After the Death of Bin Ladin: A Just War Assessment of Afghanistan

It seems improper to celebrate the death of anyone, but that is indeed what our nation does tonight, both at the gates of the White House (as seen on NBC) and across the nation (on Facebook, at least). Amidst the (largely disgraceful) chatter about what we should do with Bin Ladin’s body and how grateful we are as a nation for the soldiers and sailors that protect us, a few have questioned the logic of the celebration (e.g. “ just because Bin Laden is dead doesn’t mean Al Qaeda is disbanded…”) while others have started cracking jokes (e.g. “Apparently, Bin Ladin didn’t realize the new IPads were secretly transmitting location information either”), but for the most part the nation as a whole is cheerful at the long-awaited news of Bin Ladin’s death.

Watching this unfold, I recalled the story my father once told me about his early memory of V-J day: he ran up and down the street hooting and hollering, lighting firecrackers and celebrating the end of the war. He was a child joining in the national celebration, and to a six year old who could not recall life before the war, the end of war seemed as good a thing as anything to celebrate. Yet, when he told me the story, he did so with regret in his voice, recognizing – only after years of maturity and hindsight – the severe actions that were taken to bring that war to a close.

Certainly today’s events do not rival the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For one, the scale of today’s attacks pale in comparison to those events. But also, in his speech tonight, President Obama noted that “all efforts were made to avoid civilian casualties,” indicating we have learned a moral lesson about the importance of at least paying lip service to discriminating between civilian and military targets. I like to think our failures in Iraq before our efforts to “win the hearts and minds” have led us to realize that the jus in bello principle of discrimination is at least tactically important, even if it hasn’t risen to the level of morally normative yet. But I am getting ahead of myself now…

My purpose here is to hopefully offer a perspective to the query “was it worth it?” from the perspective of the just war tradition. I mark the death of Bin Ladin as the conclusion of the task we set out to accomplish in October 2001: we have now dismantled the original network that was known as Al Queda even if we have also emboldened a new, more fragmented and hopefully less capable organization under the same name. Those that recognize the next few days ought to be our most fearful are perhaps right – retaliation may still be coming, and it may be far worse than even the events of 9/11 – but I like to think, in my own naiveté, that we have strengthened our own “homeland” defenses against terrorist threats. If we have not (and perhaps even of we have), then we have paid far too great a price in terms of personal freedom (e.g. Patriot Act) and personal modesty (e.g. 3-D image scanners and pat downs at airport security), but that is a debate for another time.  For now, all we can do is hope and pray that the coming days do not bring mass retaliation.

Followers of the just war tradition in recent years have no doubt come across recent attempts to formulate a set of jus post bellum criteria for when and how to end a war justly. While I hope that Bin Ladin’s death will mean we are one step closer to an end of the war in Afghanistan, arguing for this outcome is also not my purpose here. What I hope to do in this entry is offer an assessment of the use of military force as a necessary tool for eliminating Al Queda. Thus, I will address how well the war in Afghanistan has actually met the Just War criteria of jus ad bellum. The jus ad bellum criteria are those criteria that a state ought to fulfill in order to justify a violation of the “presumption against war.” Some of these criteria (e.g. just cause, sovereign authority, last resort) are based on facts known before the conflict. These have been discussed ad nauseum elsewhere and so I will not rehash them here in detail. Other criteria, however, are based on best guesses and predictions about the path the war will take (e.g. reasonable hope of success, proportionality, comparative justice), and thus today seems an appropriate time to take a new look at these. Finally, some criteria (e.g. right intention) are publically presented from the outset, but the course the war takes can deeply affect their meaning and so these too need to be assessed at the conclusion of the war.

The principle of Just Cause establishes the violation of justice that brings forth the conflict of duties. In other words, there should be a specific event of injustice that we are responding to. In this case, the events of September 11th are this event. These attacks on U.S. soil and U.S. civilians is generally held to be an act of war on behalf of Al Qaeda against the United States. Thus, the U.S. is said to have just cause in responding militarily to both bring the perpetrators to justice and to eliminate further threats to the safety of the U.S. Note that the just cause cannot simply be retaliation for wrongdoing – it must be constituted in terms of formal justice proceedings and/or the removal of future threats.

