Posts Tagged ‘just war theory’

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting

The Pentagon expects to receive General McChrystal’s troop request by the end of the week (remember, you heard it here first). If we accept Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell’s remarks during today’s press briefing, Defense Secretary Gates will pocket the document until the Obama Administration completes its strategic review. But, Morrell is clearly working to prevent the document from becoming a “moment of truth” for the secretary and the president, and I would be very surprised if a strategy assessment took place without a cost/benefit analysis. After all, a discussion on strategy not constrained by resource considerations would produce strategies as useful as a retirement plan that included “win the lottery” as a necessary step.

Looking for evaluative tools for the upcoming troop request, I flipped through my copy of The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene and came across this passage:

…Rommel once made a distinction between a gamble and a risk. Both cases involve an action with only a chance of success, a chance that is heightened by acting with boldness. The difference is that with a risk, if you lose, you can recover: your reputation will suffer no long-term damage, your resources will not be depleted, and you can return to your original position with acceptable losses. With a gamble, on the other hand, defeat can lead to a slew of problems that are likely to spiral out of control. …[I]f you encounter difficulties in a gamble, it becomes harder to pull out–you realize that the stakes are too high; you cannot afford to lose. So you try harder to rescue the situation, often making it worse and sinking deeper in to the hole that you cannot get out of. People are drawn into gambles by their emotions…Taking risks is essential; gambling is foolhardy.

The worst way to end…a war…is slowly and painfully…Before entering any action, you must calculate in precise terms your exit strategy…If the answers…seem to vague and full of speculation, if success seems all too alluring and failure somewhat dangerous, you are more than likely taking a gamble. Your emotions are leading you into a situation that could end up a quagmire.

Before that happens, catch yourself. And if you do find you have made this mistake, you have only two rational solutions: either end the conflict as quickly as you can, with a strong, violent blow aimed to win, accepting the costs and knowing they are better than a slow and painful death, or cut your losses and quit without delay. Never let pride or concern for your reputation pull you farther into the morass; both will suffer far greater blows by your persistence. Short-term defeat is better than long-term disaster.

Greene writes these words interpreting the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. They apply equally well to the situation in which the United States finds itself in the same country.

Let’s review how we got here. (Finger-pointing, unless you were one of the brave few who were against a military response to 9/11, is useless. We got here together.) President Bush (backed by almost all of us) acted on our emotions following the attacks without planning all the way to the end. Then, he launched the Iraq war without adequately thinking through the consequences for the endeavor in Afghanistan. While President Obama correctly assailed him for the Iraq blunder (such a small, inadequate word for that crime), he and the Democrats managed a neat trick of being anti-Iraq-war hawks by promising a chest-thumping charge into Afghanistan to “finish the job.” Obama and his allies also failed to plan all the way to the end, to account for things like lost time, sputtering public enthusiasm for another presidential term lost in fever dreams of war and the awful human cost of the tough-guy promises to hit terrorists in Pakistan with drone strikes.

But, damning the torpedoes, we went full speed ahead, and in the period during which President Obama escalated drone strikes over Pakistan, ordered and escalation and then sent the new troops on a push into Helmand, the insurgent influence in Afghanistan went from this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

to this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

The number of insurgent attacks has also followed a steady upward trend since the U.S. invasion.

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

There’s little doubt that we’re in the morass against which Greene warns in the quote above.  It should be useful, then, to examine Greene’s “two rational solutions” to the problem: the violent, crushing blow that ends the conflict quickly, or the rapid exit to prevent a worse catastrophe.

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim.  The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In other words, no sudden, violent blow, absent pristine intelligence revealing the precise, time-stamped location of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, can end this conflict quickly without entailing costs we cannot bear.

That leaves us with option 2: cut your losses and quit without delay. So why do we remain?

First, the strategic complications of the situation boggle the mind. However, the strategic implications of the region have been on our radar for years, but cooler heads without the burden of the 9/11 trauma kept the U.S. out of a heavy military operation in Afghanistan even at the height of the Afghan civil war, and I can imagine that a desire to avoid precisely this predicament played a role in those decisions. But while I do not doubt that the strategic monstrosity of Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan/Kashmir/India deeply concerns the president, I can also imagine that what really keeps him and his advisers up at night are fears of a possible crisis that would fall most heavily on the civilian population of Afghanistan following a U.S. withdrawal. The human, economic and political costs of our military operation are so high that, absent this humanitarian concern, I doubt we’d still be discussing whether to add or subtract troops. We’d be on our way home.

