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Online content from Vol. 6 no. 2 (2002)

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Go to Christopher Bertram's reply

Go to Saladin Meckled-Garcia's reply

Darrel Moellendorf

is leaving his position as Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of the Witwatersrand and is taking up the position of Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department and Director of the Ethics Institute at San Diego State University. His book, Cosmopolitan Justice was published this year by Westview Press.

Symposium on the War in Afghanistan:

Is the War in Afghanistan Just?*

Darrel Moellendorf


HE US led military response to the 11 September terrorist attacks is yet another in a series of post-Cold War conflicts that has divided the left.[1] In days gone by it was relatively easy to gain consensus among people and parties of the left against US intervention in various parts of the world. Typically such intervention sought to rollback electoral or military advances by democratic or socialist forces. In the political dynamic of the Cold War, the US could be counted on invariably to be on the wrong side. With the Gulf War, the invasion of Haiti, the war against Serbia, and now the war in Afghanistan, that apparently solid left-wing anti-war consensus has crumbled.

Part of the difficulty in gaining leftwing consensus on post-Cold War conflicts is that there is no general agreement on the left about the considerations that determine the justice of war. This is only part of the problem since there may be room for reasonable disagreement about the application of the criteria of the justice of war. Agreement on the criteria, however, does provide at least the hope of productive discussion on the morality of war. I shall defend what I take to be the correct considerations and apply them to the war in Afghanistan. Although these considerations cast some doubt on the justice of the war, I believe that several of the particular judgements that have to be made in coming to an overall assessment are necessarily on much less firm ground than is desirable, and that the question of the justice of resorting to war is distinct from the question of whether once war was begun the moral balance was in favour or against it. My focus will be on the justice of resorting to war in this case, or on matters of jus ad bellum, rather than the justice of the conduct of the war, or matters of jus in bello. Questions of the justice of conduct are of obvious importance in a moral assessment of any war, but space does not permit extending this discussion to those issues. And in any case, the question of the justice of resorting to war is the more fundamental one for it addresses not merely the means by which the war is prosecuted but whether it should be, or should have been, initiated at all.

I. Jus ad bellum

I maintain a middle position that not all wars are permissible, say, for reasons of national interests, and that not all wars are morally objectionable. I would imagine that this middle ground has widespread intuitive appeal, but the real job is in setting out the requirements of justice that define it. The necessary criteria, I believe, are just cause, reasonable likelihood of success, proportionality and last resort.

Why are these the necessary conditions for the justice of war? The starting point is that because war causes all manner of intended and unintended suffering, there is a general presumption that it is wrong. A war that is not a response to an injustice, or that is likely to fail, or that creates more injustice than it corrects, or that could have been avoided is one that cannot defeat the presumption against causing suffering.

Would these conditions taken together provide sufficient reason to resort to war? If in the absence of alternatives resorting to a war reasonably calculated to improve a significant injustice is not justified, then it is difficult to imagine when resorting to war would ever be justified. Of course, one response to this is to claim that this merely shows that it is difficult to imagine when resorting to war really is justified. In other words, the presumption against causing suffering is a very strong one.[2] Clinching the argument against this pacifist perspective is not possible here, and perhaps not at all.[3] One thing that might be done, however, is to imagine situations real or not terribly ideal in which all of the above conditions are met and the wrong that could not be rectified without going to war is very grave. Pacifists can still bite the bullet, as it were, in these cases, but not without allowing a great deal of preventable injustice. This provides some reason to believe that the criteria taken collectively provide a sufficient condition for resorting to war to be just.

The doctrine of jus ad bellum guides our judgements of whether resorting to war in the given circumstances is just. From what time frame should information be drawn when assessing this matter? We can imagine two responses: One holds that in judging the justice of a war all information is relevant, both that which could have been known prior to the initiation of hostilities and that which could only have come to light afterwards. For after all, what we want to know is an objective matter: In light of all the relevant evidence and considerations, was it just to go to war. Knowing this may provide some guidance for the future. Alternatively, any evaluation of the justice of a war, if it is to offer a moral evaluation of the actions taken by the belligerents, and those who opposed the initiation of the war, must be restricted to the considerations that were available to them prior to the beginning of the war. One cannot hold war-makers responsible on the basis of considerations that could not have been known at the time. To ask whether a war is just within these constraints on information, then, is to seek an answer that is relevant to assessing the moral responsibility of the prosecutors of the war. This is my interest in what follows.

II. Anti-imperialism

There is a view that traditionally has had considerable credence on the left that goes roughly like this: All wars by imperialist powers are to be opposed because by the nature of imperialism they are either (a) lacking in just cause, or (b) compromised by bad intentions even where just grounds exist, or (c) politically too dangerous for the future even though satisfying all the criteria for jus ad bellum.

The claim that an imperialist war lacks just cause is not apparent a priori. For according to standard views of imperialism the relationship between a war by an imperialist state and injustice is contingent. Classical accounts of imperialism take it to be the export of capital from developed states to less developed ones.[4] The criticism of imperialism on these accounts is that it tends to produce competing economic interests in colonising states, and the defence of these interests typically requires state military action. Assuming this account, it would remain an empirical matter in any given case of war whether the war fulfilled the criteria of jus ad bellum. Perhaps an imperialist state may act on reasons other than the protection of the economic interests of its powerful citizens; or perhaps for some reason these interests coincide with justice in a given situation. Post-war accounts of imperialism often take it to involve financial or trade arrangements that cause the development of the developed economies at the expense of the underdevelopment of the less developed economies.[5] Even if some version of the underdevelopment thesis is true, it does not follow that all wars by imperialist powers are all-things-considered unjust. Perhaps a war may do nothing to overthrow imperialist economic relations, but results in the replacement of a dictatorship with institutions of parliamentary democracy. In general, a criticism on the basis of just cause has to rest on more than the observation that it is prosecuted by an imperialist state.

