Monday, April 01, 2002

Chris Bertram, "Afghanistan: A Just Intervention"

An exceptionally clear, careful, and solidly reasoned discussion of the issues by the British political philosopher Chris Bertram. In my (possibly fallible) opinion, Bertram pretty much demolishes claims that the anti-Taliban war in Afghanistan failed to meet the moral or legal criteria of a "just war." --Jeff Weintraub



Online content from Vol. 6 no. 2 (2002)

Christopher Bertram is a member of the Imprints editorial committee. He is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Bristol (UK). He is currently finishing a study of Rousseau’s Social Contract to be published by Routledge. His interests include issues in international justice and problems of public justification.

Symposium on the War in Afghanistan:

A Just Intervention

Christopher Bertram


HE ATTACKS in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 were terrible events, they were also acts of barbarism. The deaths (and the manner of the deaths) of so very many people on the ground, in the buildings, and on the airliners were atrocious. Many of those who died were of course those who responded out of feelings of duty or altruism to the initial event. In attacking New York, the Islamo-fascists of Al Qaeda attacked one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, a city of immigrants (both now and historically) and a city which many great cultural and artistic figures have made there home (DaPonte, Gershwin, Charlie Parker, Auden, Warhol - reader: make your own list). Moreover, it was an attack mounted by people who hate the United States of America not only (and probably not even mainly) for its inequality or its acts of injustice in the world or for its place in an unequal international order, but rather because of its democracy, its pluralism, its sexual libertinism, and all the other things that the left ought to like about the United States.

The reaction of the left

By and large, the left discredited itself by its reaction. In Britain the New Statesman, rhetorically answered its own question about whether the victims of September 11th were innocent with a ‘yes and no’, as if somehow some of them were deserving of their fate.[1] Britain’s leading left environmentalist, the columnist George Monbiot, failed dismally to rise to the moment, and in his initial reaction to the events centred on them providing an opportunity for Tony Blair to approve a nuclear reprocessing plant.[2] Some on the left, have gone even further, appearing to urge backing for the radical Islamists. Certainly, that is the implication of a piece by Andrew Chitty in Radical Philosophy which states that ‘the attacks are a continuation and escalation of a war for the colonial subjugation of the Middle East that has been fought more or less continuously since World War II between the USA and its proxy state Israel on the one hand, and their locally based opponents on the other.’ Chitty sees the anti-war movement as torn between those opposed to all violence and aggression and genuine anti-imperialists. He states that the anti-imperialist impulse pulls ‘towards a positive defence of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, as the current representatives of Middle Eastern resistance to imperialist power, in their war against the USA and its proxies’. [3]

Why then, did the British left react in such a manner? Partly, it did so because of an ingrained cultural anti-Americanism. Another reason was the historical memory of unjust American action in Vietnam, Chile and many other places.[4] Some, like Chitty, were, perhaps, moved by US support for Israel. Others see US-backed sanctions against Iraq as responsible for much suffering or simply employ vaguer and more generalised criteria about the injustice of the international order and America’s putative responsibility for it. Historically, there is much justice in these complaints about the United States.[5] But the moral stakes are now very high and many of the ‘facts’ deployed by the left in recent debates are, at best, of dubious character.[6] (They are the kind of ‘facts’ that support conclusions people have already reached.) Lurking in the debate have also been assumptions about international wealth and poverty half-remembered from the writings of the dependency school (Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin et al.) that would hold the United States almost uniquely responsible for patterns of global poverty and inequality.

The left should have done much better than this. Certainly, there are and have been unfairnesses and grave injustices in the international economic order, but the poverty of, say, Algeria or Nigeria also owes a great deal to economic mismanangement by local elites. The underdevelopment of much of the Arab would, despite access to capital by the barrel-load, speaks volumes about the cultural (and religious) obstacles to development.[7] The Saudi royal family have used their wealth to fund elite consumption and to promote the puritan sectarianism that found such murderous expression on September 11th; the poverty of many of their people should hardly be laid exclusively at the door of the United States.

It is also worth adding to the reasons for the left’s hostility the fact that a Republican administration was in power at the time of the attacks, and, moreover, one headed by a President, George W. Bush, whose alignment with Big Oil and whose unilateralist attitudes rightly arouse the hostility of anyone who cares about social and global injustice. Since September 11th, the Bush administration, with its absurd ‘axis of evil’ rhetoric and its underwriting of Ariel Sharon, has confirmed this negative opinion. But unpalatable though the Bush administration may be, the question of which party is in the White House is, strictly speaking, irrelevant to the issue of whether the United States is justified in using military force to respond to such an attack. If Clinton, Gore or even Ralph Nader had been in the Oval Office, the issues of justice and injustice would arise in exactly the same way.

