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A moral case against the war in Afghanistan

More Australian troops are dying in Afghanistan than at any time since the 2001 invasion. AAP

When Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 he offered some reflections on just war theory and sought to justify, partly in its light, the war he inherited in Afghanistan.

He did not apply the theory directly to the war in Iraq but mentioned that it was winding down and offered no defence of it. One might easily conclude from this and from his earlier stance on that invasion that he believed the Iraq war unjustified.

In drawing this contrast between the (justified) war in Afghanistan, and the (unjustified) one in Iraq, Obama was treading a path also congenial to several other - faintly - leftist political leaders and parties in the West.

Notable amongst these was the Australian Labor Party and its successive leaders who adopted the mantra: Iraq bad/ Afghanistan good. The British Labour Party leadership has been stuck with its Blairite inheritance of strong support for both.

For Obama and for Rudd/Gillard the mindset of contrasting the two wars had political advantages. They gained the benefit of aligning themselves with widespread popular opposition at home to the Iraq war, but showed their military mettle by supporting a war which could more plausibly than Iraq be viewed as part of the fight against terrorism.

But now the conflict has reached ten years duration and the death toll amongst Coalition forces alone has gone beyond 2,300, it is surely time to ask whether the war was justified in the first place and whether its continuation is justified now.

This is particularly urgent given that many more Afghanis, including civilians, have been killed as well. It is very hard to estimate the total fatalities but one conservative figure puts the number of civilian deaths alone at roughly 20,000. Many of these of course have not been caused by Coalition forces, but they remain a cost of the war nonetheless.

There is broad agreement among theorists that six conditions should be satisfied for the moral legitimacy of resort to war. These conditions, often referred to as the “jus ad bellum” (the right to engage in war) are:

  1. Just cause
  2. Legitimate authority
  3. Right intention
  4. Reasonable prospect of success
  5. Last resort
  6. Proportionality

In an overall assessment of the morality of a war these need to be supplemented by a concern for how the war is conducted (the “jus in bello”) and the two most important conditions here are the principles of discrimination and proportionality.

Discrimination concerns the legitimacy of targeting and its most important embodiment is a prohibition on intentionally attacking non-combatants.

Proportionality concerns the need to balance the projected military gains of a possible action against its likely costs, especially the extent of the incidental harm it might cause to the civilian population. A moral theory or tradition is not the same as a legal regime but a good deal of the just war moral tradition has been incorporated in legal regulations such as the international law of armed conflict and international humanitarian law.

It is important to stress that it is not enough for a war to have a just cause since it is morally flawed if one or all of the other conditions of the jus ad bellum (JAB) are not met, and it can be subject to severe moral criticism if there are deliberate, persistent violations of the jus in bello (JIB).

It is also important to realise that the moral status of a war can change over its course. A war that was originally justified can deteriorate in changed circumstances into an unjust war. An initially just war becomes unjust at the point at which it is apparent that purpose for which it is being fought (the ‘just cause’) is unlikely to be achieved, or can only be achieved at an unacceptably high cost.

The nature of war makes its course unpredictable. Those who wage it must always be open to the possibility of giving up or compromising their original goals.

Just as an originally justified war can become unjust, an originally unjust war might become justified, at least in some aspects, in its later circumstances, if, for example, a military withdrawal would leave the war-torn country in a much worse state than would continued fighting. This second possibility is more curious and complex than the first but has some relevance to Afghanistan, as does the first.

Osama Bin Laden remains at large. (AAP)

The initial idea to attack Al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan has prima facie claims to satisfy the just cause condition of the JAB insofar as it was an attempt to seriously weaken the capacity of a terrorist organisation to repeat such morally reprehensible acts as the awful attack upon non-combatants on September 11, 2001. But this rapidly gave place to an all-out attack upon the Taliban government which was regarded as complicit in the 9/11 attacks for giving safe haven to Al Qaeda operatives.

This is a much weaker candidate for just cause since doing nothing to remove militants from your territory who are likely to engage in terrorism against others may be reprehensible, but it is a long way from promoting or engaging in such terrorism yourself.

Certainly, such harbouring seems well short of providing a just cause for military destruction of the government in question. Even if there were just cause for the attack upon the Taliban, however, it was dubiously a last resort, since the Taliban government had responded to a request by the US authorities to hand over Osama bin Laden and others by seeking evidence of their complicity in the 9/11 attacks and offering to deliver them (if the evidence was compelling) for trial under certain conditions.

This offer may well have been insincere but it was not even explored because soon after 9/11 President George W. Bush was, according to Colin Powell as reported by Bob Woodward, bent upon “killing somebody” and had no patience with diplomacy. Bush’s attitude may also cast doubt upon the right intention condition since he seems to have been motivated by vengeance, impatience and political expediency.

