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A just war requires a just response

America’s work in Afghanistan is not done


Two young girls stand outside their house on a garbage-strewn street in Kabul, Afghanistan. Associated Press/Photo by Hussein Malla

A just war requires a just response
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The United States abandoned Afghanistan six months ago. With millions starving and the economy collapsing, President Joe Biden continues to lose in Afghanistan. How should we understand the morality of the war and are there actions that should be taken now?

First, evaluating the morality of the Afghanistan War is complicated for at least two reasons. The first is the sheer scale of the sustained military effort: four presidencies, $2.3 trillion, and hundreds of thousands of U.S. and partner troops involved. The timeline was vast: Osama bin Laden’s network first attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 and then the Khobar Towers housing complex in 1994 and the USS Cole in 1999. It continued to murder innocent civilians in New York, Bali, London, Madrid, Paris, Nairobi, and beyond. Afghanistan is a part of a much longer, much larger story.

The second complexity is how to think about the morality of war and peace. The framework of Christian just war thinking helps by analyzing three issues. First, under what conditions is it moral to employ force? Second, when proper authorities decide to use force, how can they employ force ethically? Finally, how do we build an enduring peace, even in Afghanistan?

What is a just reason to go to war? Legitimate political authorities may act on a just cause with the right intentions. Prime ministers and presidents have a responsibility to protect and respond when their citizens are attacked, like U.S. citizens were on Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001.

Did the United States meet the just war criteria after 9/11? Yes, it did. Congress provided the legal framework for President George W. Bush to prosecute a war on terrorism. Our NATO allies invoked the self-defense clause of their treaty, joining the fight. In December, a UN Security Council resolution authorized a peacekeeping force for Afghanistan.

When it comes to the second just war standard—how the war was fought—the United States acted proportionately and discriminately. We did not carpet-bomb cities or devastate the countryside. We tried very hard, though at times erred, to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants through rigorous rules of engagement, often putting our military personnel at increased risk.

We should make it clear that we are committed to helping Afghan citizens and will do so through humanitarian intermediaries, including the UN and faith-based groups.

Although low-intensity conflict seemed to never end, there were efforts to lay the foundation for a just and enduring long-term peace. Perhaps most importantly, we made massive investments in education, training, and infrastructure. We did not pillage the Afghan people or rob the country of its natural resources. We attempted to model respect for all and championed the rights of women and religious minorities.

A morally satisfying peace begins with order (governance, rule of law), develops justice, and takes steps toward long-term conciliation. Conciliation means coming to terms with the past and seeing former enemies as partners in a future peace. But one cannot establish enduring justice and conciliation without basic order.

What was needed last summer was an enduring commitment to patient regional security assistance and national construction, similar to the way that we still have troops securing the peace in Europe and Asia long after the surrender of the Axis powers in 1945.

Where are we today? The calamitous abandonment of Afghanistan by the Biden administration hurts U.S. national security: In October, administration officials testified that a resurgent al-Qaeda and ISIS will be able to hit the United States from Afghanistan within six months. Opium production is thriving again.

On the humanitarian front, the West faces the challenge of attempting to fund programs that will help meet basic human needs and rebuild civil society in Afghanistan, without funding the Taliban. The scale of poverty is stunning. UNICEF estimates that a million Afghan children will die from hunger and disease. World Vision reports that nearly 9 million Afghans will be on the brink of starvation by next month.

The Biden administration has moved to unfreeze some assets and get money moving through charitable channels to save Afghanistan’s women and children. We should make it clear that we are committed to helping Afghan citizens and will do so through humanitarian intermediaries, including the UN and faith-based groups. This is not the first time we have done so: In the 1990s, the West worked around the Taliban to provide humanitarian help.

Let us hope that the millions of Afghans who benefitted from education and the vision of a better future offered by the past 20 years will be able to help their country move toward a more secure, more free, and more peaceful future.


Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.


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