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A Just War

With the War in Afghanistan dwindling in in the rear-view mirrors of an administration gunning for an exit in time for the election and a conflict in Syria cresting the hill just below the sunset, it may be time to revisit the just war.

Whether a war is just or not has nothing to do with multilateral approval. An unjust war can be approved of by a hundred nations. A just war may be entirely unilateral. International parliamentary procedures are a process and like all processes do not make a course of action just or unjust, they only make it legal under international law. Legal and just are not the same thing.

Czechoslovakia was carved up by the Nazis with the assent of most of the civilized nations of the day who agreed that it was the best thing to do for world peace. That wasn't the last time such a thing happened and we keep witnessing repetitions of that horror over and over again.

International law is neither international nor law. It is not consistently applied, and therefore isn't law. It is not international as the majority of the world does not subscribe to it, despite signing agreements to the contrary. What we call international law is not a judicial process, but a political one, an extension of existing international and national power structures which is selectively used to justify their actions.

And even if all these were true, process does not make right, it only achieves a consistent result or a consensus. It cannot tell you whether a course of action is right, only whether it came through the same sausage factory as every other decision did. The sausage factory process achieves a certain amount of consistency which is the next best thing to fairness, it does not however make a thing just.

A just war has nothing to do with multi lateralism or getting a vote through the UN Security Council where the butchers of Beijing rub shoulders with the pet representatives of Vlad the Impaler.

The wars we fight may be roughly divided into three categories.

1. Defensive wars - These are wars fought in response to an attack or a planned attack. They may be fought preemptively to deny a known enemy an advantage, whether it is a weapon or territory so long as it occurs within the context of an existing conflict, whether overt or covert.

2. Moral wars - Wars of aggression fought to prevent another nation from carrying out some unspeakable act such as genocide. 

3. Interest wars - These are wars fought primarily to protect commercial interests, maintain regional stability, improve the position of an ally or otherwise alter the map in your favor.

Obviously there is a certain amount of overlap between these three types of conflict. Nations are run by people and people do things for complex reasons. Interest wars are often passed off as moral wars or defensive wars. Often wars have all three components with varying degrees of emphasis and sometimes one type of war turns into another type of war in the middle.

Most wars are primarily interest wars, because few leaders will launch a war from which there is nothing to gain. These gains however are not necessarily national or corporate in the crude, "No Blood for Oil" type of way. If the modern West still fought wars as simple as that, the price of gas would be much lower and Saudi Arabia would be an American colony.

Interest wars are not only wars of national interest, but wars of ideological interest fought to fulfill a goal embedded in an ideology. International law itself is an aspect of ideology. Wars fought in the name of international law are ideological interest wars, but at the same time they also often disguise lesser personal and national interests.

Naked moral wars rarely exist. That is why we didn't send troops into Somalia or Sudan. Even the most seemingly selfless use of force has interests rooted deep within, even if it is only the hegemony of a particular moral creed. Moral wars are mostly subsets of interest wars and defensive wars.

Afghanistan began as a defensive war that mutated into an interest war when it became a nation building exercise. Like most modern interest wars, it was not in the interest of the United States, but of the towering framework of global stability and international order which was primarily concerned with the management of chaos and the progress toward global order.

The ideology of international law assigns legitimacy only to those conflicts between the international community and a rogue state. In two sided conflicts, the "international community" chooses a side, offers a prescription and the other side is given a choice between complying or being denounced as a rogue state. When the fighting is over, the rogue state, deemed a source of chaos, is reconstructed as a good faith member of the international community.

America's defensive war after September 11 was wedged into that narrow formula. We came as liberators, then we settled into the old task of winning hearts and minds, counterinsurgency and bringing stability. All wastes of time. To defeat a guerrilla group, you either need to tackle the civilian population that it draws its support from, and this is usually an ugly business, or you have to go after its state sponsors outside the borders. Unless you do one or the other, the war becomes a long bloody business. If the guerrillas have enough outside support and recruits, it can go on indefinitely.  You can win victories against them for decades without significantly changing the situation until you have wiped out or turned their leadership. And even that might not be enough.

The error began when our mission parameters demanded long term control of Afghanistan. Rather than inflicting as much damage on Al-Qaeda and its allies as we could, we began thinking in terms of denying them purchase in the region. Considering Pakistan's long history of support for Islamist terror, this was a clearly unworkable program. It was also meaningless. Al-Qaeda could set up shop in any number of places in the Muslim world. Afghanistan was ideal in some ways, but its members were not ethnically tied to Afghanistan. They weren't committed to it in an ethnic way, it was a base not a national identity.

That same error was once again repeated in Iraq, again operating on the same illusion that with enough commitment, we could stabilize a country and then a region. As in Vietnam, the local institutions failed us, forcing us to do all or most of the work until we were the only ones holding the country together. Perversely this worked against our goals of long term stability as the more we imposed an external structure, the less stable the internal structure became.

Had we not propped up Karzai so much, the post-Taliban Afghanistan might have evolved more naturally, instead it shaped itself around us, in a mostly negative way. Our money paid for it all and our troops provided the security. Those on the inside were not challenged, only those on the outside who learned, adapted and came back stronger than ever.

When our objectives shifted from destroying the enemy to denying him control of the territory by creating and protecting alternative political and military structures, we fell back into the same errors and shifted from a defensive war to an interest war, and from being on the offense, we fell back on the defense acting as beat cops for the state that we hoped to create.