The principle of Competent Authority questions the authority of the actor to act in such a dilemma. In medieval times, when this principle was developed, this was a clearer category than it is today. Back then, this principle was meant to prevent lower lords from waging in war. Only the declared head of a state had the competent authority to declare war. Today, in the era of democracy, it is Congress, in our country that holds the right to declare war. Two questions arise under this heading. First, Congress never did declare war in Afghanistan (in fact, they have not declared any war since World War II), therefore the legitimacy of the authority in which we went to war is questionable. Many point to the choice by Congress to fund the war as implicit declaration, but this is dubious at best. In this case, the issue may be related to the second issue under this heading: that Al Qaeda does not represent a state, and thus not a competent authority itself. Technically, in the tradition, only the side for which we are assessing the justice of warfare needs to be a competent authority. However, the rise of international terrorist organizations, as well as multinational corporations and NGOs, in today’s global world indicates more of a problem in the use of this criterion in today’s world than it signifies an injustice in the War itself. Still, it should be acknowledged that the original intent was the war against Al Qaeda, not Afghanistan. The state of Afghanistan only became involved when it chose to align itself with Al Qaeda.

This brings us to our third criterion: Last Resort. Last resort establishes that all other, less harmful means have already been attempted. This usually includes diplomatic pressure, economic and other sanctions, etc. but when the enemy is not a state but an international terrorist organization, the question again gets murky. The alliance between Taliban run Afghanistan and Al Qaeda actually made applying the Just War criteria much easier. In the case of last resort, the diplomatic request was made to the Taliban government of Afghanistan to turn Bin Ladin and other leaders of Al Qaeda over. Subsequently, it was denied and the U.S. now had a nation-state to focus its intentions on. Whole essays can and have been written on why the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan should or should not have been considered a last resort. For my purposes here, I will assume that it was the last resort and move on. For further discussion, see the links above.

The real questions I wish to address begin with the criterion of Right Intention. Right Intention questions the motivation of the actor, ensuring that the actor is indeed intending to right the injustice. Right Intention and Just Cause are often confused, even to the point where the Right Intention is simply reduced to the overcoming of the Just Cause. However, one can and should distinguish between the two, for either criteria can be satisfied independent of the other, but if they are both satisfied, they do so inderdependently. In this case, the 9/11 attacks provided the just causes for military action. However, the criteria of right intention requires the state to pursue the proper goals in response to the just cause. I have already noted the rejection of retaliation as a legitimate right intention. Other improper intentions would be using the just cause as a cover for resources or other procurement. The only proper intention can be the re-constitution of peace and re-establishment of justice according to the rule of law. As I said earlier, the original intention of military action against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was to bring the leadership of Al Qaeda to justice and to destroy the organization’s ability to threaten the United States or anyone. This intention, by most estimations, would have been and was a right intention. Where the ship ran aground was when the Taliban government became involved. Cutting off the head of Al Qaeda in 2001 probably would have meant the end of the organization. However, cutting down the Taliban in addition meant a power vacuum in Afghanistan – and one we felt we needed to fill once we took out the Taliban. Unfortunately, the United States has proved incapable of bringing about a peaceful and civil democracy in nearly every one of its attempts.

This brings us to our next criterion: Reasonable Hope of Success. This criterion raises the question of whether the injustice is even something that the actor can respond adequately to. When the right intention was to bring down Al Qaeda, many would have argued that there was a good chance at success in that endeavor. Today’s events are perhaps the proof of that claim. As I said earlier, Al Qaeda is no longer the organization it once was – we had done a great deal to limit the power Osama Bin Ladin had over the organization, and the result is a new organization that could arguably been none worse for wear without the notorious head of the original organization. A large question remains about whether the success of this use of military force was compromised by the invasion of Iraq, which prompted the establishment of Al Qaeda Iraq and diverted U.S. attention away from Afghanistan. Even if we assume the best case – that the new Al Qaeda would not have become what it is without the war in Iraq and the capture of Bin Ladin and his top Lieutenants would have happened now or earlier – we still need to recognize that success at bringing down Al Qaeda most likely could not have happened without bringing down the Taliban as well.