Just cause

Darrel Moellendorf’s discussion of the justice of the Afghan war is thoughtful and well-informed. There is much with which I agree. He argues, rightly, that even economically dominant powers with tainted histories have the right to defend themselves against murderous attack. I endorse wholeheartedly, the straightforward statement of ‘just cause’ in relation to the Afghan war that he gives:

A state that gives refuge to terrorists who plan and execute foreign attacks that intentionally result in the deaths of more than two thousand civilians of other states is certainly one whose domestic policy results in serious international injustices. Additionally, the states whose citizens died in such attacks have a duty to protect the security of their citizens, which duty justifies pursuing those who carried out the attacks both to prevent them from carrying out further attacks and to deter others from trying something similar.[8]

Despite his belief that this one of the traditional jus ad bellum conditions was met, Moellendorf argues that two of the other conditions – that war should be a last resort, and that there should be a reasonable probability of success – were not. Consequently he argues that recourse to war was not justified (a third condition, proportionality, is treated by him as basically derivative of the first two).[9] I shall argue that he is mistaken on both counts and that he applies these conditions in a mechanical way that fails to take sensible and realistic account of the conditions.I cannot agree, though, with his idiosyncratic conclusion that it was wrong for the United States to go to war but right to continue once started. On the contrary, I would argue that the United States had every right to go to war when it did.[10]


One difficulty that confronts discussions of the justice of the war is that of perspective. On the one hand, the matter is often discussed purely from the standpoint of an impartial moral calculus, so critics of the war ask rhetorically whether Afghan lives are worth less than American lives. (Of course, the answer is that they are not.) This misses the fact that states have special responsibilities to defend and protect the interests of their own citizens and are under an obligation not to weigh the interests of their own citizens equally with those of others.[11] Not only that, but they are under a duty to be responsive to the political community that they purport to represent. To be sure, the obligations of statesmanship are to steer a people away from imprudent and immoral action,[12] but we should not minimise the pressures and indeed the obligations on politicians representing a political community that rightly perceived itself to have been wounded and endangered. The point of mentioning these considerations is that discussion, particularly on the justice of American action, should focus not just on what it would be best for the United States to do, it should also aim to define an area of permissible (and even, more broadly, of excusable) action. It is reasonable to suppose that the United States has a permission and a discretion to act in ways that are not over-tightly circumscribed by our consideration of what is best (or indeed what is prudent).[13]

If consideration of the constraints on US leaders is missing from Moellendorf’s discussion, so too is much account of the Afghan background to the conflict (although he very effectively dismisses the silly suggestion that the United States was morally disbarred from action by its earlier backing for the anti-Soviet Mujahadeen). The Taliban was a monstrously oppressive regime that took to extremes traditional anti-women practices of the region (and the religion), that engaged in widespread murder, torture and ethnic cleansing, that committed wholesale destruction of artistic and religious artefacts, and many other crimes. Moreover, this was a regime that was leading the people of Afghanistan into the prospect of mass starvation. Of course, I could go on, but I need not, because all of these matters were the subject of petitions circulated on the Left and among human rights groups before September 11th. It is interesting to consider what, exactly, it was that the leftist signatories of those petitions wanted to happen. Perhaps they hoped that the Taliban would take heed, would to listen to reason and would stop? Perhaps they wanted someone (who?) to take (what?) action against the Taliban?[14] The point of raising these issues now is not to suggest that the state of Afghanistan before September 11th would on its own necessarily have justified intervention,[15] but rather, since Moellendorf seeks to rely upon a threshold argument against the justice of going to war, to point out that the background of injustice and oppression should be taken into account in assessing the reasonability of the decision. Put bluntly my suggestion is this, that since the background situation was such that the morality of intervention anyway was at any rate arguable, the weight of the moral evil of war that Moellendorf feeds into his employment of the jus ad bellum criteria is inappropriate. It is simply irrational to focus on the anticipated evils of war without any consideration of the prospective goods (or the evils thereby prevented).[16]

