No Easy Way Out: Reassessing U.S. engagement in Afghanistan
The initial United States military operation in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was widely considered a just war, a classic case of self-defense. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral message in November 2001 acknowledging the “right and duty of a nation and the international community to use military force if necessary to defend the common good by protecting the innocent against mass terrorism.” Today’s mission is more complex and uncertain, however, and demands a new ethical assessment. Its fundamental goals are the same, defeating Al Qaeda and preventing global terrorist attacks, and are certainly just. The related objective is also just: helping to build capable governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan that can meet the needs of their people and protect against violent extremism. The question about both objectives is not whether they are just, but whether they can be achieved through the application of military force. It is a question of means rather than ends.
U.S. military involvement in the region is based on three fundamental strategic assumptions: first, war is a necessary and appropriate means of defeating Al Qaeda and preventing global terrorist strikes; second, the Taliban is equivalent to Al Qaeda and thus a legitimate target of military attack; and third, NATO must fight and win a counterinsurgency war against the Taliban and related jihadist groups. The first two assumptions determined policy decisions in the weeks after 9/11, and they have remained at the heart of U.S./NATO strategy ever since. The third assumption evolved over time and drives the current long-term military commitment. In recent years a fourth strategic dimension has entered the equation—the extension of military operations to Pakistan. Each of these assumptions is highly questionable strategically and poses serious ethical dilemmas.
War is an inappropriate instrument for countering a nonstate terrorist network like Al Qaeda. The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, now at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote in these pages shortly after 9/11: “Containing and capturing terrorists is by definition a function of police and legal networks. War is an indiscriminate tool for this highly discriminating task.” By declaring the campaign against Al Qaeda a “war on terror,” the Bush administration gave military status to a criminal organization. It transformed mass murderers into soldiers, inadvertently raising their credibility and moral stature in some Muslim communities. The Obama administration has abandoned the phrase “war on terror,” but U.S. policies remain heavily militarized.
Empirical evidence confirms that war is not an effective means of countering terrorist organizations. A RAND Corporation study released in 2008 shows that terrorist groups usually disband through political processes and effective law enforcement, not the use of military force. An examination of 268 terrorist organizations that ended during a period of nearly 40 years found that the primary factors accounting for their demise were participation in political processes (43 percent) and effective policing (40 percent). Military force accounted for the end of terrorist groups in only 7 percent of the cases examined.
War policies are not only inappropriate, they are counterproductive. The presence of foreign troops is the principal factor motivating armed resistance and insurgency in the region. A recent report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace cited opposition to external forces as “the most important factor in mobilizing support for the Taliban.” In Pakistan, U.S. military policies and air strikes are “driving more and more Pashtuns into the arms of Al Qaeda and its jihadi allies,” according to Selig Harrison, a former Washington Post reporter. When the United States invades and occupies Muslim countries, this tends to validate Osama bin Laden’s false claim that America is waging war on Islam. Polls in Muslim countries have shown 80 percent of respondents agreeing that American policy seeks to weaken and divide the Islamic world. As long as these attitudes prevail there will be no end of recruits willing to blow themselves up to kill Americans and their supporters.
Al Qaeda, Not the Taliban
The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan is primarily a war against the Taliban, not Al Qaeda. Only a few hundred Al Qaeda militants are estimated to be active in the region, and they play only a minor role in armed attacks against NATO forces. Some counterterrorism experts assert that Al Qaeda is weakening and finding it more difficult to attract recruits. This alters the moral calculus of the war and casts doubt on the self-defense justification. It was Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, that attacked the United States and that has launched global terrorist strikes. The two movements are indeed closely intertwined and are both rooted in an extremist jihadi ideology. But there are important differences. The Taliban is a diverse network of Pashtun militia groups. Al Qaeda, by contrast, is an Arab-based network focused on a global agenda of attacking Western interests. Taliban groups do not have a transnational agenda. The various Taliban elements are divided by ideology and purpose, but they are united by opposition to the Afghan government and a determination to rid their region of foreign forces.
The probability-of-success criterion for a just war requires that military force not be used in a futile cause or in circumstances where disproportionate force is needed to assure success. The prospects that the United States will prevail in a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban are highly uncertain. Afghanistan’s reputation as the graveyard of empires is well earned, derived from a long history of fierce resistance to foreign intervention. The British writer and former diplomat Rory Stewart doubts that the United States and Britain can defeat the Taliban, and he questions why this is considered necessary. The Taliban is very unlikely to take over Afghanistan, Stewart writes. Their brutality, incompetence and primitive policies have alienated many Afghans. The Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek populations are more powerful now than they were when the Taliban took power in 1996, and these groups would “strongly resist any attempt by the Taliban to occupy their areas.”