If the Afghans were less corrupt and more civilized, things might have been different, but if that were the case, the Taliban would have never ruled in Kabul to begin with. If the Taliban had been weaker, then we would have lost fewer men and the Karzai regime might have had a future. But if they had been weaker, we wouldn't have had to go in because they would have never sheltered a terrorist group at war with the United States.

The final outcome was mostly inevitable. Rather than reshaping the chaos, we became part of the chaos, we shaped the chaos, rather than imposed order.

What had begun as a just war became an unjust war, not to the Afghans to whom we had few obligations once an attack was launched on us from their soil and with the consent of their rulers. The war was unjust in relation to us. Once it had ceased to be a defensive war and became a war fought to maintain an Afghan state in fealty to international order, it was no longer properly a war fought to protect Americans. As the distance between the rationalization for the day to day elements of the conflict and its original purpose lengthened, the justification for the conflict weakened.

What had been primarily a defensive war, took a back seat to moral war and interest war elements which then became supreme. It was now a war fought to protect Afghans and the Afghan government and to assert the power of Muslim democracy and the ability of international intervention to heal sore spots, drain away the chaos and bring order. Even the term war hardly applied. Rather than a war it was more properly a guardianship, a long watch on the wall, not against Al-Qaeda, but against chaos.

American sacrifices to achieve these ends were out of proportion to the potential and actual gains making it an unjust conflict as it was operating against the interests of those fighting it. As a defensive war against an enemy, it had been just, but as a defense of an ideology and an enemy population, its pursuit had become unjust to Americans.


  1. War needs to be declared by Congress something the presidency has failed to remember for a long time now.

  2. Very well put, Daniel.

  3. On the Afghani war I beg to differ. America was all to glad to build a cross tribal insurgency-force against the Russian occupation resulting indeed in the defeat of the latter but leaving the before "Charly Wilson's war" diverged and primitive tribesmen living a poor but not necessarily chaotic life, with both an arsenal and training combined with their already fanatical Islamism. Al Queda took advantage of the post war instability and established a broad support base from where out it planned it's attacks on America and trained it's volunteer jihadists. Corruption in all countries is mostly based on instable economic systems making the trade of favours for money an necessity for daily survival, regrettably the case in all countries that are clan riddled.

  4. Anonymous18/3/12

    Very well put!

    Now it has become a 'cluserfarck'! The only ones carrying the burden is once again the 'american soldier', being maligned, slandered, backstabbed and, libeled!

  5. Anonymous18/3/12

    My thoughts: No mention of the NATO aspect involved in A-Stan. This was the war the Dems liked, because it was the UN/NATO one. I agree minimally with the article today except the lack of parsing the difference in ROE in A-Stan vs Iraq and then pre/post Obama.

    Lots of grissle to work over what happened in both wars, but it has CLEARLY evolved into a "clusterfark" with the ROE and the US providing the highest men/equip/money and its a "NATO" led mission. Total crap. Bring the boys home asap. RobM

  6. Anonymous18/3/12

    Your analysis left out the Pakistanis that were double-crossing the Americans consistently. They supported the Talibans and did not help against Al Qaeda.

  7. Anonymous18/3/12

    Daniel, you aptly distinguish between legal and just, and expand on international 'law'.

    However, your post title, "A Just War" left me wondering what you think a just war is, beyond what it isn't.
    Do any of your categories of defensive, moral and interest wars qualify as just wars? My personal perspective is 'yes' to #1 & 2, and 'no' to #3 - but...

    How can we agree on #2 - a moral war, as being just, if we don't agree, globally speaking, on the basis for morality? Sharia, Torah, utilitarianism & existential nihilism all have different implications as to what constitute unspeakable acts, no?

    Might I suggest retitling your post, "A Just War - Part 1 - The Afghan Lesson" so that you can drop the other shoe and add Part 2? Because somehow I sense that your penultimate statement, "American sacrifices to achieve these ends were out of proportion to the potential and actual gains making it an unjust conflict as it was operating against the interests of those fighting it." is only a partial defense of just war, one that includes sacrifices being in proportion to national gains.
    Dr. Zharkov

  8. Anonymous20/3/12

    The only way to stabilize Muslim countries is to colonize them. I propose stringing a network of city forts across Afghanistan inhabited by western mercenaries. Their principle source of income could be Afghanistan's unexploited supplies of rare Earth metals. No Afghan is permitted to enter or interact with these city forts and each fort controls a vast swathe of territory which is patrolled by UAV drones and covered with autonomous sentry gun posts equipped with 50 cals. Gradually, over time, Western zones of control would be extended, gradually pushing the Afghans into the peripheries of the country. In addition, the West would only recognize the political authority of the city states, with the Afghan political groups largely ignored and marginalized. The same process could be applied to North Africa and Egypt, where city forts would be established along the coasts. Only Coptic Christians would be allowed entry to such states. In order to prove their worthiness for affiliation, each North African wanting to gain entry to the city forts would have to physically jump up and down on the Koran several times. This should cut the need for expensive security procedures down to a bare minimum and establish a quick method for establishing intentions. Naturally, Western Leftists would flagellate themselves in the streets over these developments, but, if their protests got too bad, we could airlift them to provide sexual entertainment to the 'cursed Earthers' who live beyond the city state walls.


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