Afghanistan and Just War

The President is under great pressure regarding Afghanistan. Top military commanders on the ground and conservatives in Congress want more troops—and fast. Liberal members of the President’s own party are dead set against that—some would like to leave Afghanistan altogether.

And people are irritated with the President for taking so long to decide. Now, I don’t agree often with the President’s policies, but I have great sympathy for him here—because the moral implications of his decision are staggering. I would not want to be in his shoes.

What the President must examine is this: whether our cause and goals are just. And the answer no longer seems crystal clear.

For nearly two millennia, Christian thinkers starting with Augustine, joined by many Muslim intellectuals, have developed what is known as the just war theory. For a war to be seen as just, it must meet several conditions. It must be waged by legitimate authority. The cause itself must be just, as well as the intention behind going to war. War must be a last resort, waged by means proportional to the threat. We must not target non-combatants, and we must have a reasonable chance of success.

There is no doubt in my mind that when the United States invaded Afghanistan, the just war criteria was met. We had been deliberately attacked by al Qaeda, which was harbored and aided by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Our goal was clear—eliminate the bad guys.

I also, as it turns out, backed our invasion in Iraq because Donald Rumsfeld personally told me that the Iraqis were harboring weapons of mass destruction. That would make a preemptive strike justified. Sadly, that information was wrong.

But now, I’ve got to wonder about the continuing effort in Afghanistan. If nation building has become our chief goal, and if we simply want to prop up a generally corrupt government and reshape Afghanistan into a state that suits our interests, then the President may justly decide to not send more troops. Using war as merely another tool of foreign policy does not meet the just-war standard. function fbs_click() {u=location.href.substring(0,location.href.lastIndexOf(‘/’));t=document.title;‘’+encodeURIComponent(u)+’&t=’+encodeURIComponent(t),’sharer’,’toolbar=0,status=0,width=626,height=436′);return false;}

However, it’s not that simple. A return of the Taliban to power and the return of al Qaeda to Afghanistan would pose an imminent threat to the United States. So if our intent is to eliminate them in the face of the danger, then committing more troops, or some troops, may be justified.

But just war doctrine doesn’t let us off the hook there, either. We still have to ensure that our troops act justly, that they minimize civilian casualties—and every indication is that they are doing so with honor and at great risk to themselves.

But yet another question arises: Do we have a reasonable chance of succeeding? There’s a reason Afghanistan is called the graveyard of empires—from Alexander the Great to the British Empire to the Soviet Union.

If we do not have a reasonable chance that our rightly intentioned, just cause will succeed, then it would be unjust to send more troops.

These are really tough questions for any leader. I know, having served in the White House at the side of a President. There is clearly a moral dilemma, and no simple answers.

So what’s the best thing we can do? Join me in praying for President Obama. May God lead him to a decision that will protect our country, help our troops who have sacrificed so much, and advance the cause of a just peace.

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