Monday, August 16, 2021

The Afghanistan Disaster: A Case of Unjust War Exit

As we watch wretched Afghanis clinging to the wings of departing US airplanes, the Taliban, one of the cruelest regimes on earth, has taken control of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of United States troops. Most observers are dismayed, but for various reasons and with different motivations. Some think the US should have never invaded; others say that, while the initial invasion was defensible, the US subsequently botched its mission; yet others obsess over who was at fault: G.W. Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden, or all of the above.

Here I set aside these questions. At the time I defended the invasion, but I will not assume here that I was right then. I wish to make a different point: the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan constitutes an unjust war exit. 

Just war theory specifies the conditions for the justice of a war:

1. The war has a just cause. A just cause consists in stopping or preventing the violation, backed by lethal force, of persons’ rights to life and physical integrity (in brief, repelling or preventing attacks against persons).

2. The commander intends the just cause either as an end, or as a means to some other end, or, perhaps, as a foreseen side effect.

3. The war stands a reasonable chance of succeeding by military means that do not breach jus in bello requirements.

4. The war is a necessary means to pursue the just cause while minimizing casualties.

5. The war is a proportionate response to the wrong it seeks to remedy.

6. Neither the war’s occurrence nor the way it is fought should threaten the establishment of a just peace. 

Those who question the justice of the Afghanistan war may claim that it violated condition 1, the failure to have a just cause; or condition 3, the success requirement; or perhaps condition 6, the failure to create the conditions for a just peace.

I don’t have to decide whether or not the critics are right, because even if they are, the withdrawal of troops violates the requirements for the just termination of war. The idea is that “the question of whether belligerents may, or indeed must, end their war at time t2 cannot be settled solely by a verdict on the justness or unjustness of their war at t1.” (C├ęcile Fabre, here, at 632). 

We must consider two cases: either the Afghanistan war was initially just or it was not.

Let’s assume that the Afghanistan war was initially just at T1, the time of the invasion. It follows that the United States had an obligation to realize the just cause (say, free Afghanistan from the Taliban and eliminate the chances of anti-Western terrorists operating there). But suppose that at a later time, T2, the war had become impossible to win or could only be won at a prohibitive cost, defined as a cost in human lives that significantly exceeds the value of the realization of the just cause. Then, perhaps the United States would have had to stop fighting at the time the impossibility of victory became apparent.  By hypothesis, continuing the war would have led to worse consequences than withdrawing. If success cannot be achieved (thus turning an initially just war into an unjust one), but the United States presence is necessary to avert a catastrophe, then the United States must stay. The United States may withdraw only if doing so complies with the rules of proportionality, that is, if predictably the consequences of withdrawal are acceptable.

Similar reasoning holds if we assume that the war is unjust at T1, which means the invader should not have invaded in the first place. However, at T2 it became apparent that stopping the (initially ill-conceived) fight would have led to a major humanitarian catastrophe. Then, the principles of war exit recommend staying the course, on grounds of proportionality as before: the consequences of leaving are worse than the consequences of continuing the fight, even if starting the fight was wrong.

It is apparent that the United States withdrawal is unjust regardless of any view about the justness of the original invasion, or any view about supervening justice or injustice of the war. The Taliban’s reconquest of power will predictably lead to disastrous results. At the very least, the Taliban will resume its reign of terror against its own citizens, especially women. And in the worst case, the country will become once again a military base for terrorists, especially given the likely involvement of Iran in Afghanistan. All of this makes the withdrawal unjust. The United States should have continued to fend off the assault of the Taliban with the contingent it had. This would have been morally preferable, I contend, even if the United States troops would have had to stay forever.

A final word about the rationale offered by the present and previous US administrations: “We cannot fight for them, they must fight themselves.” This noxious doctrine, going back to J.S. Mill, is that freedom is only valuable if people fight for it. The doctrine is wrong because it blames the victim. The victims of the Taliban, especially women and children, are helpless against the Taliban and are not responsible for their corrupt and ineffectual government’s failure to defend them. The United States military presence in Afghanistan, flawed and indecisive as it was, was indispensable to save human lives. It should not have ended.