my view, they do because they are acting together in their state, and because their state policies—even those they disagree with—are the product of this collective action.
People act together when—at the minimum—they intend to do their part so the goal they share with each other is realized. People may form many groups that act together in this sense: formal and informal, ad-hoc and institutional. Specifically in institutional groups, as anyone who works in an office, is part of a church, or a member of a local club knows, it is often the case that the decisions made by the group itself are not supported by all its members. Yet these members act on these decisions, despite their reservations. When they do so, they are acting together with the rest of the group, and they too are the authors of the group act: they are part of the “we” that enacted the group decision. As authors of these actions, they have a special responsibility for their outcomes.
These observations suggest that ordinary citizens are party to their state policies: they all share the goal of having a functioning state that can reach policy decisions through a democratic process and act upon them. Most citizens “do their part” in supporting this shared goal: they contribute to the tax system, obey state laws, participate in the democratic process, and so on. Citizens often object to specific policies, but as long they are seeing themselves as supporting their state more generally, in its capacity to reach and enact such decisions, they are party to the “we” who executes them. For that precise reason, it makes sense for all Americans to say “we invaded Afghanistan” or “we decided to withdraw,” even when they themselves did not agree with these decisions. Furthermore, as co-authors of such policies, they bear special responsibility to support and contribute to their state’s efforts to remedy the harms that these policies brought about.
Some might object that citizens don’t choose to be part of their state, so should not be encumbered with such responsibilities. But I disagree. After all, many of our relationships—from our families to our religious affiliations—are not born out of conscious and deliberate choices. And yet, we remain attached to them and recognize the moral obligations they generate for us. The same applies to our citizenship. We may not have chosen it, but many of us see it as an integral part of our identity. Most of us do not view our participation in our state as something that is forced on us against our will, even when we disagree with its actions. And because acting in our state is part of who we are, each of us has a special obligation to assist our state in discharging its obligations to those it has wronged.