Straying from reporting to comment, I gave a talk recently at King’s College, London, on the question: Is the Afghanistan a Just War? My reply was qualified:

that the cause  itself was right, but the way the war has been conducted since 2001 was very wrong..

“I will argue the means and strategy used by Britain have – at least thus far –been unjust: unjust to soldiers who risk their lives, unjust to the Afghan people and not only unjust but delusional, in that all the blood spilled risks been spilled in vain.”


US Marines in Khan Newshin



Ladies and Gentleman, It is honour to speak here tonight and share the platform with an eminent speaker.  I returned from Afghanistan last night and a spell with US troops just outside Kandahar. I haven’t brought back a message of gloom.  I agree the cause for intervention in this country is a just one, even if wrongly described by our government. But I will argue the means and strategy used by Britain have – at least thus far –been unjust: unjust to soldiers who risk their lives, unjust to the Afghan people and not only unjust but delusional, in that all the blood spilled risks been spilled in vain.

Before I get to that, let me declare my prejudices. You haven’t invited me to talk theology. But, as the son of a Catholic theologian, I’m not entirely neutral on the question of the so-called ‘just war.’  Suffice to say, I’m not fan of holy war – whether Islamic jihad or Christian jihad.

To me war is an evil, a monstrous act that reflects our own weakness in failing to conceive so far a peaceful alternative. That doesn’t mean that soldiers in Afghanistan or voters like us who sent them there should be wracked by guilt or be ashamed of what we’re doing. I just don’t think you should look to God for re-assurance. Christian religion is there to look for and articulate the alternatives to war – not to bless the killing.

For all that, I agree that some of the basic principles of “just war” theory over the right to go to war (jus ad bellum) and the right conduct within war (jus in bello) do give a fair basis for examining the justice of resorting to violence, God-sanctioned or not.

Those principles — from ‘proportionality’ to ‘legitimate authority’  or ‘right intention’– can be applied (as Lord Guthrie has done) to the purpose and reasoning for this war in Afghanistan, even if the war’s objective has shifted over time and even though we are engaged not as a protagonist in classic warfare, which has clearer principles, — but in an armed intervention in a civil war.

To me the key factor here is how this war is being fought — a matter which not only bears on the justice of the war itself (as, by just war principles, the war is only just if there is prospect of success) but also at every stage to the justice of conducting it – are we using proportionate means? Are distinguishing between civilian and combatant? And does each action have military necessity?)

The question I would like to pose is not whether the cause of defeating Al Qaeda or indeed the current aim of stabilisation – delivering a state of relatie peace, or hope of peace, in Afghanistan is a just one. I share Gen Guthrie’s view that it is.

Instead I question the justice of the means. Is not the just cause undermined when men have been sent to battle without the resources they need to prosecute the fight – either physically with the armoured cars or helicopters, strength in numbers, correct preparation, effective command structures, or without an achievable strategy that can deliver the objective?

Unless what men do in war is for something, is nested in a credible wider purpose, then, to my mind, it cannot be just – neither a just war for the soldiers who fight it, nor for the people who bear the bigger consequences of a war fought over their lands.

Unjustice in this war has arisen, I would contend, from (firstly) from a failure to set an credible strategy (secondly) from a failure to provide the resources to achieve it and (thirdly) by the employment of unjust tactics that have harmed the Afghan people.

I’d argue that what emerged from the post war conflicts of the 1990s, Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, was a doctrine of pre-emptive intervention and a vision of future conflict as expeditionary warfare. But no kind of serious transformation of the Armed Forces, Foreign Office, and development agencies was put into effect to give the UK that capability. The consequence has been unjust outcomes, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.


We’ve been fighting now nearly nine years in Afghanistan. Well enough time to look beyond intentions and examine the justice of the conflict as it is has been actually fought.

In Afghanistan, since 9/11, we’ve been fighting not one single war but a series of four campaigns. I’ll look at each one in turn.

The first was the phase of self-defence.

After 9/11, we launched what amounted to a police action against an irregular armed group, Al Qaeda. As a by-product, NATO invaded a country and thus had launched an international armed conflict, a war in other words, one that ended when the Taliban was toppled and a new government was put in place by the Bonn accords.

The police action against Al Qaeda was a justified self-defence since Al Qaeda posed a credible ongoing threat.

The war against the Taliban may have been justified too as a means to eliminate that threat. But it was done with no real planning.

At no point were the Afghan people central to our actions, and the Bonn accords, in which neither the Taliban nor indeed any real conservative Pashtun force played a part, established a country ruled by discredited warlords and restored a  constitution and bureaucracy based on the Soviet model.

Meanwhile, a foreign military – mostly US special forces – continued to roam the country, hunting for Al Qaeda and former Taliban.

But their target set was crude and their understanding of who they called a “terrorist” was weak and they were vulnerable, time and again, to being used to settle private scores between tribes.

As warlords returned to power, jockeyed for influence, and began to boost the drugs trade, other Afghan people saw these foreign troops acting in concert with what they saw as their society’s most malign elements.

