Obama in power: is the war in Afghanistan a Just War?

The Just War tradition is not meant to be deployed as a tick-box approach to war, not least because answers to the questions it poses are often not clear and even when they are, they may be contradictory. That said, does Obama win his case?
Dan Smith
17 December 2009

President Obama used the occasion of his Nobel lecture as he accepted the 2009 Peace Prize in Oslo on 10 December to defend the idea that war can be a legitimate means of upholding the larger peace, and specifically to argue that the US and allied war effort in Afghanistan is a just war.  Did he convince?

The two-war president

It is part of what makes Obama such a magnetic speaker and attractive leader that he used his acceptance address not only to indicate his own awareness that the award comes too soon, before he has registered any but the most initial achievements for peace while in office, but also to grasp the nettle of the irony that he received the prize as a Commander-in-Chief of forces engaged in two wars and just after he had announced extra US forces will be deployed in Afghanistan.

He used that irony as the launch-pad for a spirited defence of the idea that war can do good, can, in fact, contribute to peace. This took him into territory where theory, ethics, policy and practice of government all inter-twine.

This is difficult and fascinating terrain over which some of the world’s major philosophers have travelled. It is different to engage  in discussing these matters seriously and philosophically, rather than debating the questions politically. Looking closely at these questions often means dealing with unexpected nuances and distinctions.

Obama, then, used his Nobel lecture to engage with some of the fundamental questions of war and peace and, therefore, of government. Regardless of your view on the rights and wrongs of the US and allied war effort in Afghanistan, this was a serious argument that deserves serious attention.

Obama did not make a gung-ho case for war, of course. Arguing that “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace”, he juxtaposed this “truth” with another – “that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.” He did not turn his back on the peaceful resistance of Martin Luther King and Gandhi: “But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is… To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

With this low-key realism, he clearly distinguished his own approach to war – one that maintains ethical standards even when war has started – from that of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld school of thought, in which no holds are barred including illegal detention, kidnapping (“extraordinary rendition”), torture and unilateral military action. It is notable that he set out to justify US actions in Afghanistan but not in Iraq. 

The Just War tradition

One approach to war has recently been personified in the Bush administration with the Cheney-Rumsfeld approach of fight the war, damn everybody and screw the peace. At the other end of the spectrum is a clear and comprehensive pacifist stance that includes saying it was wrong to go to war to defend against the aggression of Nazi Germany. In between those two, sits the Just War framework. This was developed by Christian moral philosophers – most notably Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century BCE and Thomas Aquinas some 850 years later – drawing to a limited degree on pre-Christian classical philosophy. The tradition’s real flowering was in the 16th and 17th centuries and as Christianity split into warring camps with the Reformation, it is striking how much common ground there was between Catholic theologians such as de Vitoria and Suarez and the Protestant writers such as the jurist Grotius.

This body of thought going back some 1600 years to Augustine is often referred to as Just War Theory, a term I have always thought misleading. This common usage suggests that there is a sort of model of something called ”a just war”. And because war always involves the huge injustice of people being killed, there are plenty of people who react against the notion that there can be such a thing as a just war. I have heard people argue – and I understand the meaning and significance of this essentially visceral distinction – that even if war can sometimes be justified, it can never be just.

This is indeed an area of intellectual enquiry and argument with which progressives often have trouble. On the one hand, for many, the idea of war being justified goes against the grain. On the other hand, many others have difficulty with moral positions based on nuance about killing, subtle distinctions about suffering and considerations of power.  Those of a more conservative bent find it much more comfortable.

To my mind, the guiding light here is something like Obama’s assertion that he faces the world as it is – but understood as a moral challenge rather than a simple description of attitude.

It may also be important and reassuring to note that thinkers in the Just War tradition did not try to depict or define just wars. Rather, they took it as a given that war was endemic: Augustine, for example, wrote in the wake of the sack of Rome; the 16th and 17th century philosophers century lived in a Europe that engaged in almost a century of vicious religious warfare. And in this sad state of affairs, they wondered how it was possible to behave as a good person, how to behave with justice in the midst of all this chaos, what are the criteria by which a war might be regarded as justified or, contrariwise by the same criteria, unjustified.

As a result, for us today, the Just War tradition offers questions that help us think through some of the tricky issues surrounding ethics of and in war without, thankfully, proposing hard and fast answers.

The durability of just war thinking

The Just War tradition is prevalent to a degree many people do not notice and it is perhaps surprisingly durable.

Any time you think of a specific action in a war as unjustified, any time you name something as an atrocity, or criticise forces for causing civilian casualties, or for treating prisoners inhumanely, you are – knowingly or not - drawing on the Just War tradition. It is, therefore, one of the intellectual and moral currents that shape the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement and humanitarianism in general as well as the ideas underlying International Humanitarian Law, which used to be known as the Laws of War.

Likewise if you criticise war or an act of war as aggressive, or lacking in proper authority, or as aimed at securing power and wealth rather than defending a territory and its people, you are – knowingly or not - drawing on the Just War tradition. It is, therefore, one of the intellectual and moral currents that shaped the United Nations and the legal idea that a war of self-defence is justified but a war of aggression is a crime against humanity.

