Jack A. Smith: Afghanistan ... It’s Not a Just War





[Jack A. Smith is editor of the Activist Newsletter and a former editor of the Guardian (US) radical newsweekly. He may be reached at: jacdon@earthlink.net. Read other articles by Jack, or visit Jack's website.]

President Barack Obama delivered a rather odd speech Dec. 10 when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize at ceremonies in Oslo. In the name of peace, he sought to justify former President George W. Bush’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, as well as his own decision Dec. 1 to vastly expand this unnecessary and essentially lost endeavor by ordering another 30,000 troops to the war zone.

In the process, Obama misinterpreted the “Theory of Just War,” the subject of this article, which argues it is not a just war.

Most Republicans, especially the neoconservatives, strongly approved of the speech, largely because of its bellicosity and its justification for Bush’s foray into Afghanistan. Sarah Palin “liked what he said.” Newt Gingrich “thought the speech was actually very good.” Karl Rove defined it as “superb,” “tough” and “effective.” The pro-war Wall Street Journal offered a “Congratulations, Mr. President.”

Antiwar Democrats and the peace movement were critical, but many liberal Democrats praised it, though seemingly less for its rationalization of war and imperialism and more for its smooth intellectual style and philosophical wanderings, as when Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the liberal flagship weekly The Nation, focused on the president’s “humility and grace.”

Salon commentator Glenn Greenwald put it this way: “Much of the liberal praise for Obama’s speech yesterday focused on how eloquent, sophisticated, nuanced, complex, philosophical, contemplative and intellectual it was. And, looked at a certain way, it was all of those things — like so many Obama speeches are. After eight years of enduring a president who spoke in simplistic Manichean imperatives and bullying decrees, many liberals are understandably joyous over having a president who uses their language and the rhetorical approach that resonates with them. But that’s the real danger. Obama puts a pretty, intellectual, liberal face on some ugly and decidedly illiberal policies.”

Obama had little option but to express humility in accepting the Nobel Committee’s award that he himself knew was entirely undeserved and an embarrassment, coming as it did just after his big move to widen the Afghan war. Under the circumstances, he carried off the necessary humility sequence quite well, noting that “Compared to some of the giants of history who have received this prize — Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela — my accomplishments are slight.”

About half the Nobel speech was devoted to justifying the Afghan war, while most of the rest was a spirited, idealized, and mendacious defense of the U.S. role in foreign affairs since the end of World War II. Obama’s foreign policy resembles a combination of that put forward by Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush (the elder). It continues the dubious tradition embraced by American presidents since 1945 consisting of seeking hegemony and world supremacy based on overwhelming military power.

In attempting to legitimize Bush’s Afghan war, Obama declared:

Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers, clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a ‘just war’ emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence…. The world rallied around America after the 9/11 attacks, and continues to support our efforts in Afghanistan, because of the horror of those senseless attacks and the recognized principle of self-defense…

I believe that all nations, strong and weak alike, must adhere to [just war] standards that govern the use of force…. Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. That is a source of our strength.


President Obama is incorrect when he suggests that the Afghan war conforms with the theory of just war. Here’s why:

Over the last 1,500 years, secular and religious ethicists have developed the theory of just war. The Roman Catholic Church is a major organizational upholder of the just war concept, but the theory enjoys universal application and is embraced in international law and the UN Charter. This is not a pacifist theory because it finds some wars just and some unjust. For instance, U.S. participation in World War II against German and Japanese imperialism is considered just, but its role in Iraq is termed unjust. Justness, not nonviolence, is the international criterion.

There are nuanced differences in the interpretation of just war theory, but there is general agreement on its six principal stipulations — all of which be must honored for the resort to war to be considered just. Four of the points are relevant to Afghanistan, the most important being “Just Cause.” This means war is permissible to confront “a real and certain danger” — either an attack or imminent attack from another country — and includes self-defense or the defense of others from external aggression.

Afghanistan neither attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, nor was it threatening an imminent attack. This rules out the just cause of self-defense. We will explain this before moving to the other three points.

Al-Qaeda, a small decentralized fundamentalist religious organization on the fringes of Islam was responsible for the attack, not the state or government of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda was formed in Afghanistan by Osama bin-Laden, a Saudi exile, in 1988. Its members were drawn from foreign Muslim jihadist fighters taking part in the Afghan civil war (1979-1996) against a left wing government in Kabul that was being defended by Soviet troops, followed by a war between the various Afghan factions after the left was overthrown in 1992. The U.S. financed the anti-government civil war, as did Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on a lesser scale. Al-Qaeda was among the beneficiaries of Washington’s support.

Most al-Qaeda recruits returned to their own countries in the Middle East and Europe after the war. Some set up small branches of the organization where they lived. A sector of al-Qaeda, including bin-Laden, remained in Afghanistan with the approval of the fundamentalist Taliban government, which emerged victorious from the civil war in 1996.

No Afghan was among the 19 Al-Qaeda suicide operatives, armed with box cutters, who hijacked four airliners on 9/11 and slammed one of them into the Pentagon and two others into New York’s World Trade Center, killing about 3,000 people.

Much of the planning for the attack evidently took place in Europe and then in the U.S. There has never been any proof that Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar was aware of the Sept. 11 plan, much less a party to it. Just hours after the Washington and New York City destruction, the Taliban authorities denounced the attacks. At the same time, Afghanistan’s Taliban ambassador to Pakistan stated to the media “We want to tell the American children that Afghanistan feels your pain. We hope the courts find justice.”

President Bush immediately rejected suggestions for a major international police effort to apprehend the leaders of the attack. Instead, after conferring with his neoconservative advisers, he defined this small-group terrorist raid as an act of war carried out from Afghan territory with the connivance of the Taliban government. This allowed Bush to declare an open-ended “War on Terrorism,” paving the way for his Oct. 7 bombing and invasion of Afghanistan, and then Iraq in March 2003.

Another of the just war points is “Last Resort. This means a country may resort to war only after exhausting every other possible alternative. This is reflected in the UN Charter, which calls for serious efforts to resolve differences nonviolently through diplomacy or the courts, before the resort to military means. Bush rejected an offer by the Taliban to produce bin-Laden if the U.S. wouldn’t invade. Its only stipulation was that Washington provide proof that the al-Qaeda leader actually committed the crime, as would any country asked to surrender a suspect to another country. Bush swiftly refused, ruled out any negotiations, and began a bombing campaign and invasion. President Obama said in Oslo that “America did not seek” the Afghan war, but war was Bush’s first resort, not last, as was the case 18 months later when he attacked Iraq.

A third stipulation is “Right Intention” — i.e., fighting only on behalf of an expressed just cause without a trace of ulterior motivation such as the acquisition of power, land, resources, riches, etc. Bush’s ulterior motivations were to interject U.S. military power into Central Asia in proximity to Russia, China and resource-rich former Soviet republics, and also to occupy a territory adjacent to Iran, another neoconservative target for regime change at the time.

The last point is “Proportionality,” meaning that the quantity of violence, damage and costs is proportionate to the expressed reason for resorting to war. Given the violation of the Just War standards of just cause, last resort, and right intention, the disproportion involved in Bush’s bombing, invasion, occupation and continuing warfare is self-evident. In any event, Bush’s expressed reason for war was that the Afghan authorities did not hand over bin-Laden, but that was compromised by the U.S. refusal to provide the evidence required for extradition or to even discuss with the Kabul government the question of the Taliban’s alleged complicity in the terror attacks.

Thus, despite President Obama’s efforts to define Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan as just, he has decided to send another 30,000 troops, on top of approximately 30,000 sent earlier in this year, to fight in a manifestly unjust war.


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