Obama’s War: a Just War or Not?

President Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending 30,000 additional troops suggests guarded optimism alongside the belief that he can control unforeseen difficulties. He appeared before the nation as a reluctant warrior who does not cherish sending our young ones to war, but who is nevertheless mindful of his responsibility to protect the security of the nation.

Obama used lofty patriotic and moral rhetoric to support his decision, even labeling it a Just War. But, is this new stage of the war in Afghanistan a Just War? After evaluating the president’s strategy, it might be useful to review the principles and applications of a Just War as outlined in chapters eleven, twelve, and part of chapter fourteen in the textbook that appears in this website.

An Analysis of the President’s Decision

The president seemingly took the situation in Afghanistan as a serious national security matter and placed it above his own party’s base preferences. This action may be taken as evidence that partisan politics is not guiding his decision, even though in a democratic republic the Just War doctrine needs to take into account partisan politics. Further, he sent a signal to other NATO countries that the U.S. would lead in this effort by example.

On the other hand, by stating that he will begin to withdraw troops by July 2011, he believes either that the Taliban/al Qaeda risk is considerably less than his rhetoric indicates; that he can successfully meet unforeseen hurdles and attain his objectives in only 18 months; or that he took into account his party’s and the American people’s sentiments toward this war. Nonetheless, the administration, including the president himself, began to formulate a new interpretation of the withdrawal’s timeline, indicating that that the president will not stubbornly adhere to his initial decision but rather consider circumstances affecting the course of the war.

The president did not indicate how fast troop withdrawal would take place, thereby leaving the door open to keeping comparable force levels for an indefinite time. In addition, he did not address the question of what would happen if the Afghan war cannot be successfully waged with much fewer troops as Gen. McChrystal had recommended. By sending less number of troops and setting a date for their initial departure, however, his speech will make it politically more difficult to appeal for an increase should the situation demand it in the future.

A significant point in the speech is that while defending the human rights of the Afghan people is a valid moral reason to engage in a Just War, the president did not invoke this motive. There was no mention of how Afghans, particularly women and children, would fare under renewed Taliban rule or the impact of a civil war throughout the country. Obama’s speech addressed strictly the issue of the national security interests of the United States, although defined in quite broad terms.

The president rejected the alternative of an “open-ended escalation of the war effort, one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade,” because such a goal is beyond what the U.S. would be able to attain, presumably financially, militarily, and politically. His thinking suggests that his initial strategy has more to do with his perception that Congress and the American people will not support a lengthy open-ended process.

The problem, however, is one not of nation-building, which in times of peace is very doable. Although nation-building can be–and should be–left to the Afghan people and the international community, it will be successful only if the ground is fertile for such an endeavor to take roots. Hence, the question is not whether we should engage in nation-building, but whether the U.S. and its allies can train Afghan forces, protect the population, and defeat an extremist opposition so that the Afghan people themselves can engage in nation-building. To accomplish these tasks with the current military buildup, however, is likely to take years.

In this context, the crux of the president’s decision in Afghanistan then, is his perception of the extent to which our security would be threatened if the Taliban regain control of the country and renew their strong relations with al Qaeda. Further, his decision takes into account the likelihood that such threats to our security might increase considerably if, once in power, the Taliban become a destabilizing force in Pakistan. If so, it would appear that an early departure of our troops would enable the Taliban’s success in both countries.

The president indicated that “America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan” and that he refuses “to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests.” Although these are sensible words at this time, they are fraught with great risks. What happens if the president’s strategy fails? What happens if the threat becomes too real; if the threat increases exponentially? Would we, should we still withdraw?

If the threat to our national security increases considerably in the next twelve months, not only is it more likely that the timetable for troop withdrawal will be delayed. At this juncture new options, including boosting our overall troop levels, whether through pay incentives or the draft, and developing newer and more lethal firepower will have to be considered.

There are those who disagree with the escalation of the war effort in Afghanistan. It appears their perception of the threat posed by the Taliban is infinitely less than the president’s perception. They cannot visualize the potential long-run consequences of inaction or “less-action” that might force us to engage an even stronger enemy in the future. This is problematic. For one, their perception of the threat may be correct. However, what happens if they are wrong? Have those opposed to the escalation developed a Plan B to meet potential dangers to our national security?

Finally, there are, to be sure, numerous obstacles in the months and years ahead that could slow down or altogether foil the president’s current strategy in Afghanistan. Several of these obstacles are interrelated. Among them are:
• The Karzai government’s willingness and capability to reduce corruption and to gain the people’s trust.
• The Afghan’s police and armed forces willingness and capability to assume the nation’s security burden.
• The American people’s willingness to support the war.
• The Pakistani Government’s willingness to become more actively engaged in pursuing Taliban and al Qaeda members.
• NATO’s continued support and willingness to increase it.
• The sudden eruption of a serious military conflict in the Middle East involving Israel.
• A worsening of the military situation in Iraq.
• President Obama’s willingness to devote additional troops and time should the circumstances require it.

The Concept of a Just War

The Just War criteria may assist leaders insofar as they realize that these principles work as both an ethical and a politically prudent checklist. Failure to observe them, as we have learned from the Iraq invasion, sometimes leads to even greater catastrophes.

A first criterion of a Just War requires that the cause or reason for committing the nation to war (in this case, for escalating the war) must be a just one. The primary reasons for remaining militarily committed in Afghanistan are largely the same ones that led to our initial involvement in 2001 (see chapter 12, p. 324 in the text). Circumstances in the last four years, however, have worsened leading to questions regarding our initial motives.

Most observers, including statements by Taliban members, now agree that the U.S. invasion of Iraq distracted us from focusing on the Afghan war. This war, now and then labeled a war of necessity, met, according to the concept in chapter eleven, the initial criteria for a Just War.

