War in Afghanistan

The aerial attack by the United States on terrorist and Taliban targets in Afghanistan has been declared a just war by a number of Catholic leaders, including some bishops and cardinals. While we hope that the war is brought to a swift and just conclusion, such certitude, at this point, is hard to echo. There is no question that stopping terrorism is a just cause. But waging war under the just war doctrine must be the last resort, after diplomatic, economic and other means have failed. Was a month enough time to exhaust these options? This is unclear.

Although the Taliban had refused to turn Osama bin Laden over to the United States, it had offered 1) to negotiate, 2) to put him on trial in an Islamic court and 3) to turn him over to a third country if the United States provided evidence of his guilt. These offers were rejected out of hand by the Bush administration as nothing more than delaying tactics. Since the terrorist attacks took place in the United States, Osama bin Laden should be tried in the United States, our government argued. In addition, the United States wants the entire Al Qaeda organization eliminated, not just its leader, Osama bin Laden.

While the U.S. arguments are strong, the curt refusal to negotiate makes the United States look to many in the Islamic world like a bully; and in a war on terrorism, Muslim public opinion matters. And while there is no possibility of a fair trial in Kabul (he was a major military and financial supporter of the Taliban), the idea of bin Laden trying to defend himself before an Islamic court is very attractive. In a fair trial before unbiased Islamic jurists, he would face conviction for violating Islamic principles in attacking innocent civilians. Such a conviction would do more to undermine terrorism in the Muslim world than anything the United States could do on its own.

We will never know what would have happened if the United States had called the Taliban’s bluff and suggested some non-Taliban Islamic jurists from outside Afghanistan to preside over the case. Even if the Taliban had refused, it would have strengthened the U.S. position among Muslims around the world. At a minimum, the Bush administration should consult with Muslim countries and jurists about such a scenario. Alternatively, bin Laden could be tried by an international criminal tribunal.

Even if war is justly engaged in as a last resort, it must also be waged in a just manner. The intention should be to seek justice, not revenge; direct attacks on civilians must be avoided, and the force used must be proportionate to the ends to be achieved. For example, most just war theorists believe that the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, as well as the fire bombing of Dresden, were immoral.

During the first week of air strikes, the initial targets were military aircraft, airfields, antiaircraft installations and other targets whose destruction would give the United States overwhelming air superiority. These were followed by attacks on terrorist camps, as well as Taliban military supply and repair facilities. It is difficult to object to such targets in war. The Pentagon has acknowledged that a Tomahawk missile and a Navy smart bomb hit civilians. Another missile hit a Red Cross warehouse. But so far civilians have not been directly targeted.

By the end of the first week of strikes, Afghanistan had not yet felt the full force of American power. The United States flew 10 or fewer bombers a day and 10 to 15 Navy fighter jets over Afghanistan. There were on average 1,500 flights a day during the Persian Gulf war and 1,100 planes were used by NATO against Serbia. Unlike the wars in the Persian Gulf and Yugoslavia, U.S. warplanes so far appear to be avoiding civil infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels and roads, according to Pentagon officials. During the first week, they even avoided most of the Taliban forces in the north, where they are confronted by the Northern Alliance. U.S. officials fear giving military support to the Northern Alliance before it has come up with a political coalition for governing a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

All of this could change in an instant, which is what worries us. Once the obvious military targets are destroyed, what do we bomb next? From the beginning, the administration has thought of this struggle primarily in military terms, but the war on terrorism cannot be won simply with bullets. The United States needs the support not only of the elites governing Muslim countries, but also of Muslim public opinion. That is why it was foolish for the administration to wait a month before accepting invitations to appear on Al Jazeera, an independent all-news satellite channel based in Qatar, which could be used to send our message to the Muslim world. This war will not be won in the mountains of Afghanistan. It will be won when Muslims are convinced that the United States acts justly.

10 years 3 months ago
Permit a criticism. The last few words in your editorial “War in Afghanistan” (10/29) came close to mentioning the key word in the terrorism question: why do people hate us?

You made some good points, especially on the matter of just war, that contradiction in terms, but “why?” should be one of the most important questions we ask. The mainstream press has avoided that question.

It isn’t as if we need much brainstorming on this question, or to call a seminar or dig into our archives. Right off the top of my head I can think of our action on land mines, which are still killing people. We ship armaments—small arms and weapons of mass destruction—to some 90 countries, rogue or otherwise. The United States shows disdain for the United Nations and has refused to sign treaties designed for the common good of the world community. The air raids on Afghanistan mark the 23rd instance of U.S. bombing, in 19 different countries, since the end of World War II. We send billions of dollars to such regimes as Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Colombia. We have a defense budget that is obscene in a world where 40,000 people die every day from malnutrition and other diseases. We help dictatorships in Central American countries conduct near-genocidal campaigns against their own people.

Why go on? Our moral leaders know all about these matters, and it is unlikely that these things will be discussed in either the press or at church. But we are in it for the long haul, right? Maybe it will come up sometime.

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