The distinguished military historian Martin van Creveld has noted that attempts to suppress insurgency often end in failure. When guerrilla forces are able to sustain armed struggle, often for decades, they are able to prevail over stronger and more technologically advanced adversaries. The occupying forces may win every battle and destroy much of the insurgent capability, yet in the long run the guerrilla forces usually win. The rare examples of counterinsurgency success, van Creveld argues, come when intervening forces are willing to wage war with unrestrained cruelty and destructiveness, as exemplified by Nazi suppression of partisan resistance in much of occupied Europe in the 1940s. Fortunately the U.S. military does not fight in that manner. On the contrary, U.S. and NATO forces are subject to democratic constraint and as a result are unlikely to be able to sustain the prolonged large-scale militarily destructive effort that would be required for success. Already several NATO countries have developed plans to reduce their military presence in Afghanistan.
Rules of Combat
Doubts about military viability raise related ethical concerns about proportionality and discrimination. The suffering caused by warfare may not be disproportionate to the intended good. Soldiers are required to discriminate between combatants and civilians and to avoid harming the innocent. Under the principle of double effect, the harm that might result may neither be intended nor serve as a means to an end. According to Michael Walzer’s interpretation of this principle, the soldier must take positive action to minimize the evil effect and be prepared to accept costs for doing so.
Upholding these standards is extremely difficult in counterinsurgency, since irregular combatants do not wear uniforms and often mix with or are part of the civilian population. In Afghanistan civilian casualties have risen in the last two years to a level of approximately 1,000 per year, according to the Afghanistan Body Count compiled by Marc Herold at the University of New Hampshire. These numbers are not high in comparison to horrendous civilian death tolls in other conflicts, but any loss of innocent life is significant and affects the moral calculus of the use of force.
Of particular concern is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, known as drones. The U.S. government has employed Predator and Reaper drones with increasing frequency for remote-controlled bombing strikes in Pakistan. According to the Congressional testimony of former Pentagon adviser David Kilcullen, drone strikes in Pakistan from 2006 through early 2009 killed 14 alleged senior Al Qaeda leaders. During the same period, such strikes killed nearly 700 Pakistani civilians. These attacks “are deeply aggravating to the population” and have “given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around extremists and leads to spikes in extremism” in other parts of the country. Mary Ellen O’Connell, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, notes that these drone attacks lack legal justification and violate fundamental moral principles. “Fifty civilians killed for one suspected combatant killed is a textbook example of a violation of the proportionality principle,” she writes.
The principle of discrimination includes an obligation for military actors to adopt special precautions to avoid the killing of civilians. Walzer argues that “a soldier must take careful aim at [the] military target and away from nonmilitary targets” (my emphasis). Lethal force can be used only if there is a “reasonably clear shot.” Air strikes from drone aircraft are not capable of such discrimination. A report in 2001 from the Pentagon’s Office of Testing and Evaluation found that the “Predator’s infrared camera could detect targets, but could classify [between wheeled versus tracked targets] only 21 per cent of the time.” Detection technology has improved since then but not sufficiently to avoid the killing of civilians. If drone cameras cannot distinguish between a truck and a tank, how can they differentiate between humans who are civilians and those who may be Al Qaeda militants? To speak of discrimination under these circumstances is meaningless.
A Demilitarized Strategy
Commanding General Stanley McChrystal and other senior military officials have acknowledged the harm resulting from civilian casualties and have ordered a reduction in the number of U.S. air strikes in support of combat missions. These measures have resulted in fewer civilian deaths, even as U.S. military operations have intensified, but horrific incidents continue to occur—witness the killing of dozens of civilians in the bombing of hijacked tanker trucks in Kanduz in early September. While constraints have been placed on airstrikes, the use of drone attacks has increased. In this kind of counterinsurgency war, noncombatant casualties are likely to continue, despite NATO efforts to avoid them. This is “war amongst the people,” as former British General Rupert Smith described it, and ordinary people inevitably suffer in such a conflict. U.S. and NATO officials have not fully addressed the moral and strategic consequences of that persisting dilemma.
This analysis suggests the need for a thorough reorientation of U.S./NATO policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama administration has responded to requests for more troops in Afghanistan by calling first for the development of a new strategy. This is a sound approach, but the contours of a new strategy have yet to appear. U.S. commanders remain wedded to a policy of counterinsurgency and the maintenance of a large and expanding military footprint in the country. Stewart and other analysts have advocated an alternative approach of reducing the number of foreign troops and demilitarizing Western strategy. A smaller number of foreign troops would be enough, they argue, to assure that the Taliban does not return to power. Special operations forces would be sufficient to maintain pressure on Al Qaeda and disrupt any attempts to re-establish terrorist bases. These more limited objectives would fulfill the primary objective of Western policy without the enormous costs and risks of prolonged counterinsurgency. These approaches would be combined with an increased international commitment to development, responsible governance and the promotion of human rights in the region. By demilitarizing its involvement and increasing its commitment to diplomacy, democracy and development, the United States and its allies could achieve their purposes more effectively and with greater justice.