The pursuit of Al Qaeda was a just cause. But, here as elsewhere in the world, how it was done was frequently very unjust.

Then came the phase 2 of the intervention “to support the reconstruction” as Geoff Hoon put it when announcing the deployment of British troops to Helmand in 2006.

As far as the British public were told, this was all about nation-building, a cause that was thoroughly just, and, across the country, development agencies and British tax dollars had been achieving some real gains.

The trouble was, by the time British troops came to be involved in Helmand, this phase, here at least, had already been bypassed.

We had moved to phase 3 of the intervention: stabilisation – fighting a rebellion.

Within weeks of the arrival of British troops down south, the central focus of our efforts came not be the delivery of reconstruction help but rather a battle to contain by force a spreading armed rebellion,

Our intervention – as General Richard Dannatt has put it — stirred a sleeping lion. MP Adam Holloway quotes an intelligence official who toured Helmand in 2005 and reported words to the effect: “There is no insurgency. But if you want an insurgency, I’ll give you one.”

We brought war to peoples already tired of war.

And with what plans?

We the British used our influence in Kabul to persuade President Karzai to dismiss the governor of Helmand – Sher Mohamed Akhundzada — and so badly mistimed this operation that the province was left to fall into rebellion for almost six months before British combat troops arrived in strength.

The arguments about what followed are well-rehearsed: a steady up-tick of UK forces: always enough to fan the flames, to push on and ‘clear’ through another new military objective, never enough to hold that objective for real effect when that objective was reached.

Anthony King, the sociologist, sums it up as ‘indecisive combat’ – endless small fights – pointless destruction, often pointless sacrifice: a classic example of war made unjust by the lack fo necessity of what took place.

As one general told me, it led to a fundamental injustice to the soldier at the front: everything that was required for this fight had to be fought for

–                      everything from night vision goggles, to helicopter hours, to sufficient combat troops to basic standards of after-care for our wounded who still essentially have to beg to be treated properly, to the right regime of compensation.  — all of these came only after public campaigns and endless pleas.

But it wasn’t just politicians to blame.

It was a failure of senior officials and of generals in Whitehall who ‘filtered’ what were urgent pleas for urgent help from the ground into little more than wishes.

The strategy too was not set by politicians. It was military commanders who, throwing aside our past experiences, pursued this battle as a conventional war.

It’s easy to forget now – with all the focus on now putting the population first – just how different was the ‘might is right’ language of the UK in the first two years in Helmand.

We heard commanders and generals speak of a ‘trial of strength’, of a ‘break in battle’, a ‘tipping point’.

“The Afghan people are on the fence,” I heard constantly; “if we prove we’re the strongest tribe they’ll declare themselves for us and the government.”

Trouble was, for the population, this wasn’t a contest of gladiators – a spectator sport which they could watch from the cheap seats.

The consequence of the way we fought in Helmand in the early years was devastating – turning farmers into refugees and fanning the flames of rebellion: not only a disproportionate use of force, but also one that was counter-productive to success.

Raising the flag in Now Zad led to a town deserted, so did our defence of the Kakaji dam – a district of empty villages. The people of Garmsir fled too and so they did from villages up and down the Helmand.

Places were “cleared” of the Taliban, “cleared again” and cleared again. One village – Heyderabad, halfway between Garmsir and Gereshk has, I suspect, been cleared at least a dozen times. Each time people died, including many villagers.

The destruction of Sangin centre was so intense that the measure used by a a Royal Marine commander for the success of reconstruction on his tour ending spring 2008 was the amount of rubble cleared from the town centre – rubble that resulted from NATO bombs.

All this time the military cried for civilian support – for political and development officers, for an economic plan that offered something for the population that balanced all that destruction.

But for years – health and safety rules restricted non-military workers, already in short supply, being able to regularly leave their bases.

The so called Comprehensive Approach was a parody of reality.

Above all what you had was a lack of focus by those at the top – a Prime Minister in Blair then Brown – who sent men to war, and thanked them endlessly, but failed to take charge of the campaign – seize control of all the organs of power in order to make that intervention successful.

Politically, for all the sacrifice, Helmand was never that important. And yet only at the level of the Prime Minister – or in a genuinely empowered viceroy — could and can civilian and military power come together in the way essential for a counter-insurgency.

Since the autumn of 2007, I believe we saw big changes for the better. Equipment and resources has got better. Brigadiers and our ambassadors began to see the cost of unjustified optimism. The doctrines of counter-insurgency (COIN) began to be read and taken seriously.

But even so every ground commander seemed to have a lust for one big operation of his tour. Every new uplift of troops was matched by another expansion of territory – and so troops remained thinly spread

And the move to a COIN approach, was not matched by any major reforms back home – soldiers still lacked any serious cultural or linguistic training; their tours of only six months were designed more for a career system than for actually winning war.

Some of that is changing now although it has taken US leadership to shift the campaign to where it is now – from one focused on the enemy to one at least in theory based around protecting or controlling the population.

And so to the current phase of this conflict: phase 4: stabilisation: population security.

Is this, finally, a just war in Afghanistan?