Since the jus ad bellum criteria are there to prevent recourse to the great evil of war except where strictly necessary, it also seems odd that Moellendorf abstracts from the jus in bello considerations. The moral badness of war is principally a consequence of its destructive and life-destroying nature. If if were possible to wage effective warfare without doing significant harm to others, then the threshold set by jus ad bellum would be much lower than it is. As things are, the threshold ought to be sensitive to the expected violence and intensity of the conflict. All loss of life in war is regrettable, and especially that of non-combattants. Some have sought to argue that US action would be illegitimate unless there could be a guarantee that there would be no civilian casualties.[17] Given the nature of war, that seems far too great a reasonable obstacle to set. By contrast, if a war could not be fought except with the inevitable deaths of many many thousands of innocents, only an emergency of the gravest moral nature could justify recourse to military force. The Afghan war seems to lie between these two extremes. Although there have been many (always too many) deaths from misdirected bombs, those deaths have been far fewer than anticipated (or claimed) by opponents of the war, and the US has been measured in its use of force.[18] The point here is that to the extent to which the US could anticipate minimising the evil effects of war, the jus ad bellum considerations invoked by Moellendorf may be interpreted with a lower degree of stringency.

It also seems right to observe that since Moellendorf draws a distinction between the initiation of the war and acts that are part of the war once initiated, it is somewhat artificial to single out the commencement of bombing by the US as the moment of initiation. In the first place, there was a war already going on within Afghanistan, one joined and not initiated by the US but which has been shortened appreciably by US action. In the second, why should we single out that moment as the beginning of hostilities rather than, say, September 11th, or the attack on the USS Cole, or the bombings of the US embassies in Africa? So it is not completely clear that the jus ad bellum criteria are appropriately invoked at the point Moellendorf wants to invoke them, though I am happy to grant that they are.

Last resort

Moellendorf suggests that the criterion of last resort had not been met because the United States failed to pursue a diplomatic solution with sufficient tenacity.[19] In particular, he criticised US reliance on Pakistan as an intermediary with the Taliban. This view has little merit. First, there were good reasons to seek the mediation of Pakistan, the Taliban were largely the creation of the Pakistani intelligence services and it may reasonably be supposed that if they could not persuade the Taliban of the need to surrender bin Laden then nobody could. Second, the Taliban had proved immune to international pressure on other matters (such as religious toleration and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas) and there was little reason to believe that they would be more yielding in this case. Third, many of the Taliban and their sympathisers in the Islamic world appear to have believed that the attacks on the Twin Towers were orchestrated by Mossad. This suggests that even the most rationally compelling evidence of Bin Laden’s involvement would not have been accepted by them, since they plainly did not and do not apply ordinary standards of reason and evidence to such matters. Fourth, and this is the decisive point, it is clear that the Taliban regime depended for its hold on the country on the support of Bin Laden and his group (who were responsible for the assassination of Northern Alliance commander Massoud on 9 September 2001). The Taliban and the Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan were mutually interdependent forces. The chief reason for supposing that the Taliban would not surrender Bin Laden is simply that they could not do so without bring about their own destruction.

It is also clear that the crisis before the bombing started was having an adverse effect on the delivery of humanitarian aid. There comes a time when it is no longer rational to engage in further diplomatic efforts, even given a small chance of those efforts securing their objectives. Delaying military action would have prolonged a standoff that would have meant many more Afghans dying from famine, deaths which would certainly have been blamed on the United States by many in the Muslim world (not to mention those under the baleful influence of Noam Chomsky).

Reasonable prospect of success

Moellendorf also suggests that the criterion of reasonable prospect of success was not met. Clearly, there is a difficulty in applying this criterion, since military and political success, like, say, flatness, admits of degrees. If the aim of the war is the complete elimination of terrorism anywhere on the planet for all time, then it is plainly not going to be achieved. Suppose, then, we advance the more modest aims of significantly disrupting the Al Qaeda network, of damaging their prestige, of deterring at least some future attacks, and of deterring other states from hosting their activities. Those aims seem eminently achievable and indeed have partly been realised already. There is evidence that many of those - especially in Pakistan – who rallied to the Al Qaeda cause after September 11th have come to think less of the demagogues who incited them in the light of the swiftness of the Taliban collapse. (Imagine how Al Qaeda’s prestige would have mounted in such circles if the United States had seemed unable to react for a long period after September 11th.) Moellendorf argues, on more-or-less a priori grounds, that religiously-inspired suicide bombers are unlikely to be deterred by the prospect of death. This seems a questionable argument. First, if the prestige of fanatical groups is damaged there will be fewer attracted to the cause in the first place, and consequently a smaller pool from which suicide bombers can be drawn. Second, while the a priori argument may support Moellendorf, the a posteriori one does not. The most recent historical experience of religiously-inspired suicide bombers is the Japanese kamikaze. Not only have there been few (or even no?) instances of suicide attacks by Japanese pilots since 1945, even before the end of the war the Japanese military found it very difficult to recruit them. The high-point of suicide bombing was the Battle of Okinawa, which was won by the Americans and which effectively sealed the fate of Japan. Once Okinawa was lost, the supply of kamikaze nearly dried up.[20] No doubt, given Al Qaeda’s decentralised structure, its cells will continue to organise in many countries. But they have been deprived of Afghanistan as a base from which to organise and train and that is a significant blow to them. There are other parts of the world where state control is weak - Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, parts of Peru - but for various reasons those places are likely to be much less hospitable to them than Afghanistan was. Areas where states are in effective control are likely to be even less welcoming than they were before: local elites are not going to want to share the fate of the Taliban.