Regular readers of my blog know that I am a Christian whose understanding of Jesus’ teachings prevent me from supporting the use of violence in any circumstances. The far more (nominally) prevalent formulation among fellow Christians, obviously, is my faith’s adaptation of just war criteria. One of the main architects of Christian just war theory, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and tutor to Augustine, articulated the viewpoint that helped drive just war criteria into Christian thought, and it’s exactly this sentiment that keeps well-meaning people of all faiths and of no faith tethered to the moral “necessity” of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan:

He who does not keep harm off a friend, if he can, is as much in fault as he who causes it.

This is the sentiment that bridges the gap between the Sermon on the Mount and the Christian acceptance of war. And, as much as I disagree with it (note the deftness with which it queues noble sympathy for a friend while avoiding the truly revolutionary call of Jesus to love one’s enemies and to not violently resist an evil person), I understand it. However, the middle clause of the sentence is one of the most important pieces of guidance for the just war adherent: “if he can.” Courage is not the only issue, nor is sentiment: likelihood of success is crucial. That’s why the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes in its explanation of just war this explicit restriction on military actions with poor prospects for success:

1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

3. there must be serious prospects of success;

4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” [CCC 2309].

Desire to keep harm off a friend is insufficient to excuse your use of violence to save him. To be morally permissible, in this view, your violence must have a serious prospect of succeeding. Otherwise one simply adds to the level of violence and suffering already present.

The U.S. lacks a credible, legitimate partner in our attempt to use counterinsurgency strategy as a means of counterterrorism, and in COIN operations you live and die by the legitimacy of the host nation government. The COIN manual goes so far as to call host nation government legitimacy the “north star.” Steadily rising attacks and maps of spreading insurgency are all symptoms of our lack of this fundamental prerequisite for the success of our chosen strategy. In addition, every single troop increase has been followed in the next year by an increased civilian casualty rate and a persistently increasing level of insurgent violence. Insurgents now have a significant presence in more than 90 percent of the country. Finally, evidence shows that even our humanitarian aid funneled through the military fuels violence in Afghanistan. We lack “serious” prospects for success; it is stretching to even say we have “credible” prospects for success. As such, our use of violence in pursuit of even humanitarian objectives only adds to the butcher’s bill in Afghanistan, and we can no longer be excused by our good intentions.

And don’t think for a second that “fewer troops, more drones” is an answer in Afghanistan. Drones have an indiscriminate track record already in Pakistan, and their expansion in Afghanistan would violate any formulation of just war ethics, causing a massive increase in death and suffering caused by U.S. forces. If one accepts the proposition that our purpose in Afghanistan is primarily to reduce the threat of terrorism against the United States, one should carefully consider the following from P.W. Singer’s excellent book on military robotics, Wired for War:

[Mubashar Jawed “M.J.” Akbar concludes] that another unintentional effect must be watched out for. The greater use of unmanned systems, the more likely it will motivate terrorist strikes at America’s homeland. “It will be seen as a sign of American unwillingness to face death. Therefore, new ways to hit America will have to be devised…”(p. 312-313)

Singer also quotes Nir Rosen, who expects:

that the continuing trend will “encourage terrorism,” maybe especially among those not fighting that way now. As he explains…not every fighter is an al-Qaeda terrorist intent on attacking the United States. “the insurgents are defending their area and focusing on troops they see as occupiers. But if they can’t kill soldiers on the battlefield, they will have to do it somewhere else” He predicts that the more we take American soldiers off the battlefields [through robotics], the more it will “drive them to hit back home.” (p. 313)

None of the credible violent options in Afghanistan offer real chances for rolling back the insurgent reaction to our presence and to the corruption of the central government, nor do these options hold the potential for reducing terrorism against the United States. Because we lack a serious prospect for success via military force, we cannot justify its continued use. We should therefore make the only justifiable strategic and moral decision by grounding the drones and bringing our troops home, seeking instead humanitarian, political and diplomatic means to alleviate the inevitable suffering caused in part by our bad gamble in Afghanistan.


Embedded in General Stanley McChrystal’s classified assessment of the war in Afghanistan is his conclusion that a successful counterinsurgency strategy will require 500,000 troops over five years.

Any takers?

Richard Haass at the Council on Foreign Relations recently voiced reservations about the Afghanistan war, pointing out that it was rapidly evolving into a ‘war of choice.’ It’s a good read, and I commend him for giving the interview.

However, I take issue with his more recent piece on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” feature, “When is War Justifiable?”  The kernel of the piece lies in these two sentences:

But just war theory is too subjective and confining for today’s real-world threats.

A more useful concept is that of justifiable war.

