The National Catholic Review

The Bush administration has waged an effective war in Afghanistan, and, for the most part, has waged it in a just manner. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we wrote that the terrorists should be brought to justice because of their crimes and because of the danger they pose to life in this country and elsewhere. If this cannot be done peacefully, then they are legitimate targets of military action.

At the time, we hoped that the Taliban regime would see that it was in their own interest to turn over the Al Qaeda terrorists to the U.S. government or an international tribunal, but these hopes were dashed and war became the last resort.

We also feared that in a quest for revenge, the war might be waged without due regard for civilian casualties. Although civilians (as well as allied and U.S. soldiers) were killed as a result of bad intelligence, malfunctioning equipment and human error, there is currently no evidence that civilians were intentionally targeted. In the early stages of the war, aircraft, airports and air defense systems were the principal targets. Next came military supply depots, repair facilities and communications. Only after their logistical support was in tatters were Taliban frontline soldiers attacked. Political hawks, who were demanding heavy bombing in support of the Northern Alliance at the beginning of the war, failed to understand the wisdom of the U.S. military strategy.

Our editorial also expressed fear that the war might drag on, as happened when the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan. Here we underestimated the strength and extent of opposition to the Taliban within Afghanistan and the willingness of Taliban allies to switch sides as soon as the Taliban star began to decline. The support of other nations in the region was also critical to the U.S. success.

While the Bush administration deserves praise, its policies have not been without defects. Many Al Qaeda and Taliban troops escaped into the mountains or Pakistan. In addition, the administration lost the moral high ground by arguing that the captives taken during the war were not covered by the Geneva conventions governing prisoners, a position it was ultimately forced to reverse. Now it is trying to convince a skeptical world that there is a difference between the Taliban soldiers and the Al Qaeda terrorists, a distinction that it could have made more successfully if it had not earlier tried to ignore the Geneva conventions. In addition, allegations that U.S. soldiers have beaten captives are alarming. The facilities holding prisoners should be immediately opened to international inspection by the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

The first casualty of war, the saying goes, is the truth. While secrecy is vital to protect military plans, post-battle secrecy breeds suspicion and prevents us from learning from our mistakes. The military would have more credibility if it acknowledged quickly and forthrightly civilian casualties and other military mistakes. To assert, for example, against all evidence that those killed at the village of Chowkar-Karez, outside Kandahar, were enemy soldiers, renders suspect all information given out by the military. Better to admit the mistake, apologize, make reparations and strive to do better.

Apologies and reparations would do much to show the Afghan people that we, unlike so many previous foreign powers, are different: we care about their welfare. Estimates of civilian casualties from the war range from 1,000 to 4,000. Justice demands that we spend at least part of our military budget to help those innocent civilians who were wounded, widowed or orphaned by U.S. weapons. We also have an obligation to retrieve and destroy unexploded ordnance, lest more innocents suffer from the war.

Rebuilding Afghanistan politically and economically will not be easy. Tribalism, corruption and anarchy are once again asserting their influence. The heroin trade will soon follow. The international coalition that supported the war is weakening in the peace. Pakistan and Iran, as close neighbors of Afghanistan, are maneuvering to support their allies, as are the former Soviet nations. Mr. Bush’s cowboy rhetoric, while popular at home, is not helping to preserve the coalition abroad. Nor is the administration’s attempt to blame all the problems in the Middle East on Yasir Arafat helping to convince the Muslims of the world that we are on their side. Rather the message is: Now that we have won the war, we don’t need you any more.

But the struggle against terrorism is not over. Osama bin Laden and many of his cohorts are still at large. There are terrorist cells all over the world, and some very evil people are still seeking nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction. To deal with these threats we will need a strong and permanent international coalition. We will not achieve this if we repeatedly show lack of respect for international institutions and procedures.

Comments

Diana M. L. Newman | 1/26/2007 - 2:33pm
I am writing in response to your editorial of March 4, in which you criticize the treatment of the Taliban soldiers and Al Qaeda terrorists in your statement: “Allegations that U.S. soldiers have beaten captives are alarming. The facilities holding prisoners should be immediately opened to international inspection by the Red Cross and Red Crescent.”

I think a more relevant question is, what resources have the U.S. soldiers to deal with prisoners who may be combative and dangerous to themselves, others and the U.S. soldiers? If the prisoners are violent toward themselves and others, there should be appropriate means to redirect their behavior. If the U.S. soldiers guarding them do not have the professional and material resources to deal with verbal and physical violence, then we need to provide them with the means to guard the prisoners adequately and safely.

Criticizing the treatment of the prisoners without fully understanding the situation promotes misunderstanding and undermines the cause of peace. It is better to provide support to the U.S. soldiers trying to do their job.

jerry kendall | 3/11/2002 - 1:50pm
Sadly, all too often governments fail to exhaust possible options before resorting to war, as is required by just war principles. And all too often we accept the argument that "we had to do something." Your hopes that the Taliban regime would turn over terrorists "were dashed" in part at least by the Bush administration's refusal to talk to the Taliban even after they offered to hand over Osama Ben Laden if we provided some proof (something required by the norms of extradition).

Only when people committed to just war principles insist on strict conformity will those principles become more than cover for action already decided upon.

Peace.

