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Applying Just War Theory to the occupation in Afghanistan

October 13, 2021

The West’s departure from Afghanistan was a debacle. But was it a just war?

The debacle of the West quitting Afghanistan in a hurry was clearly a failure of statecraft and planning, and a moral failure. That’s despite the staggering operational success in negotiating the opportunity to help thousands of people leave, and getting them safely out.

I’ve never worked in or on Afghanistan, but I’d always felt instinctively that the whole enterprise was a mistake. When it started, I was concerned it would cause harm to Afghans and Afghanistan, and upset the tricky balance of power in the region. It also seemed unrealistic that the West would be willing or able to stay the course, at least by the light of its own declared intentions – malleable though these turned out to be.

That seems to have been the case. The West has left. The balance of power in the region has certainly been affected, with India and Pakistan seeing Afghanistan largely through the lens of their own conflict. Hundreds of thousands of civilians and security personnel have died in armed conflict, who would not have done, had ISAF and its successors not intervened, and many more have been harmed. Meanwhile many lives have also been improved in ways they would not have been without the Western intervention. I don’t know enough to be able to create a detailed balance sheet of harmful vs good outcomes during 20 years of NATO occupation, and in any case we’ll have to wait many years before we can assess the true outcomes.

But was it in any way a just war? I turned to the six Jus ad bellum conditions of Just War theory, for help in considering this question. (I omit the seventh condition, Comparative Justice, as it seems hard to pin down accurately; as well as the second set of principles jus in bello, as I don’t have the detailed knowledge to assess them usefully here).

1. Just intention. The war must be for a just cause.

This first condition is somewhat tricky to assess, since there remains a great deal of argument over the actual intentions, which seem anyway to have been redefined over time to suit the decisions of the day. But let’s go with the idea that there were two main intentions:

  • To punish Al-Qaeda and the regime that harboured Al-Qaeda, for the atrocities of 9/11, and prevent further such action by them.
  • To remove the Taleban regime and replace it with a democratic, more liberal regime and associated institutions.

These almost fit within the ethical boundaries of justification: both reflect the justification of self-defence, and the second can be further justified on the grounds of replacing the Taleban’s brutal and repressive approach to governance (albeit this was supported by many Afghans). It can perhaps be justified still further on the grounds that the Taleban were themselves not a fully legitimate government, having achieved power through force and not supported by large proportion of the Afghan people.

The intention of punishment per se is less easy to justify, unless one considers it a necessary element of preventing further atrocity.

2. Competent authority. The war must be lawfully declared by a lawful authority.

The war seems to pass this test, having been blessed from the start by NATO, constituted of many, mainly democratic governments, and by the UN among others.  These institutions are widely considered to be informed and driven by concepts of justice.  

3. Right intention. The intention behind the war must be good.

Again, the war passes this test. One can certainly show that the armed forces (and associated industries) of the occupying forces benefited as institutions from huge injections of resources and the opportunity to serve. But this was not a primary driver of the political intentions behind the war. (Of course, although the military institutions may have benefitted, many individuals who served in them and their families palpably did not, and many continue to suffer harm.)

4. Last resort. All other ways of resolving the problem should have been tried first.

Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. Since the Taleban were unwilling to give up Al-Qaeda, one can argue that the condition of last resort was met, at least for the first intention (prevention and punishment). But it is also true that the USA was in a hurry to deliver retribution. So I’m not entirely sure on this one.

5. There must be a reasonable chance of success.

In hindsight, and very clearly, the war fails this test. Al-Qaeda remains in Afghanistan, and now alongside other forces such as ISIS, and there are no reasons to expect that Taleban will either fully desire or be able to prevent them from their activities. Meanwhile the Taleban, although it was initially removed, is now back in power. The future of the political, economic and social institutions that were under construction during the 20 years of occupation looks bleak in the main: certainly any liberal or democratic colours in which they had been painted are fast washing away. While the corpus of relevant political science (on fragility, state building, etc.) has expanded hugely since the occupation began, and largely as a result of it, there was every reason to know from even a cursory reading of history that success would take decades to achieve; and every reason to predict that the occupiers from democratic countries would have insufficient appetite to continue for long enough, in the face of their voters’ priorities. So even without hindsight, this is a fail.

6. Proportionality. The benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.

Strictly speaking, here too one should consider the anticipated benefits versus the anticipated harms, rather than judge proportionality in 2001 from the vantage point of the present. Because it doesn’t seem, today, that the death and destruction was worthwhile.

But if we stick to the idea of what was anticipated at the start: remembering the public pronouncements from Washington and elsewhere in those early days, it does seem that they were either naïve or cynical. Western governments at that time considered – or claimed publicly, at least – that it would be possible to pacify a country like Afghanistan and then implant liberal and democratic institutions there with the minimum of pain and maximum speed. If they were truly that naïve, we might judge them as having met the proportionality test on the face of it. However, just war ethics requires decision makers to take steps so they are well-informed about the actual circumstances and likely impacts of their decisions, so naivety is no excuse. Therefore I think it’s pretty clear the war also fails this test.


I found this process helpful. According to my assessment, the six conditions reveal:

Just intentionMet, but with caveats
Competent authorityMet
Right intentionMet
Last resortUncertain
Reasonable chance of success Unmet

I make no claim that this is completely accurate. Nor am I a trained philosopher well-versed in the intricacies of Just War theory. And I haven’t even touched on the second set of principles, jus in bello. But if this admittedly superficial analysis is anywhere close to right, the war was the wrong approach.

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