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What would Pope Francis think of Trump’s Afghanistan policy?

By Christopher White

In a highly anticipated speech earlier this month, President Donald Trump outlined his administration’s policy in Afghanistan, the longest war in the history of the United States.

“We are not nation-building again,” he said. “We are killing terrorists.”

Pope Francis greets U.S. President Donald Trump during a private audience at the Vatican May 24, 2017. (Photo: Catholic News Service, Paul Haring) 

His policy, in many respects, marks a continuation of the Obama administration’s strategy, which attempted to scale back on George W. Bush’s efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries of the Middle East.

The Vatican has long been critical of the United States’s engagement in Iraq, but its response to U.S. intervention in Afghanistan has been considerably more nuanced.

While Pope Francis has frequently condemned terrorism in unequivocal terms, he’s also used such occasions to examine the underlying motivations for terrorist activities and push for peace.

In light of the Vatican’s reluctance to comment directly on the matter, it seems fair to wonder: What might Pope Francis think about Trump’s new Afghanistan policy?

According to Daniel Philpott, professor of political science at Notre Dame and a former senior associate of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, it’s unclear what the Pope would make of it.

“You might call what the U.S. wants to do at this stage a prudential decision, so I don’t know whether Pope Francis would be clearly for or against it,” he said.

“Nevertheless, we can put together some themes from Pope Francis’s pontificate and bring them to bear on this. He could be called a ‘peace-pope,’ and he’s a peace-pope in the very same sense that a very long litany of popes have been peace-popes ever since Benedict XV at the time of World War I,” said Philpott.

Since his election in 2013, Francis has regularly responded to terrorist activity around the world, using his platform as a catalyst for peace.

Philpott noted that while the pope has condemned terrorism many times, “he has also allowed that there could be a just armed response to terrorism.”

“Pope Francis also places a very strong emphasis on dialogue and on interreligious dialogue and reaching a hand out to Muslims, criticizing what he calls an ‘artificial fear of Muslims,’ and criticizing exclusion of Muslims,” said Philpott.

“He seems to be in the papal tradition of interreligious peace building, even as he condemns terrorism unequivocally.”

In an interview with The Tablet, Stephen Schneck, former director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, said that the pope’s recent statements indicate that the Church is moving in a direction where the justification for war seems increasingly limited.

“Since Pope John XXIII there’s been a gradual shift in Catholic thinking about war, accelerated by people like Paul VI and Pope Francis, we see a movement farther and farther away from any justification of war,” he said.

“I don’t think that the Vatican’s at the point where any war would be unjust, but it’s certainly moved in that direction,” Schneck said.

Yet according to Schneck, the Trump administration isn’t alone in failing to pass the muster of the Catholic just war tradition.

“Not only the policies that Trump is proposing, but really, the policies that the Obama administration were pursuing in Afghanistan really do not fit comfortably within the context of traditional Catholic just war thinking,” said Schneck.

“If we apply that list of criteria to what we’re pursuing in Afghanistan, it seems to me from George W. Bush on, we have not really been in compliance with traditional Catholic just war theory, because the threat is not certain and it’s not immediate to justify a preemptive response,” according to Schneck.

“All of these modern conflicts like Afghanistan are very difficult to squeeze in the pretty narrow shows of traditional just war thinking,” he said.

While the president has not outlined how many additional troops he plans to send to Afghanistan or set a deadline for exiting the country, he has made it clear that the United States will stay engaged in the country until victory can be declared.

Father Bryan Hehir, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, questioned the extent that victory would be possible without some attention to nation-building.

“If you think about the appeal that the Taliban, Daesh, and Al-Qaeda have to the citizens of Afghanistan, the best challenge to that appeal is for America to be engaged in something like nation-building,” he said in an interview with The Tablet.

Father Hehir believes that Francis prefers an approach that minimizes violence and to the extent that it is required, will be multilateral.

“Generally as I see the Holy Father, he always prefers dialogue and diplomacy over force. Dialogue and diplomacy, however, in Afghanistan are not easy at the present time,” said Hehir.

“I would not say that he’s ruled out the use of force, but it’s always far down the list,” he said.

Throughout his papacy Francis has frequently spoken of a piecemeal World War III, a reference to the scattered nature of violence and terrorism that continues to wreak havoc on the world.

In a February 2017 address to students in Rome, he identified the lack of employment opportunities young people face in the modern world as a contributing factor to world terrorism.

“This lack of work leads me to enroll in a terrorist army and so I’ve something to do or I give meaning to my life: it’s horrible,” he lamented.

Most recently, during his visit to Egypt in April of this year, he returned to the theme of terrorism, remarking “There is no justification for violence.”

So while Francis has not commented specifically on Afghanistan, it should come as no surprise that a non-violent solution would be one favored by him and the Vatican’s diplomatic corps.

“It seems to me that one way to describe the direction the Church is moving on these issues and responses to war-like situations is peace-building,” Schneck said.

While Afghanistan 2017 and Afghanistan 2001 are very different stories, the consensus of all three popes during that time period has been one that elevated peace and minimized talk of violence.

“There’s been a regular succession of popes that have used phrases like the ‘scourge of war’ or ‘war no more,’” said Philpott.

“All of the popes seem to be of the view that war in the world is way too prevalent, and one can deduce that Pope Francis is probably not too enthusiastic about the expansion of war.”