24 August 2012

Afghanistan - should we have ever been there?

by Dr Mark Keown

The tragic deaths of the five soldiers in Afghanistan over the last month has understandably led to calls for NZ to withdraw from Afghanistan asap. Withdrawal however is complex as, to do so would send a message to the Taliban that NZ is weak. Further, having gone into Afghanistan in the first place, to leave prematurely without putting in place the necessary infrastructure to hold back the Taliban again, could leave Afghanistan in a worse-off state. Finally, withdrawal is not something that can be done quickly. So, NZ, like all countries involved in this situation, is in a difficult position.

My question goes back to the origins of the situation. Why is NZ there in the first place? I know we were not sent to fight the war, but to help rebuild the nation, but I still wonder.

Going back to the beginning, the US invaded with “Operation Enduring Freedom” as a response to 9/11 to search for Osama Bin Laden, to dismantle al-Qaeda, to remove the Taliban regime and establish democracy. My question is, was the war ever just and, even if it was, should we have been involved?

Christians divide roughly into two camps, those who say war is never just (pacifism) and those who argue that at times, war is right and necessary (just war). Those who are pacifists and repudiate war will automatically consider the Afghanistan invasion illegitimate. Or, they will not have a view on the war, but say that Christians should not be involved in it or any such conflict.

For those with a just war view, with privilege of hindsight, using Feinberg’s summary of the agreed principles (About Biblical Ethics, 2004), it is interesting to consider whether the Afghanistan war is just. He gives these seven principles:

  1. A just cause: to repel an unjust attack, to retake something wrongly taken, to deal with evil.
  2. Right authority: in international politics, that would involve the UN Security Council authorizing the use of force in a given situation.
  3. Right Intention: that the end goal of the aggression is to ultimately turn back, deter, or undo aggression.
  4. Proportionate Means: that the force employed is appropriate to the goal.
  5. Last resort: that all diplomatic and foreign policy measures, including economic sanctions, have been exhausted.
  6. Reasonable chance of success: otherwise it is a waste of life.
  7. Noncombatant immunity: only “the enemy” is targeted, and in a way that minimises collateral damage.

Some of the seven principles seem covered. First, the attack of 9/11 makes an attack on al-Qaeda and those who harboured them justified, to stop the possibility of further such attacks. Secondly, the UN Security Council did give its endorsement in 2001 under the UN Charter, 7.51. Thirdly, the intent was positive, to seek to stop further terrorism. That said, the assumption that western type democracies and “freedom” are the only alternative for governance or even the best in every situation is questionable. Fourthly, proportionate means has been used. Fifthly, considering the military superiority of the US and UK, the chance of success was very good, although as Russia has found in the past, the Afghans are a resolute foe. Finally, the war did not target all of Afghanistan, but the Taliban and terrorists.

Having affirmed all this, from a just war point of view, I still feel uneasy about the whole thing. I still wonder at the UN Security Council’s quick affirming of the initial attack. It is a complex thing to attack a sovereign state, not because it has attacked you, but because it purportedly harbours someone who did. I wonder if this is a proportionate response? Further, at point 5 and the issue of “last resort,” I ponder whether every last resort to deal with al-Qaeda was exhausted. Could it have been achieved from within, with international support (a la Libya)? Had the international community brought sufficient economic pressures to bear on the Taliban? Had there been sufficient attempt to find a diplomatic solution? Is the rationale that one never reasons with terrorists right? Was there another way?

Then there is the question of NZ involvement. Why were we there again? Is it because some Kiwis died in 9/11? Is it because where the US and UK go, we should be seen to go too? Is it simply part of our involvement in rebuilding the world after war? If so, that is a good thing – but the cost of lives is tragic and there must be a point where we say, enough. Personally, I think we are at that point. So while it is good for NZ to take its place in the world, I remain uncomfortable with our involvement considering the questions over the legitimacy of the whole thing. Jesus came to end war, and we should only get involved in conflict when all other alternatives are exhausted? Were they here? What do you think?

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