The invasion of Iraq, however, downplayed our level of commitment and diverted military resources in Afghanistan, and allowed the Taliban to regroup. In consequence, the threat to the United States, which was the primary reason for attacking the Taliban regime, has increased considerably, according to the President and the U.S. military.

Assuming that military intelligence and threat assessments are reliable, there seems to be no significant prejudicial elements that would distort a Just cause, such as partisan politics, political expediency, inordinate fear, self-served national interests or moral self-righteousness. President Obama’s escalation, viewed as a continued effort to legitimately wage the same defensive war that was initiated in 2001, does appear to meet the Just War criterion.

A second Just War principle is that the leaders’ motives for waging war must be morally good. Since we are not able to look into his soul or his mind, it is difficult to judge the president’s motives other than by a critical and public assessment of what he tells us along with any pertinent information that might contradict his intentions.

For example, is there evidence that that president is seeking to divert attention from domestic economic woes? Are there traces of politically brokered deals that stand to benefit his reelection? Are there indications of a hidden agenda? As for the president, only he knows if his intentions are moral. On my part, I believe that his words are the external reflection of his motives, and as such, they seem to meet the second criterion.

A third guiding principle is that war must be the very last resort after other alternatives have been exhausted. We may want to ask if a troop withdrawal or keeping the same troop levels at this time would increase or reduce the threat to our national security or whether it may prolong this war resulting in more casualties than necessary. Assuming the president’s decision to escalate the war represents a continuation of a justly initiated war, one may conclude that there are no sensible alternatives but to escalate the war if, indeed, the threat to our security has increased.

I would add, however, two stipulations that would complement and legitimize the very last resort criterion. The U.S. and its allies must able to persuade the Karzai government to do everything possible to reduce corruption, befriend its people, gain their credibility, and assume its fair share of the conflict. Also, it is imperative that this war be accompanied by more meaningful diplomatic, cultural, religious, and economic relations seeking to reduce Arab and Muslim discontent while building consensus on strategies related to mutual understanding and cooperation.

A fourth principle states that the political leaders must see to it that any war they start is planned in such a manner that success must be reasonably assured. Put differently, it is morally wrong to begin a war whose successful outcome cannot be reasonably assured because there is insufficient determination to do what is required.

Having obtained a relatively mild positive response from our NATO allies and facing increased discontent with the war at home, the most significant question at this time is whether the president has assigned the necessary resources and has the necessary determination–not to eventually attain the war’s objectives–but to do so in the least amount of time, with the least levels of destruction, and the least number of casualties. We may remember that the Iraq invasion failed to pacify the country after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, thereby prolonging the war and increasing the number of casualties on both sides, partly because President George W. Bush disregarded military advice to invade Iraq with more troops. We must withhold judgment on this principle until events themselves provide us with better indications of progress.

Another Just War principle is that prior to the leadership engaging in armed conflict, consideration must be given to plans for a just and fair peace among all the parties in the conflict. In this regard, it is worth noticing that the U.S. has approved and publicly promoted a significantly peace-oriented policy: the Karzai government’s readiness to make peace with and accept the social and political integration of members of the Taliban who are willing to renounce to force and work within the current political model in Afghanistan. Moreover, the president has indicated that the U.S. interests in Afghanistan are only to safeguard the Afghan government until it is able to protect itself and its people. If the U.S. does not divert from this path, it would appear that this criterion will be met.

A Just War also requires that the use of military force be proportional to the wrongfulness or injustice that led to the initiation of the conflict. There is evidence suggesting that the U.S. has on occasion violated this principle in order to safeguard its troops. Although American forces could add to their protection by indiscriminate targeting, the public record suggests that while violations have been reported, serious attempts have been made to abide by this criterion in two important areas.

For example, Just War guidelines tell us that civilians not considered part of the war effort cannot be targeted, as if we need to be reminded. Although there has been no information that the military leadership has purposefully targeted civilians, Afghans have been killed and injured by American firepower. This element, along with the invasion of Iraq and strongly held anti-American views throughout the Bush administration, has contributed to a regrouping of the Taliban. Indeed, Gen. McChrystal was named to head the American forces in Afghanistan with the primary task (among others) of reducing the number of innocent casualties, as it was perceived that collateral deaths among Afghans were antagonizing the population and supplying the opposition with new recruits.

Along the same line, a Just War requires as well the humane treatment of enemy forces by our military personnel. There is no doubt that serious violations have been committed in this area in past years. Although it might be difficult to abide by this guideline in times of war, the practical aspects of ethics should not escape its observance. The politically and militarily damaging consequences of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and renditions of enemy combatants are major reminders that may serve us well in future military engagements. It is likely that military success in Afghanistan will be secured to the extent the U.S. troops can walk the extra mile in gaining the trust and friendship of the Afghan population. If President Obama abides by his words, suggesting that his handling of the war will be quite different from his predecessor, the above guidelines will be met.

As this phase of the war is just starting, the president’s characterization of his escalation of the Afghan war as being morally justified must await until action and rhetoric are one and the same. A concise review of the principles of a Just War leads me to think that President Obama’s escalation of the war effort in Afghanistan is conditionally Just. We must bear in mind that a morally justified war is not one that begins in accordance with ethical guidelines but one that begins and ends ethically. Although it appears that both the reasons and the motives for escalation comply with Just War principles, until hostilities end, the U.S. will have to abide by yet another rule: a Just War ceases to be Just if it is fought unjustly; if it is won by violating its other principles. For history to uphold the president’s claim that the U.S. fought a Just War in Afghanistan, he has to ensure that the U.S. complies with all Just War guidelines.

To contact the author copy and paste my e-mail address and send via your e-mail provider. RicardoPlanas@reasonandpolitics.com