Given the outcome to date of the Afghan war, there does seem something a little weird about Moellendorf’s application of the ‘reasonable probability of success’ criterion. We are being asked to judge, retrospectively (and knowing at least something about the outcome), whether the antecedent condition or reasonable probability of success was met. Of course there are cases where an action turns out successfully even though it was not rationally or morally justified at the time it was undertaken. Thus the person who puts the firm’s Christmas club money on the (reportedly lame) Laughing Boy in the 3.30 at Doncaster at odds of 100-1, may reasonably be condemned, even if the horse wins. But it is pretty far fetched to assimilate the US action in Afghanistan to that kind of case. The US plainly believed that it could achieve success, that was not a patently unreasonable belief and events have largely vindicated the judgement of US planners.

Clearly, in the brief space available to me I have not been able to cover all the issues. But the main case against Moellendorf’s position should be clear: both the criteria of last resort and that of reasonable prospects for success have been met in Afghanistan. I believe that they were met in any case. But in the case of Afghanistan they have been met all the more easily since their purpose is to avoid needless recourse to war. In Afghanistan this moral evil must be weighed against the atrocious character of the regime that was in place there.


[1] ‘In buildings thought indestructible’, New Statesman, 17 September 2001.

[2] George Monbiot, ‘The Need for Dissent’, Guardian 18 November 2001. Monbiot’s column on that day started with the sentence: ‘If Osama bin Laden did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.’

[3] Andrew Chitty, ‘Moralism, Terrorism and War: A Reply to Martin Shaw’ in Radical Philosophy 111(January-February 2002).

[4] One may reasonably ask how far back one should go in holding the modern US to account. Many critics seem happy to include in their roster of shame, acts that are now half a century old, taking us more than a quarter of the way back to Waterloo and predating the Anglo-French intervention at Suez. This, and the manifest bad faith involved in redescribing humanitarian actions involving the US in the Balkans as ‘really’ being motivated by imperialist aims, ought to raise serious questions about the credibility of Pilger, Monbiot, Chomsky and those who follow their lead.

[5] For a remarkable assault on the way in which US foreign policy has pursued stability (in the interests of business) at the expense of democracy and human rights and has maintained corrupt local elites in power, see Ralph Peters, ‘Stability, America’s Enemy’, in Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly, Winter 2001-02, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, pp. 5–20. I should not need to add here that my belief that the United States was justified in making war in Afghanistan does not imply support or endorsement for whatever the US might seek to do under the label of a ‘war against terrorism’, but sad experience debating these issues does necessitate such a clarification.

[6] Take, for example, the alleged infant deaths as a result of UN sanctions against Iraq, where do the very high numbers come from? No doubt there are different bases for different calculations, but one popularly cited number is arrived at by projecting advances in cutting infant mortality that were achieved during the 1980s, through to the 1990s. One does not have to be a very sophisticated statistician to see that there are problems with the assumptions behind such a procedure!. This is not to say that the Iraqi sanctions case is not one where there is much to be said against US (and UN) policy. The policy has indeed caused great suffering and unnecessary death, although not on the scale alleged by many left-wing commentators. For a balanced assessment of the evidence see Matt Welch, ‘The Politics of Dead Children: Have Sanctions Against Iraq Murdered Millions’, in Reason (March 2002).

[7] This point was recently underlined by the United Nations Development Programme’s Arab Human Development Report.

[8] Though he goes on, of course, to address various possible responses to this straightforward claim.

[9] Since many opponents of war in Afghanistan have themselves advocated or endorsed revolutionary war and violence in the past (or even in the present), it is at least fitting that – should they wish to endorse Moellendorf’s criteria – they should ask themselves whether they were or are met in the cases where they would favour resort to armed force. One might, for example, wonder whether, when the second intifada was begun, it met either the ‘last resort’ or ‘reasonable prospect of success’ criteria. The point here is intended to be methodological rather than ad hominem. Principles such as these do not wear their meaning plainly on their face: we need to think about how we might apply them, and apply them consistently, across a range of specimen cases in the light of what we think it plausible to say in those cases. Here, as elsewhere, we are aiming at reflective equilibrium.