Charle Orloski, Jr. | 2/23/2002 - 1:17pm
You begin this editorial stating the Bush administration has waged war in Afghanistan in a "just manner." However, a sort of qualification or doubt later surfaces in your conscience about civilian casualties -- recommending "apologies and reparations." Consequently, I am left wondering who precisely is "we" when you say "we care about their welfare." There is a wise old saying about the power of apology and reparations to bring back the dead.

Rev. Karl T.C. Millis | 3/9/2002 - 1:21am
In response to your editorial (March 4, 2002), I must say I am surprised that your magazine has been so quick to “justify” the war in Afghanistan. What shocked me most was how quickly you “dismissed” the innocents that have been killed (and are still being killed) in that war. How is it, that the 3500 or so Americans that were killed is somehow made better by killing 3500 Afghani civilians? (Is not the destruction of life on the same level?) How is it that an American life is worth more than that of an Afghani? Have we stopped terrorism by our bombings (using cluster bombs, which are quite indiscriminate), or have we only increased the resentment among the Arab people and reinforced their already negative opinion of us? This war has been more about vendetta—i.e. getting Bin Laden---than it has been about justice. The one question that still has not been asked by our government and the majority of our people is: What is there in our current economic and foreign policies that make us so resented or even hated by a large part of the world, and what are we doing to change that? Dropping bombs is not the answer, and in the end will only bring more violence. When will we learn?

Eileen Hanson | 3/1/2002 - 7:41am
Your editorial states that "the Bush Administration has waged an effective war, and, for the most part has waged it in a just manner." We have inflicted an incredible amount of damage on an already devastated country in just a few short months. If maximum destruction in a minimum amount of time were the goal, then I would have to agree that America has indeed waged an "effective" war. However, this war on terror, waged on the people of Afghanistan, has been far from "just." To suggest that the thousands of civilian casualties were unexpected mistakes for which we should simply "apologize, make reparations and strive to do better," rather than a mainstay of our military actions, is to overlook the vast evidence to the contrary. Non-combatant casualties are no longer are unexpected consequence of war but an inevitable result of wars fought with bombs dropped from 30,000 feet, directed toward critical civilian infrastructure and often coated with radioactive waste (depleted uranium). If we take seriously the just war criteria as outlined by the Church, this inability of modern warfare to distinguish combatants from innocents makes it impossible to consider any such war waged in a "just" manner.

jerry kendall | 3/11/2002 - 1:50pm
Sadly, all too often governments fail to exhaust possible options before resorting to war, as is required by just war principles. And all too often we accept the argument that "we had to do something." Your hopes that the Taliban regime would turn over terrorists "were dashed" in part at least by the Bush administration's refusal to talk to the Taliban even after they offered to hand over Osama Ben Laden if we provided some proof (something required by the norms of extradition).

Only when people committed to just war principles insist on strict conformity will those principles become more than cover for action already decided upon.

Peace.

Charle Orloski, Jr. | 2/23/2002 - 1:17pm
You begin this editorial stating the Bush administration has waged war in Afghanistan in a "just manner." However, a sort of qualification or doubt later surfaces in your conscience about civilian casualties -- recommending "apologies and reparations." Consequently, I am left wondering who precisely is "we" when you say "we care about their welfare." There is a wise old saying about the power of apology and reparations to bring back the dead.

Rev. Karl T.C. Millis | 3/9/2002 - 1:21am
In response to your editorial (March 4, 2002), I must say I am surprised that your magazine has been so quick to “justify” the war in Afghanistan. What shocked me most was how quickly you “dismissed” the innocents that have been killed (and are still being killed) in that war. How is it, that the 3500 or so Americans that were killed is somehow made better by killing 3500 Afghani civilians? (Is not the destruction of life on the same level?) How is it that an American life is worth more than that of an Afghani? Have we stopped terrorism by our bombings (using cluster bombs, which are quite indiscriminate), or have we only increased the resentment among the Arab people and reinforced their already negative opinion of us? This war has been more about vendetta—i.e. getting Bin Laden---than it has been about justice. The one question that still has not been asked by our government and the majority of our people is: What is there in our current economic and foreign policies that make us so resented or even hated by a large part of the world, and what are we doing to change that? Dropping bombs is not the answer, and in the end will only bring more violence. When will we learn?

Eileen Hanson | 3/1/2002 - 7:41am
Your editorial states that "the Bush Administration has waged an effective war, and, for the most part has waged it in a just manner." We have inflicted an incredible amount of damage on an already devastated country in just a few short months. If maximum destruction in a minimum amount of time were the goal, then I would have to agree that America has indeed waged an "effective" war. However, this war on terror, waged on the people of Afghanistan, has been far from "just." To suggest that the thousands of civilian casualties were unexpected mistakes for which we should simply "apologize, make reparations and strive to do better," rather than a mainstay of our military actions, is to overlook the vast evidence to the contrary. Non-combatant casualties are no longer are unexpected consequence of war but an inevitable result of wars fought with bombs dropped from 30,000 feet, directed toward critical civilian infrastructure and often coated with radioactive waste (depleted uranium). If we take seriously the just war criteria as outlined by the Church, this inability of modern warfare to distinguish combatants from innocents makes it impossible to consider any such war waged in a "just" manner.

Recently in Editorials