Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Just War Doctrine and the War in Afghanistan (continued)

Marc LiVecche, Keith Pavlischek, Brenda Kay Zylstra


March 4, 2011

Capital Commentary asked contributors to respond to the question, "What are the most significant implications of just war doctrine for America's participation in the current war in Afghanistan?"

In just war terms, there ought to be no question that the dimension of violence on September 11th, a decade ago, obligated a military riposte appropriate for retribution and for shielding the innocent from future harm. However, circumstances signaled challenges to modern just war reasoning, one being that a terrorist group rather than a sovereign state attacked us. But the just war is, of course, a tradition which pre-dates the modern state system; so its concern with non-state actors is nothing new. A glance back at just war’s founding moral principles reminds us that at its core is a presumption for right order and the use of force against evil, in affirmation of a world of moral responsibility. Just as Saddam Hussein’s financial support of Hamas and Abu Sayyaf were acts of war against Israel and the Philippines, so too was the safe-haven provided al-Qaida by the Taliban government of Afghanistan as much an act of war with America as was smashing civilian-laden airplanes into our cities.

Marc LiVecche is a PhD student in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. 


The most fundamental question for just warriors reflecting on the war in Afghanistan is exactly the same as the one posed by the great Christian moral theologian Paul Ramsey over 40 years ago. Ramsey asked whether a counterinsurgency effort could “abide by the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate military objectives while insurgency deliberately does not.” With regard to the conduct of the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan the answer is indisputably “yes”.

The requirements of the jus in bello are clear. Not only have American and coalition forces abided by these standards, they have exceeded them both in doctrine (see the Counterinsurgency Field Manual) and execution through highly restrictive rules of engagement (ROEs).

The locus of informed public discussion of the jus in bello in Afghanistan is not whether coalition forces are fighting justly, but whether the coalition forces are going beyond the requirements of law and morality by placing themselves at increased risk when confronting an enemy who has no regard for the laws of war. These more restrictive ROEs are based on one of the “paradoxes of counterinsurgency” mentioned in the COIN Field Manual, namely, “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.”

Regardless of one’s views of the more restricted ROEs, only those blinded by ideology can doubt that American and coalition forces are fighting justly in Afghanistan.

—Keith Pavlischek is currently serving in Afghanistan as a DOD civilian. The views are entirely his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or any other agency of the U.S. Government.  His articles The Ethics of Counterinsurgency and Proportionality in Warfare have recently been published in The New Atlantis.


Approaching the ten-year anniversary of America’s longest war, it’s hard to measure how much real progress we have achieved, or when we might be able to make an exit. Whether or not considerations of jus ad bellum were met a decade ago, our task now is to strive for jus in bello.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is poorly understood, not only by the American public, but also by those government officials and policy makers who oversee its control. A non-viable state for decades, we believed we could bring stability with relative ease. We need to work up to jus in bello questions of distinction, proportionality, and necessity. First, let’s agree on some basics. 

Our responsibility to Afghanistan is no small thing. We will never be able to completely wipe out al Qaeda and the Taliban with military heft. Even if we could, that would not negate the disruption of civil society, the ruined infrastructure, and the thousands of lives lost.

The just war tradition is in part based on the presupposition that in some cases there are only bad options. We cannot fix Afghanistan; we cannot stay indefinitely. We can honestly face what we’ve done and what is possible. Justice demands nothing less.

Brenda Kay Zylstra is a dual Master's student in the Harris School of Public Policy and the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago.




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