[10]My response here is aimed very much at the detail of Moellendorf’s argument and, more tangentially, at those who opposed the war on the generalised ‘anti-imperialist’ grounds that Moellendorf himself rejects. Accordingly, I shall have nothing specific to say here to those who adopt a broader pacifist position. My remarks are directed to those who believe that war is sometimes justified but who doubt whether it was justified in this case.

[11]I have left the foregoing sentence in the unsatisfactory form in which it stood in the draft to which Darrel Moellendorf had access. In the final version of his paper he is rightly critical of what I carelessly say here. Where states have obligations to non-citizens those obligations are not of lesser importance than those to citizens: a state’s obligations to its domestic creditors, say, do not take precedence over its debts to foreigners. Nevertheless, states have a special responsibility to defend and protect their own citizens, and do not have this responsibility – at least not to the same degree – with respect to non-citizens. So, for example, a British citizen illegally detained in China would rightly engage the concern of the British Government. The government of Senegal, say, would not be morally engaged by that British person’s fate in China in anything like the same way.

[12]On the idea of the statesman, see John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1999) pp. 97–8.

[13]I take it this is the distinction expressed by Martin Shaw when he writes: ‘The US had a right to wage war against the perpetrators of the terrorist massacre in New York and Washington and their allies, but it was not right to do so.’ ‘A Bombing Campaign Too Far’ on OpenDemocracy.Net, 28 February 2002. My judgement, contrary to Shaw’s is that the United States both had a right and was right to exercise it.

[14]There are clear parallels here with attitudes on the left to events in the former Yugoslavia before and after NATO involvement. The Milosevic regime had engaged in ethnic cleansing and mass murder in Croatia and Bosnia on a scale unprecedented in Europe since the Second World War and looked set to repeat their actions in Kosovo where ethnic-Albanians had earlier mounted a ten-year campaign of non-violent resistance. Once NATO was involved many self-styled ‘anti-imperialists’ not only changed their views on what should happen, but also of what the earlier facts had been. There is no space here to speculate on the psychological mechanisms at work in such people.

[15]Though it might have. Some people, such as Nick Cohen of the Observer have opposed the Afghan war even though they supported the Kosovo intervention. But it is arguable that human rights violations in Afghanistan, especially against ethnic and religious minorities, were, if anything, worse that those in Kosovo. In the light of which one might reasonably return the commonly-asked rhetorical question and ask whether the human rights of Afghans count for less than those of Europeans.

[16]A point of comparison that springs to mind here is the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979. The Vietnamese certainly had just cause (that of self-defence). Given the evil that was the Pol Pot regime, it would seem perverse to apply either the ‘last resort’ or the ‘reasonable prospect of success’ criteria as strictly as would be appropriate where military action against a less barbaric regimes were being contemplated.

[17]This has been the constant theme of UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson.

[18]One estimate of civilian deaths in Afghanistan widely cited by that anti-war has been is about 4,000 according to data compiled by Marc Herold, a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire (see Howard Zinn, ‘The Others’, The Nation, 11 February 2002). Other estimates have put the civilian deaths as low as a few hundred. Herold’s figures have been subjected to devastating rebuttal by Jeffrey C. Isaac, ‘Civilian casualties in Afghanistan: the limits of Marc Herold’s ‘comprehensive accounting’, OpenDemocracy.Net, 14 March 2002 and by Iain Murray, ‘Casualties of the Press’, on the Techcentralstation website. A more measured view than Herold’s is provided by Carl Connetta, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a Higher Rate of Civilian Bombing Casualties’, Project on Defense Alternatives, at Conetta estimates the civilian deaths directly attributable to US bombing at up to 1300. All of this is not to say that the US conduct of the war is beyond criticism on jus in bello grounds. On the contrary, the continued use of high altitude bombing since the fall of the Taliban has protected military personnel at the expense of needless civilian casualties.

[19]Claims about ‘last resort’ are often appealed to by opponents of US (and Israeli) policy on the grounds that acts of terror are the only means available to resist much greater power. On the ‘last resort’ criterion forming part of an apologia for terrorism see Michael Walzer, ‘Excusing Terror: The Politics of Ideological Apology’ in The American Prospect, vol. 12, issue 18.

[20]I derive this point from Victor Davis Hanson, ‘Dying to Kill: Suicide versus Democracy’, National Review Online, 18 January 2002. I utterly reject the gung-ho militarism endorsed by Davis Hanson in many of his writings, but the point he makes here seems valid.