In one way, Haass is right: modern conflicts have pulled the thin veneer of usability off of just war theory and exposed it not as a restraint on actions in conflict, but as a gateway drug. We use it to get in, and it does not help us get out. And, if our slippery-slope behavior in World War II is any guide, it doesn’t particularly bother us to jettison it once we get angry or frustrated enough during the conflict. (See Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, etc.) But to say that just war theory has somehow made it too hard to get into wars ignores the last couple of centuries’ worth of wars and “police actions.”

I posted this brief reply to Haass in the comments section (and yes, I misspelled his name consistently throughout):

As much as I appreciate the recent skepticism Mr. Haas recently voiced about the Afghanistan escalation (and I do very much appreciate it), I’d disagree with the direction in which he’s going in this piece. I do not subscribe to “Christian” just war theory either, but if we are to dismantle it, we should be heading in *more* restrictive directions, rather than loosening its constraints.

Haas is correct that just war theory is meant to be “confining.” That’s the point. He is incorrect in an underlying assumption: that people can be helped by the unpredictable violence unleashed in wartime.

On the other hand, he’s only making explicit what has been the dirty little secret of “Christian” war deliberations in the U.S….that we don’t use just war theory, and that when we claim to do so we’re actually just talking about whether we feel justified in making war.

We should jettison just war theory not because it’s too restrictive (is it Haas’ case that it’s too hard these days to go to war? I’m confused…) but because it isn’t restrictive enough. Violence is not a legitimate means of participating in conflict.

This morning, AP published a story featuring Red Cross officials expressing anxiety about the escalating Afghanistan conflict:

”The daily lives of people living in areas where the fighting is taking place are being disrupted, be it because of airstrikes, night raids, suicide attacks, the use of IEDs, or because of intimidation and the population being pressurized or co-opted by the different parties to this conflict,” he said.

The U.N. last month said 2,118 civilians died in the Afghan conflict in 2008, a 40 percent jump over 2007. The world body said insurgent attacks caused 55 percent of those deaths, while U.S., NATO or government forces caused 39 percent of the deaths. The remaining 6 percent were caused in crossfire.

”Unless more is done in different ways by the different parties to the conflict … to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, the ICRC fears that the Afghan population will bear the brunt of the announced escalation and that consequences for many will be dire in the extreme,” Krahenbuhl said.

A real sea change occurred over the past few years regarding the relationship of air strikes and the manslaughter of civilians. Citing the ‘precision capabilities’ of U.S. missile technology to claim conformity with the ‘Christian’ just war criteria of discrimination was one of the prime propaganda tactics of pro-war factions after the Persian Gulf War. Many American Christians bought this farce hook, line, and sinker, and relied on this false premise to come to the conclusion that the U.S. war in Afghanistan would fit the requirements of just war theory.

From Christianity Today, March 2002:

Members of the Society of Christian Ethics have expressed cautious support of the military effort in Afghanistan. The consensus of 350 professional ethicists at an international conference was that the conflict fits the just war principles articulated by Augustine in the fifth century.

U.S. methods fit the just war principle of discrimination, said John Kelsay, professor of ethics at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Some have estimated that more than 4,000 Afghan civilians have been killed, but Kelsay said the U.S. has used smart bombs and avoided targeting civilians.

Fast-forward to this past week, though, and read the New York Times:

But the report also found that Afghan government forces and those of the American-led coalition killed 828 people last year, up sharply from the previous year. Most of those were killed in airstrikes and raids on villages, which are often conducted at night.

...but smart bombs are AWESOME, right?

...but smart bombs are AWESOME, right?

Sixty-seven percent of civilians killed by pro-Afghanistan-government forces (that’s us, mostly) were killed by air strikes, a.k.a. smart bombs. The civilian casualties tied to these kinds of strikes got so bad that now pro-escalation folks hold them up as the reason we need to increase troop levels–to mitigate the use of air strikes!

The upshot of this troop-shortage has been that NATO forces have relied ever more heavily on air-strikes (which the United States has to carry out, since other NATO forces lack air-support).

Unfortunately, all this buzz about adding more troops to mitigate the use of air strikes is total bull. As Siun noted earlier this month, more troops will mean more air strikes, not fewer:

…the addition of more ground troops is more likely to increase the use of air strikes rather than decrease them as the suge proponents argue. In their exhaustive study of civilian casualties Human Rights Watch notes:

“Broadly speaking, airstrikes are used in two different circumstances: planned strikes against predetermined targets, and unplanned “opportunity” strikes in support of ground troops that have made contact with enemy forces (in military jargon, “Troops in Contact” or TIC). In our investigation, we found that civilian casualties rarely occur during planned airstrikes on suspected Taliban targets (one in each of 2006 and 2007). High civilian loss of life during airstrikes has almost always occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes, often carried out in support of ground troops after they came under insurgent attack. Such unplanned strikes included situations where US special forces units-normally small numbers of lightly armed personnel-came under insurgent attack; in US/NATO attacks in pursuit of insurgent forces that  had retreated to populated villages; and in air attacks where US “anticipatory self-defense” rules of engagement applied.”