We now appear to have a joined up military plan and a commander in General Stan McChrystal who exudes a sense that this campaign in winnable.

The mission is now defined in limited terms: gone are the lofty development goals; we’re there to ensure a regime that can stand up alone and deny harbour to extremists groups like Al Qaeda.

Talking to commanders, you hear now a more honest assessment of where we are.

We have a population that rejects what the Afghan government can do for it and, far and wide, is in open revolt. The Afghan government has failed to deliver on security, jobs, economic development and justice.

Tens of thousands of mainly American troops are now fanning the country trying to deliver just such things.

When these troops or the Afghan Army or police fight, it is mainly when the Taliban or other armed group opposes their arrival, or when they take offensive action to kill or capture a Taliban leader or group that has been attacking them.

A lot of that amounts to police work. So can we really say what’s happening now is a war at all?

The notion of waging war normally implies you have a defined enemy – that you have taken sides: intervening here with the government against the Taliban and it allies.

But the real enemy is not the Taliban at all. I’d go as far as to say that we share with the Taliban both a common cause and a common enemy. The enemy is corrupt government and the cause is to restore security and faith in government.

Again, to quote King, the irony is that we are, in effect, “constantly fighting against the very regime we created post 9/11.”

In this fight — and here is where the US/McChrystal approach does not appear credible — our pretence of creating some kind of centralised democratic regime gets in the way of creating the kind of autocratic patrimonial regime that could actually be durable.

Again and again we launch military offensives against what we call the Taliban but in reality is local tribes or clans alienated by a patronage system that has broken down – a centralised system of government that does not work for them.

Many soldiers, high and low, have told me how, if they were young men in this country, they’d be fighting with the Taliban. Frequently, our genuine instinct would be to support the cause of those we’re fighting. Our genuine disagreement with the Taliban comes not on the form of government that should be established (we all know we will ultimately end up with a conservative autocratic Islamic regime)  but the means the Taliban use (their brutal methods), the friends they keep in Al Qaeda, and the Taliban’s bad blood with non-Pashtuns.

So now, daily the casualties continue – young farmers fighting for and with the Taliban, civilians blown up by suicide bomber and occasional errant bomb, and NATO soldiers who are still being killed and maimed by the dozen.

So whether its war – or high intensity police work – is what is happening now just?

I do believe in the means of war deployed are now far more proportionate. British and US troops try like they’ve never before to make the way we fight more just – to avoid all those killings of the innocent that have defined so much of how the Afghans see this war – and which I’ve seen with my own eyes.

But, beyond this, accepting, as I have, the logic (outlined by Lord Guthrie) that the objective is right, does the other essential pre-condition – a reasonable prospect of success – now hold true?

For some of our soldiers, this would be hard sell.

In northern Helmand, (north of Gereshk)  the centre of the British campaign, troops are still locked into what has become a stalemate — those valleys cleared at such bloody cost are still under Taliban influence, and will need more blood to clear again. Its hard so far to see it all as worthwhile.

The centre of gravity of McChrystal’s surge is elsewhere – in central Helmand and in around Kandahar.

From what I’ve seen, the arrival of new troops may well hold back the Taliban. Cash, projects, and new governors brought in by helicopter will garner some support in the short term.

Though our capabilities are hopelessly exaggerated by those in command, it will all help create the impression of progress – and turn some from joining the rebellion.

We’re moving in and reshaping parts of country on the scale of a vast colonial enterprise.

Yet, as all our experience of development shows, being well-meaning is not enough. What you need is both capability and time. All this is a work of decades – and yet it is backed by political commitments that barely run to the next US mid-term elections.

In short, our soldiers are being asked to make promises that we all suspect they cannot keep. For this campaign to have a chance to succeed, it needs far more than military action.

The late David Galula said that if you’re losing a counter-insurgency, you’re not being outfought, you’re being out-governed.

To create an effective government in Afghanistan what is needed most of all is poltical reform.

We have a President kept in power – sustained only by our cash dollars – widely seen as having cheating his way into power

And a government where everything is for sale – from 20,000 to escape from jail, to 100,000 dollars to be a chief of police.

More urgent than reconciliation with the Taliban (that will come in time), is reconciliation between the Karzai government and its own people – a reintegration of so many elements of this society that have been ignored, and a purge of the criminals and warlords among its ranks.

This doesn’t mean a western political system – it means a system of patronage that works – where all tribes and ethnic groups are drawn inside the tent.

The US is flexing its military muscles; but unless it takes political action too, the military effort will be in vain. The military can do good on the ground but ultimately we can only be a Force for Good – fight a just war —  if we fight, crudely speaking, on the side of the good guys.

There is a just war to be fought in Afghanistan. The cause of bringing peace, stability here is an important one for global security. After, after helping creating so much chaos here, we owe it to the Afghans to give them a big hand.

But, from what I’ve seen so far, the just war in Afghanistan is often not the war we’re actually fighting.


1 thought on “Just Cause: Unjust Means

  1. This is good stuff – wish I’d seen it sooner. Any thoughts one just war at the close tactical level? Corporals seem to have started the shift from killing to capturing but it’s early days yet.

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