This brings us to the principle of Comparative Justice. This principle weighs the injustice that will be brought about against the injustice that already exists. This is a sort of weighing of “harms” which recognizes that “our way” is not perfectly just either and the end result will also include injustices. In the case at hand, consider the state of Afghanistan, under Taliban leadership, before the war; combined with the state of the United States after 9/11, deeply threatened by Al Qaeda that another attack was imminent. This state of things ‘before’ needs to be compared with the state of affairs ‘after’ which is today. The removal of the ruthless Taliban was most likely a good consequence for most Afghanis, but the vacuum it left was a comparably bad consequence. The fledgling government in Afghanistan is undermined by significant corruption within and still threatened by a resurgence of the Taliban. I think that it is fair to assume the United States is now safer than it was before the first invasion of Afghanistan, especially after the death of Bin Ladin. While the continued existence of Al Qaeda, even without Bin Ladin and in its new fragmented form, could prove to overturn this point, I will declare for now that the principle of comparative justice has been fulfilled as of today.

In a similar vein to Comparative Justice, the final principle, Proportionality weighs the good that the good that is aimed at against the potential harm that is necessary to succeed at that task (theharm of the war itself). It is perhaps here that the greatest costs are measured. In a very quick search, I came up with these numbers. I have no idea how accurate they are, and they are a bit dated, but lacking better numbers I will take them at face value. 17,000 Afghanis were killed during this conflict and more than half of them were civilians. Over 40,000 were injured!! While these numbers pale in comparison to Iraq, and the average person would have trouble getting their head around them. When one compares this to the 3500 lives lost in the September 11th attacks, it perhaps pulls the tragedy of war into sharper focus. On the other hand, in Vietnam, total casualties on all sides numbered roughly 5 million, making the Afghanistan war pale in comparison. I began this post, however, with the notion that we ought not celebrate any death, even Bin Ladin’s, and I would suggest that comparing deaths in pure numbers shows just as little respect to the victims on both sides. It also is not what we mean by the principle of proportionality, though it does give us perhaps the most objective reality of the devastation of war. The question, which is perhaps still unanswerable, since we do not know what the alternative might have brought about, is whether war was a justifiably proportional response. If our objective was to get to one man, Osama Bin Ladin, then I would suggest that the cost of 17,000 Afghanis and over 2000 non-Afghanis, was not a proportional response. However, if the threat that Al Qaeda posed to the US and other nations was real and it has indeed been mitigated then war begins to seem a more proportional response.

Given that the remainder of the jus ad bellum criteria appear to be marginally satisfied, it would seem that proportionality is the question that the justice of the war truly hinges on (barring the application of jus in bello criteria – the criteria for fighting justly – of course).  I, for one, am having trouble determining what a proportional response to terrorism is, however. I recall my own convictions on the morning of September 11th: powerless, fearful, violated, and most of all angry. The invasion of Afghanistan a month later seemed an appropriate response to me then, but I, like most, believed that it would be a short war against a small terrorist organization. Ten years later, I am not sure it was a proportional response.  I am not sure it was “worth it.”  Was there another way? Could we have taken out Bin ladin without a war in Afghanistan?  As it was, it took a special ops team in a covert raid – could that have still happened without the first 19,000 casualties?  Of course, this brings us back to just cause and last resort.

In the end,   I wonder what ten or twenty more years of wisdom and maturity might grant me. I wonder what I will tell my kids about the wars that I lived through.  Were they just?  Were they right?  On Iraq, there can be no doubt of its injustice.  But Afghanistan, even after tonight, remains an open debate.

[Matthew Gaudet is an adjunct professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco and a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union.  For more of Matt’s posts on this blog, please click here]


3 responses to “After the Death of Bin Ladin: A Just War Assessment of Afghanistan

  • Rick Ritchie

    I noticed that most of the crowd in front of the White House was young. Your father’s V-J day memory is helpful here. In youth he could only see reasons to be joyful. Later he saw things in another light. There may not be one prescription here that is good for all people of all ages. I would still allow for older people to feel joy at the news. I would just be surprised if it were unmixed joy. And we can’t really weigh the joys and sorrows and come up with some average number and give an averaged response. I think we alternate between celebrating and lamenting. But in any case, I think this question of proper sentiment is somewhat separable from the Just War questions which you follow with. And I’m glad to see discussion of Just War theory. Generally, the theory doesn’t allow as much warring as people often imagine it does.

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