Fellow Christians, can we please stop rallying around a national flag and the arms-makers’ easy propaganda whenever someone hurts us, or when we want to hurt someone else?

For the record, back in 2002 at that infamous gathering of “Christian ethicists,” Hauerwas got it right:

Still, a minority of ethicists stood against the war. Stanley Hauerwas argued the Christian pacifist position that violence is never justified. Hauerwas, professor of theological ethics at Duke University Divinity School, said pacifism is essential to the Christian faith.

“It’s not like you believe in Jesus, and then something about nonviolence might follow,” he told Christianity Today. “Nonviolence and what it means to be a disciple of Christ are constitutive of one another.”

“So many people are on a kind of God-and-country bandwagon right now,” Hauerwas said. “That’s very sad, from my point of view.”

There is no such thing as just war.

Two things come together at the United Nations:

UNITED NATIONS: Russia, at odds with the United States over Georgia, tried unsuccessfully to push the UN Security Council on Tuesday to condemn US-led air strikes in Afghanistan that killed dozens of civilians.

The Russian delegation had drafted a statement that would say the council’s 15 member states are “seriously concerned” about the US-led coalition attacks on August 22, which the UN mission in Afghanistan says it believes killed 90 civilians, most of them children. The draft statement, which several diplomats said had no chance of getting the unanimous backing it would need for approval, also says council members “deplore” the fact that this has happened before in Afghanistan.

Note to the U.S. government – if you are going to complain *at all* about civilian deaths in other conflicts, you have to stop blowing people up. Otherwise, this sort of embarrassing thing will happen all the time. The Russians know this document will never be adopted at the U.N., but introducing it serves its purpose: undermining the moral authority of the United States. Or, more correctly, highlighting how the U.S. government has undermined its own moral authority.

David Axe points out the cause of incidents like Herat:

The alleged incident comes at a time of increased air activity by U.S. and NATO forces: in June and July as many bombs were dropped as in all of 2006. This “air surge” is intended to partially compensate for chronic shortages of U.S. and NATO ground troops.

This bit of information is important for any U.S. Christian still clinging to the idea that the war in Afghanistan is a “just” war. Joe Blow on the street might be able to claim blithely that we are “justified” in our war in Afghanistan because “they attacked us,” but the Christian appropriation of just war tradition is much, much more stringent than that. It requires more than a just cause…it also requires just means, which, among other things, must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants (which, by the way, puts it totally at odds with Jesus’ admonitions to love your enemies, but I digress). Out of expediency, the U.S. is intentionally using means that recent events – despite the hype – show do not discriminate. In other words, from the most permissive of the Christian ethical perspectives on war, our war in Afghanistan is not a just war and has not been a just war for some time, if ever.

Accordingly, no matter what your perspective on the nonviolence of Jesus Christ, if you are a Christian fighting in Afghanistan, you should lay down your arms and refuse to kill for the U.S. government.  You’ll be in good company:

“Maximillianus, a young Numidian Christian, just over 21, was brought before Dion the proconsul of Aficia at Teveste (Numidia) as fir for military service.  This was in 295 A.D. during the reign of Maximillianus.”           

“Maximillianus answered, ‘But why do you want to know my name?  I dare not fight, since I am a Christian.’  ‘Measure him,’ said Dion the proconsul; but on being measured, Maximillianus answered, ‘I cannot fight, I cannot do evil;  I am a Christian.’  Said the proconsul, ‘Let him be measured.’  And after he had been measured, the attendant read out ‘He is five feet ten.’  Then said Dion to the attendant, ‘Enroll him.’  And Maximillianus cried out, ‘No, no, I cannot be a soldier.  I am a soldier of m God.  I refuse the badge.  Already I have Christ’s badge…If you mark me, I shall annul it as invalid…I cannot wear ought laden on my neck after the saving mark of my Lord.’  To the proconsul’s question as to what crime soldiers practiced, Maximillianus replied, ‘You know quite well what they do.’”  Maximillianus was beheaded.            

Unknown to most Roman Catholics, Maximillianus has been honored as one of the canonized saints of the church, though he died as a conscientious objector!