In fact, Just War so imbues our thinking on what is right and wrong in war that much of what it’s about has the status of commonsense.

And while the Just War tradition as such is very much a Christian tradition, similar distinctions have long been influential in Islam.

The criteria of Just War

Setting out to justify the US and allied war effort in Afghanistan (and, by the way, thanks be that Obama names the war in Afghanistan as a war and does not indulge in terminological spin), the President’s Nobel lecture referred to the Just War tradition, though he only mentioned a few of the criteria. Being selective is actually quite acceptable within the Just war tradition; there is no settled list of conditions that have to be satisfied.

Six criteria usually figure when discussing whether resort to war is justified (the ius ad bellum criteria). In varying order:

  1. Right authority: it’s not just anyone who can take us into war – in the Middle Ages it was a king, today it has to be at least a recognised head of government and, in the light of international laws and treaties including the UN Convention, the UN Security Council

  2. Just cause: nor can you go to war for just any reason – today, international law accepts self-defence and decision of the UN Security Council (e.g., to intervene with force to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe)

  3. Right intention: as well as the cause being just, so must the intention be just – exploiting a dictator’s foolish attempt to invade another country in order to seize the oil that dictator controls, to take a random example, is not right intention

  4. Last resort: the use of force needs to be the last resort, which means other options must have been tried and failed, or at least assessed and found wanting

  5. Reasonable expectation of success: you cannot fight even in a just cause if all you will do is cause lives to be lost with no hope of success

  6. Proportionality: war will do harm, so the test here is whether it will do more harm than good; if it does, it fails the test of proportionality

There are various other criteria to be found in the literature, of which my favourite from the early Christian period is “mournful mood.” This refers to the tone in which war is to be discussed; it means, in short, that through inappropriate triumphalism and glorification of war, you can sully a just cause to the point that the war is no longer just.

There are two further criteria (sometimes sub-divided and treated as three) that usually figure when discussing whether the conduct of war is just (the ius in bello criteria):

  1. Proportionality: the more-harm-than-good test reapplied at the level of each action that is carried out; obviously, taking this down to the detailed level of each action of each soldier would make it unmanageable, so it needs to be used at a slightly more general level – e.g., asking if a particular bombing mission or, more broadly, the tactic of high-level bombing is justified

  2. Discrimination: the criterion that violence should be aimed only at the military and not at civilian populations, and indeed, that there is a duty for armed forces not only to inflict no harm on civilians but also to care for them actively and look after their welfare

These in bello criteria are modified (though there is endless argument about how much they are modified) by the principle of double effect. This holds that actions are to be judged by their primary purpose (e.g., destroying a military base) and not by their unavoidable and unintended side-effects (e.g., hurting people living near the base). Double effect is only a defence, however, if the action would satisfy the proportionality criterion were it not for the unwanted side effects. That is one of bone of contention in this part of the discussion and how hard commanders have to strive to avoid the unwanted side effects is another.

Obama referred only to “last resort”, “proportionality” (probably meaning both ad bellum and in bello) and “discrimination.”

Thinking – not ticking boxes

Tilt your head one way as you read these criteria and you would be justified in supposing that they actually put down some pretty demanding criteria, especially since some thinkers insisted that all criteria must be satisfied for a war to be thought of as just. Tilt your head another way and you might wonder what’s the fuss about – surely we all know this is how to think about war? See above – commonsense.

It is readily evident that these criteria are different in nature:

  • “Right authority” is actually about the nature of power; in theology its significance is that war was a different moral space, one where acts that are otherwise forbidden – primarily, the act of killing, but also others such as commandeering goods and property or forcing people into fighting or flight - would be allowable. What was crucial was to know who had the right and the power to initiate that transition into a different moral space.

  • “Just cause” is a fundamental ethical criterion about what you do and why you do it.

  • Likewise “right intention” is a fundamental criterion but different from “just cause” in the sense that “cause” is a public issue; in the Christian tradition, by contrast, knowledge of your intention lies only between you and your maker. Where “just cause” is about action, “right intention” is about conscience. I have always thought that an acceptable secular translation of “right intention” could make it into a public criterion without damage, in the sense that it is about consistency of purpose and, therefore, lack of hypocrisy. It counsels against second, hidden agendas.

  • “Last resort” is what I think of as a contingent ethical consideration – that is to say, one that defines whether, questions of cause, authority and intention to one side, the circumstances exist in which license may be given to commit otherwise evil acts; if this criterion is not satisfied, one might say, it is inappropriate to discuss the others. If the circumstances are such that war can be avoided, the rest of the argument is moot. In other words, the avoidable war is by definition unjust.

  • “Reasonable expectation” is a prudential moral consideration, an injunction to take careful thought before undertaking such a far-reaching action as war.

  • “Proportionality” is similarly prudential but it also reverberates with more fundamental considerations: underlying it is an insistence that, although the moral universe of war is different from peace and different actions are permitted, it is not completely removed from normality – killing is still wrong so must be minimised.

