Understanding Afghanistan: The Original Assessment

This post is the first in a series of examination of the moral issues at stake in the war in Afghanistan. Today: the initial assessment of the resort to war in 2001.

Operation Enduring Freedom commenced in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, less than 30 days after September 11. The debate about the morality of the war barely kept pace with events, and what occurred was muted and heavily one-sided. Writers from the left and right alike agreed that the United States was permitted—possibly required—to respond to the attacks with military force. NPR journalist Scott Simon wrote a typical piece, titled “Even Pacifists Must Support This War.” A Quaker and sometime pacifist, Simon insisted that a war in Afghanistan would be textbook self-defense: “Only American (and British) power can stop more killing.”

Perhaps more significantly, Richard Falk, currently a UN special rapporteur for the Palestinian territories and a vocal critic of the war in Iraq, concurred that the United States had a just cause to invade Afghanistan. Like Simon, Falk underlined his position by pointing to his own anti-war history: “I have never since my childhood supported a shooting war in which the United States was involved.” Nonetheless, he continued, “the war in Afghanistan against apocalyptic terrorism qualifies in my understanding as the first truly just war since World War II.”

Falk carefully outlined what he considered the just goals of the invasion:

The destruction of both the Taliban regime and the Al Qaeda network, including the apprehension and prosecution of Osama bin Laden and any associates connected with this and past terrorist crimes, are appropriate goals.… With respect to the Taliban, its relation to Al Qaeda is established and intimate enough to attribute primary responsibility, and the case is strengthened to the degree that its governing policies are so oppressive as to give the international community the strongest possible grounds for humanitarian intervention.

Falk’s statement of goals is the prototypical view of what the United States and its allies are permitted to do in Afghanistan. The United States is, of course, permitted to attempt to capture and try Osama Bin Laden and members of Al Qaeda and may also use military force to simply destroy them. Moreover, this permission extends to the Taliban, to whom we may “attribute primary responsibility” for Sept. 11, despite the Taliban having not actually carried out the attacks. Falk also goes the extra mile to claim that the Taliban’s human rights record in and of itself provides the “strongest possible grounds for humanitarian intervention,”—a view which is not widely shared.

(The extension of the permission to capture or kill the perpetrators of Sept. 11 to the Taliban is a position that merits close attention. This view was known for a time as the Bush Doctrine, which holds governments that harbor terrorists accountable for those terrorists’ actions. The strength of one’s belief in the Bush Doctrine, then, may determine one’s current attitude toward the fight against the Taliban. Arguably, a rejection of the Bush Doctrine may lead to a position like that reportedly held by Vice President Biden. Biden has argued for reducing the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and refocusing strategy away from protecting the Afghan population from the Taliban and toward hunting down Al Qaeda.)

Although the recourse to war was deemed just by many on the left, support was not universal. Howard Zinn dissented, calling the war a “gross violation of human rights.” Zinn admitted that the cause in Afghanistan—limited, specifically, to “ending terrorism”—was just. But the war itself was not, he argued: “Civilian casualties are certain. The outcome is uncertain.” The United States failed to employ every means other than war to bring Bin Laden to justice. And aerial bombardment, the primary means employed to prosecute the war (at least by Dec. 2001, when Zinn was writing), was wildly disproportionate. For the United States, “the history of bombing… is a history of endless atrocities.”

Darrel Moellendorf, in one of the few scholarly assessments of the war, took a relatively similar position to Zinn. Taking a statist, Rawlsian line that roughly endorses the Bush Doctrine, Moellendorf asserts that “a state that gives refuge to terrorists who plan and execute foreign attacks that intentionally result in the deaths of more than two thousand civilians of other states is certainly one whose domestic policy results in serious international injustices.”

On his view, there was sufficient evidence to tie Bin Laden and the Taliban to Sept. 11, and so there was a just cause for war in Afghanistan. The problem for Moellendorf, as for Zinn, was that the means might not be sufficient to achieve the ends. He singles out the just war criterion of “reasonable likelihood of success.” Simply put, if the war’s prosecutors are unlikely to achieve their goals, regardless of how desirable those goals are, then the war ought not to be undertaken. Moellendorf doubts that the United States will be able to actually destroy Al Qaeda’s ability to kill civilians, given the organization’s amorphous, multi-national structure. Moreover, the war is unlikely to deter future terrorists, since they are already hardened radicals willing to die for their causes. Although a war may succeed in the short run, Moellendorf is ultimately skeptical about the long term since doing so may produce a backlash against the United States:

It would seem that resentment could be limited to some degree if three policy restrictions were observed. First, counter-terrorist wars should seek multi-lateral legitimacy. Second, they should scrupulously observe the requirements of jus in bello. And third they should be accompanied by a more just US foreign policy.

Given recent U.S. experiences in the Middle East, Moellendorf finds little reason to believe that these three criteria will be met.

Finally, Moellendorf also discounts the “last resort” condition of just war. This condition demands that no non-violent alternatives to war be available when the war begins. Moellendorf finds that the Bush Administration made no serious attempt to negotiate with the Taliban, and thus concludes that “the war in Afghanistan is not a war of last resort.” As a result, and despite the existence of a just cause, Moellendorf finds the resort to war unjust. This “mixed” conclusion entails that, although the war ought not to have been started in October 2001, “once the war began it may have been the lesser of two evils.”

Looking back, one finds a remarkably wide consensus, supported by even the most die-hard anti-war activists, that the United States had a just cause for war in Afghanistan. Beyond this narrow point of consensus, however, opinion diverged considerably. Assessments of the intial resort to war rested heavily on one’s view of the facts, both about the nature of the enemy and of its pursuer. For some, the cause was so important that there was no choice but to pursue Al Qaeda and the Taliban, regardless of the cost. For others, the enemy was too elusive, and its host country too fragile, to make any kind of just conclusion to war easily foreseeable. And for the sharpest critics of American power, the United States was incapable of waging a responsible war against an enemy hidden within an impoverished, isolated country. As we now know, history has not been kind to those in the first camp.

Over the coming weeks, we will take a moral lens to the conduct of the war, in hopes of finding the tools to understand what has gone wrong—and right—and to prepare ourselves for what is to come.

1 Comment

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One response to “Understanding Afghanistan: The Original Assessment

  1. Really great points. You touched on a few of outstanding ideas. Thanks for taking the time to put that together. Putting this website on my RSS feed!

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