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

Dialogue I

Brian Auten, Erica Borggren, Erik Borggren


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 January 1966, six months after President Lyndon Johnson escalated the US military effort in Vietnam, Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey presented a paper to the American Society of Christian Ethics in which he asked if counterinsurgency warfare could be waged in a just manner.  Ramsey focused on the in bello challenges associated with aerial bombing, clear-and-hold operations and campaigns to control and protect the rural population.  His arguments about discrimination and proportionality are just as salient in the present context of increased American combat presence in Afghanistan.

One of Ramsey’s objectives was to correct the popular notion that the in bello criteria of discrimination between noncombatants and combatants meant that, from a moral standpoint, one had to forego a military action completely if its effects could not be “confined to the foe.”  Ramsey emphasized a point currently applicable to the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters—insurgents themselves commit the “original wickedness” by their illicit choice to (using Mao’s phrasing) “swim among” noncombatants.  In Ramsey’s view, counterinsurgency forces fail morally by directly and deliberately targeting noncombatants, or by engaging in military and policing actions where the intended or anticipated “mixed consequences” will not result in a greater good or in a lesser evil.

—Brian Auten serves an intelligence analyst in the US government and an adjunct professor of government at Patrick Henry College, Purcellville, VA.  All non-attributed views, opinions and conclusions are those of the author and not the US government.


The very nature of the war in Afghanistan amplifies the significance of its just conduct.  In Afghanistan, our rigorous application of the traditional jus in bello tenets is not simply a moral imperative.  It is also a strategic imperative.

The international undertaking in Afghanistan is essentially a counterinsurgency (COIN) endeavor.  Even the counterterrorism mission President Obama charged military and civilian leaders with in early 2009—“dismantling, disrupting, and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies”—requires a COIN campaign, the winning of the Afghan people over to the side of their government through the growth of security, economic opportunity, and good governance. 

Moving beyond a traditional application of the jus in bello principles, which collectively mandate the minimization of noncombatant casualties, in COIN, this mandate becomes one to “serve and protect the people.”  Bombs will still fly and night raids will still occur.  However, the calculations used to determine the proper use of force are dramatically altered.  “Military necessity” has been flipped on its head. 

In Afghanistan, we have the happy circumstance of the convergence of strategic and moral imperatives.  An unwavering focus on serving and protecting the people of Afghanistan – the noncombatants of just war doctrine—is not only ethical but is also essential to the long-term success of our long, hard endeavor there.

—Erica Borggren is a West Point graduate, Rhodes Scholar, and former Army Captain who now serves as a (stateside) speechwriter for General David Petraeus. All non-attributed views, opinions and conclusions are those of the author and not the US government


At the core of classical Augustinian just war doctrine is the dual acknowledgement that war is an evil and that it has as its rightful end the pursuit of peace.  While both aspects are vital, a renewed emphasis on the latter is critical to America’s participation in future conflicts—and in the war in Afghanistan in particular.

A Christian worldview demands that we view a “just” peace not as the cessation of violence through force, but as shalom—the restoration of broken relationships and human flourishing.  Therefore, a just war, which pursues a just peace, must pursue reconciliation between all participants within the conflict.  This reconciliation begins, with a transformed view of “the other”—the enemy—not as an oversimplified caricature of an extremist, but as our neighbor, a child of God, an image bearer.  The goal, then, of military action in pursuit of a just peace is to create the space, the necessary conditions, within which true reconciliation can take place. 

Our military forces in Afghanistan are actually pursuing some form of reconciliation right now, working to identify reconcilable elements of the Taliban insurgency.  Needed, though, are individual change agents who view the enemy as neighbor and reconciliation as a broad, deep process of forgiveness and trust-building.  What better place to find these change agents than among the military chaplains who have already been charged with engaging imams and clerics in Afghanistan?

—Erik Borggren is a West Point graduate and former Army Infantry officer who is pursuing a Master of Divinity at North Park Theological Seminary.  He also serves as a pastoral intern at Lincoln Square Presbyterian Church in Chicago, IL.


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