  • The ius ad bellum criteria have this same balance of prudential and more fundamental considerations.

Now, the Just War tradition is not meant to be used as a tick-box approach, not least because answers to these questions are often not clear and even when they are they may be contradictory.

That said, how does the war in Afghanistan fare against these criteria? Does Obama win his case?

Afghnistan and Just War criteria

The Just War tradition shapes the questions but does not provide the answers so each of us may come to our own conclusions. When we do and if we disagree, we will see that one of the advantages of referring explicitly to this tradition is that it allows complex issues to be discussed using a shared vocabulary and starting point for the argument.

My view is as follows:

  • “Right authority”: yes, it’s sanctioned by the UN; critics would do well to remember the differences between Afghanistan and Iraq in that regard and not get the two confused simply because Bush was the US President who took the key decision for military intervention in both cases.

  • “Just cause”: for military action in Afghanistan against its then-government as well as al-Qaeda: yes, there was indeed just cause – the 9/11 attacks and the explicit threat of more to come.

  • “Right intention”: harder to know but the way in which the US under Bush diverted forces from Afghanistan to Iraq suggests that it did not perceive a fundamental interest in Afghanistan beyond toppling the Taliban. So there is no reason to doubt the stated intention of removing a threat to the US and by extension to its allies and of establishing stable government.

  • “Last resort”: this is harder. The immediate war in 2001 was won by the US coalition primarily because the CIA distributed about $100 million dollars worth of bribes to get key military leaders to abandon the Taliban. The war that is being fought today, which is the war into which Obama has just decided to deploy more forces, may not have been the only possibility if the US in 2002 and 2003 had been more ambitious about stabilising security outside Kabul, while more pragmatic about what kind of people it was content to deal with, and therefore more consistent about using lavish bribes to keep the loyalty of Afghan military leaders.

  • “Reasonable expectation” is also tough to argue: the scale of the ambition of turning Afghanistan into a stable, peaceful state is now clear. It is an effort to do something unprecedented, against armed opposition, in an unstable region, with virtually all the odds stacked against it, and uncertain public support even among the USA’s closest allies. The time scale is likewise uncertain. The longer it is depicted as being, the more reasonable the hope of success might look, but only because we cannot really see that far ahead.

  • And on “proportionality” in both ad bellum and in bello forms, as well as on “discrimination”, it seems as if each day brings new evidence that the case for this war on these grounds must be regarded as somewhere between rocky and weak.

Looking at this, I seem to be arguing that while the US and allied war effort was morally valid at the outset and in principle, the practice of warfare as it has unfolded has raised disturbing questions. The change in the nature of the intervention in 2002 and 2003, once the initial successes had been registered, mean that the “last resort” criterion has to be looked at not only for the immediate response to 9/11 but also for what is happening now. In 2001, there may have been no other option for protecting against further attacks like 9/11. But after that, the US did not have to divert forces away from Afghanistan for the Iraq invasion, and it did not have to abandon bribery as an instrument of policy.

The current war may, therefore, fail against the “last resort” criterion, despite Obama’s insistence that this is a war that was forced upon America. In that case, if it was unnecessary, the war is not just.

Perhaps the core of the debate is whether there have been too many civilian casualties caused by the US and allies, and whether Afghanistan is making any real progress towards peace and prosperity. If it is making no progress, then any civilian casualties are too many. If the expectation of success in the long-term, highly ambitious but not very clear goal of transforming Afghanistan into a democratic, stable, peaceful and prosperous state is very low, then the two proportionality principles and the discrimination principle tip the moral argument against the war.

The US has trapped itself into a long war that is combined with a major, costly and international effort to provide development assistance. It is a long war that this year has shown little sign of ending. Perhaps Obama’s new strategy and additional US forces will tip the balance in favour of success in the medium term. But even so, actions in the war will often seem to undermine development aid. It is possible that there could have been other options in 2002 and 2003 if the US continued to have the moral stomach to use bribes as an instrument of policy and if it had not simply lost interest for a while.

Retrospectively, we may wonder whether the US could have avoided the human cost and moral uncertainties of trying to induce fundamental change in Afghanistan’s clan-based power system if it had been content with a more pragmatic approach and a more limited concept of stability and security.

Many critics of US policy in Afghanistan (let alone its supporters) would be unhappy with going “back to the bribes” and I am not really concluding the argument there. But looking in a clear-eyed way at what did seem to work in the short-term in 2001 suggests that there were more options for what to do after the first success and that they were not properly considered. Hasty decision-making on big issues always runs the risk of morally questionable outcomes.

Obama made a fine speech in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. He was to the point, relevant and engaging. Ultimately, on the core issue of whether the US war effort in Afghanistan is just, he was not wholly convincing. But then, the ethical issues in war are always full of murky dilemmas, so even if it was Obama speaking, it is hardly surprising that he left a load of unanswered questions behind.

This piece is from Dan's blog www.dansmithsblog.com

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData