Justification for troops in Afghanistan
Gordon Brown has repeatedly said that the reason British troops are in Afghanistan is to make Britain and the rest of the world safe.
In his 4th September 2009 speech to International Institute for Strategic Studies Afghanistan – National Security and Regional Stability, Gordon brown said:
“Each time I have to ask myself if we are doing the right thing by being in Afghanistan. Each time I have to ask myself if we can justify sending our young men and women to fight for this cause…And my answer has always been yes.
For when the security of our country is at stake we can not walk away. When the stability of this volatile region, spanning the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, has such a profound impact on the security of Britain and the rest of the international community we cannot just do nothing and leave the peoples of Pakistan and Afghanistan to struggle with these global problems on their own.”
In the Times article of August 17, 2009 Rising Afghanistan death toll ‘will only stiffen resolve of soldiers’ Gordan Brown is quoted as saying:
“In these moments of sorrow and sadness, we must never forget why we are in Afghanistan and why people are making the sacrifice that they are making,” the Prime Minister said. “Three quarters of the terrorist plots that hit Britain derive from the mountain areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan and it is to make Britain safe and the rest of the world safe that we must make sure we honour our commitment to maintain a stable Afghanistan.”
In other words, Gordon Brown is saying it is justified to invade and occupy another country just because it harbours a threat. Not because the country itself has attacked us, or because the country has threatened to attack us, but because there are people who live in that country who threaten us and have attacked us.
This goes beyond acceptance of the doctrine of preemtive war. It is also acceptance of the Bush Doctrine that, as policy, it would not distinguish between terrorist organisations and nations or governments that harbour them.
Is the war just?
Before I address question of whether the war is justified, I’ll look at a related question: “Is the war just?” Far greater thinkers than I have debated the concept of a just war, and the conclusions are fairly similar. The Catholic Church’s stance is representative. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2309, lists four strict conditions for “legitimate defense by military force”:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
Let’s look at each of these in term.
the damage inflicted by the aggressor … must be lasting, grave, and certain. The preparations most important to the September 11, 2001, attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States. The aggressor is not Afghanistan and the aggressor is no longer in Afghanistan.
all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective In her speech Countering Terrorism in a Democracy the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said
During this period, we and other countries have prevented most terrorist plots from succeeding – thanks to our police, security and intelligence agencies, thanks to intelligence sharing and cooperation, and thanks to knowing what tools and skills are necessary to meet this threat. Counter-terrorism has saved many, many lives.
In April 2008 Sir Ian Blair, the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said Police have foiled 15 terror plots in Britain since the 2000
So it seems other means of preventing terrorism have actually been effective
there must be serious prospects of success. Almost 8 years of war without success indicate otherwise (the Afghan war started on October 7, 2001).
the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated At the time of writing there have been more than 1400 coalition deaths in Afghanistan. Estimates vary between about 11,000 and 31,000 direct and indirect civilian casualties of war in Afghanistan.
But National Security is at stake
In the world of realpolitik we sometimes need to take actions that are immoral or unethical for the sake of the national interest. Well, I actually disagree with the philosophy of realpolitik, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we are willing to fight an unjust war for the sake of national security.
We’re still left with the two assumptions:
- terrorists need a safe haven such as Afghanistan from which they can operate
- the presence of NATO troops denies them that haven
Both these assumptions are questionable. As I said earlier, the most important preparations for the 9/11 terrorist attacks did not take place in Afghanistan. The top al-Qaeda leadership is not even in Afghanistan, having decamped to Pakistan years ago. Terrorists intent on establishing a haven can choose among several unstable countries besides Afghanistan. NATO troops cannot even prevent terrorist attacks within Afghanistan, so how can anyone expect them to prevent terrorism being exported.
So even under the tenets of realpolitik the war in Afghanistan is not justified.
Security is a trade-off
As security expert Bruce Schneier often says security is a trade-off. We don’t protect air traffic from terrorist attacks by grounding all aircraft. That would be stupid. But actually we do sometimes: directly after the 9/11 attacks, grounding all aircraft was a sensible precaution. We don’t require motorists to wear crash helmets, but we do require motorcyclists to do so. We don’t spend 50% of our national budget on public order and safety, nor 1%, we’ve decided that about 5% is the right compromise. Security costs money, but it also costs in time, convenience, capabilities, liberties, and so on. We need to understand the trade-offs between the risks we take and the security we need and strike a sensible balance.
Schneier says: It makes no sense to just look at security in terms of effectiveness. “Is this effective against the threat?” is the wrong question to ask. You need to ask: “Is it a good trade-off?”
In the context of the Afghan war, the question is not: “Is the war effective in ensuring our safety?”, it is “Could the money, equipment and people be used in a way that more effectively ensures our safety?”
Estimates of the annual cost of the Afghan war range form £2.5 billion to £3.5 billion (Revealed: £12bn hidden costs of Afghan war and Cost of war in Afghanistan soars to £2.5bn). Over 200 British soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2001. The cost in world opinion is considerable. Did we get the most security we could for those lives, that money, that cost to our reputation?
The answer is no. We could have spent that money better on intelligence gathering, more police officers and better emergency services. Things that genuinely help prevent terrorist attacks. Things that are useful even if no attack occurs.
War is not the most effective way of ensuring our security.
The public don’t support the war
In July, a poll conducted for The Independent found that a majority of the public think British troops should be pulled out immediately
- The war is not just.
- The war is not justified, even under the tenets of realpolitik.
- The war is not the most effective way of ensuring our security.
- The majority of the public want our troops out of Afghanistan.
So what shall we do? Surely we cannot just leave. Well, actually I think we can, and I’ll explain why in a subsequent blog post.
Update, November 3rd, 2009
In an article in The Guardian It’s time to pull out of Afghanistan and take the fight to Bin Laden in Britain Labour MP, former Foreign Office minister, and chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Ken Howells argues that “we must accept that we have a duty to question the wisdom of prioritising, in terms of government spending on counter-terrorism, the deployment of our forces to Afghanistan”. He argues that it we should bring the majority of our troops home and use the money saved to fund other counter-terrorism activities.
I don’t agree with all of Ken Howells’s suggestions on how we should spend the money saved, but at least someone in parliament is asking the question: “Could the money, equipment and people be used in a way that more effectively ensures our safety?”