The history of Great Power foreign military interventions in Afghanistan should also have cast doubt upon the prospects of success for any war that tried to reshape political arrangements in Afghanistan. I conclude that the case for the moral legitimacy of the initial resort to war is much more dubious than is usually believed.

Osama Bin Laden remains at large. (AAP)

Initially, the United States did not want to commit large numbers of ground troops and so became dependent upon Afghan military factions, especially the forces of the Northern Alliance.

Although the Taliban were quickly expelled from Kabul, their presence in the country, especially in the south and their use of the Pakistan borderlands has created a situation of ongoing conflict in which any sort of “victory” remains out of sight after ten years of bloody endeavour.

Current American and NATO strategy is to arm and train Afghanis who are prepared to fight against the Taliban and other forces hostile to the intervention and who are “loyal” to the Government in Kabul. This is supplemented by attempts to “win hearts and minds” amongst local town and village populations. The ultimate objective is to leave the fighting to local forces who are so well-trained, equipped and motivated that they have a good chance of defeating the Taliban in the long run.

In fact, little of this seems to be happening. General Petraeus, the senior US commander in Afghanistan recently confessed on American television that he could not be “sure” of victory by 2014 which is the date Obama has set for withdrawal of American troops.

In addition, the dubiously elected Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, is increasingly at odds with Coalition military tactics partly because of the large number of civilian deaths caused by “collateral damage” from air and ground attacks and by mistaken targeting, but also because of the bad behaviour of the private military companies employed by the Americans and outright atrocities committed by American troops.

The latter include the alleged murder recently of three unarmed Afghan civilians by a group of 5 American soldiers who appear to have acted under the influence of marijuana and opium. “They killed our youth for entertainment, they killed our elders for entertainment,” Karzai told thousands of new teachers at a graduation ceremony in the capital Kabul. Hardly a way to win hearts and minds.

Karzai is clearly reflecting growing dissatisfaction and resentment amongst the population at large at the presence and behaviour of foreign troops in the country. According to a recent Wikileaks file, Karzai described many of the private military companies as little more than “criminal organizations”.

Nearly ten years after Western invasion, the Taliban still control large swathes of Afghanistan. (AAP)

If the basic moral justification for the war was the destruction or diminution of a terrorist threat then it has not been achieved, since Taliban and al Qaeda terrorism in Afghanistan has been nourished by the war and beyond that country the war provides constant stimulation for terrorist plots and acts.

Perhaps, however, another aim could permissibly supersede it, namely, establishing a peaceful, stable, democratic government of the whole country that would promote human rights and perhaps serve as some sort of buffer against terrorism.

So a war unjust in its beginnings and in much of its conduct could become justified by these objectives in its final phases. Defences of the war turn more and more on such claims. Unfortunately, the claims seem to me merely wishful thinking.

The government in Kabul is corrupt and inefficient and marginally democratic; there is no prospect of it gaining control of the whole country; it seems most likely that some collaboration with the Taliban will eventually emerge.

Given the Taliban domination of the south and the weak reach of the central government beyond Kabul, it is impossible to forecast the political shape of the country when and if the fighting stops. But any settled political outcome is impeded by the continued, long-term presence of belligerent, foreign Western troops. Withdrawal will have to be carefully managed to minimise harm and honour obligations, but it must happen soon.

It will be said that Coalition troops and their Afghan supporters will have fought and died in vain unless a humane, democratic regime is created. The same point could be made about the war’s original justification of providing a major setback to international terrorism.

If that has not been achieved then these deaths were in vain. Sadly, I think neither of these good outcomes is achievable by this war. There may have been good local results from military actions where Coalition troops died, but in terms of the overall justifications of the war there is an element of futility about those deaths.

This cannot be redeemed by continuing the war in false hope; indeed it compounds the futility. Those who say: “we have come so far, sacrificed so much, we cannot quit now” are involved in what economists call the fallacy of “sunk costs” whereby a failing investment is pursued beyond reason because so much has already been invested in it.

Those of us who opposed the Vietnam War were often accused of “wanting the Viet Cong to win” and in the Afghan case the parallel accusation of wanting the Taliban to win is likely to be levelled.

There were many barbarous and immoral aspects of the previous Taliban government, and a new Taliban takeover of the whole country would be a bad outcome; I don’t know if it is likely, but it is certainly not something I want. Yet it is not a question of “wants” but a question of what is achievable.

Democracy by war and military training in Afghanistan is an illusion, and unfortunately it is one with fatal consequences.

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