What of the other two disjuncts of the anti-imperialist position stated above? Suppose the anti-imperialist shows that, despite just grounds for war, the state’s intentions are suspect. Notice that this criticism involves a very different concern than the four criteria I offered above. Each of the four is objective in the sense that it does not ask us to enquire about the state-of-mind of the war-makers. But perhaps we should. Perhaps we should worry that an otherwise just war is a pretext for insidious intentions. This I think is problematic, misguided and unnecessary. It’s problematic because states are corporate bodies and therefore may have multiple and perhaps even conflicting intentions. Saladin Meckled-Garcia believes that the intentions of a war-making state can be inferred by its past actions with respect to international law, various (unstated) influences on policy, the attitudes of the branches of government and the wider political culture and the state’s behaviour both in international bodies and with respect to other states. I see no reason to suppose that any of this material is going to provide the basis for a reliable inference about a single intention of a state. As with real persons, many and diverse intentional accounts may go some ways toward explaining actions. But more problematic is the possibility of multiple and even conflicting intentions among policy-makers who agree on the action to be taken. The phenomenon of internal conflict is familiar enough in real persons, but it is multiplied many times in the case of corporate bodies.

Worrying about the intentions of war-making states is any case misguided because the intentions of the government are irrelevant to the justice of its actions. Suppose that a state instituted a basic income grant as a means to co-opt growing unrest among the impoverished. This does not affect the justice of the policy although it should make those concerned with justice doubtful about what more to expect from the government in the absence of a struggle.

Additionally, worrying about the intentions of war-making states is unnecessary because the three criteria of just cause, reasonable likelihood of success and proportionality in combination sort out those wars that are likely to serve the ends of justice within moral constraints from those that are not. Consider two possible replies. The first is that these criteria are blind to insidious intentions, assuming for the sake of argument that such intentions can be reliably inferred. I maintain nevertheless, as in the example of the provision of the basic income, that consideration of state intentions is unnecessary to an evaluation of the justice of its policy. The second is that good intentions will provide additional assurance that the ends of justice are served. If, however, intentions are only important in the service of just ends, then we have all the necessary considerations we need with the criteria of just cause, reasonable likelihood of success and proportionality. If a war is unlikely to succeed or to be proportional, being the result of good intentions will not make it any more likely. If it is to succeed or be proportional, considering the intentions is unnecessary. Nor, contrary to the claims of Meckled-Garcia, is assessing the intentions of belligerents necessary to identify the existence double standards. Double standards among belligerents exist when any of the four criteria that I have endorsed are selectively required or enforced.

Meckled-Garcia also asserts that the criteria that I endorse do not state which consequences are important when considering the justice of war. This is false. The considerations raised by the above the criteria are primarily focused on the likely consequence of the war, not the intentions of the war-makers. And that, I believe, is as it should be.

The remaining element of the above-characterised anti-imperialist position appeals to the possible precedent effect of supporting a war that satisfies the criteria of jus ad bellum. There are two problems with this criticism: First, it confuses the force of moral principles with the force of politics. Whether or not a justified principle will later be used to rationalise unjust practices depends upon whether or not those who oppose injustice will later have the political means and will to prevent it. This is a matter of voting, lobbying and organising. It has nothing to do with the content of a principle. Additionally, the moral judgement that underlies this concern is troubling, for it tells us to ignore a present injustice – perhaps a great one – even when correcting it is reasonably likely to succeed because of the possibility that corrective action will rationalise uncertain future injustices. If we took that principle seriously we would be paralysed with respect to the possible correction of all manner of present injustices since with any action-guiding principle there is the possibility that it could be misused. In sum, the anti-imperialist critique of a war should address the criteria of jus ad bellum that I supported in section I.

III. Just cause and sovereignty

The traditional criterion of just cause holds that just cause for war exists if and only if either the territorial integrity or political sovereignty of a state has been violated or there is a credible imminent threat of such a violation.[6] This statist conception of just cause has no place in a theory of the justice of war, and is anathema to egalitarian politics. For it shields all manner of correctable injustice that might occur within a state, just as invoking the privacy of the family shields all manner of injustice that might occur within domestic relations.

Taking justice for individuals seriously requires replacing the traditional criterion of just cause with one that is sensitive to injustice. A better criterion would be that intervention into the affairs of other states is just only if the intervention is directed towards advancing justice either in the basic structure of the state or in the international effects of its domestic poli to war.[8] Not all domestic injustices provide the necessary grounds, only injustices to the basic structure do. This provides room for the politics of democratic self-government to address domestic policy injustices. But since those affected by international injustices typically have no voice in domestic democratic self-government, an international injustice that is the effect of domestic policy may be a just cause for resorting to war. This criterion then is sensitive both to democratic self-governance and to existing injustice. It strikes a balance between holding that any act of a state, in virtue of being an act of self-determination is protected, and that any injustice that a state commits is a justified ground for war.

IV. The war in Afghanistan

How well does the war in Afghanistan measure up against the criteria of jus ad bellum that I advocate in sections I and III? I shall discuss the war in light of each of the four criteria.

Just cause

Looked at one way the application of the criterion of just cause seems pretty straightforward. A state that gives refuge to terrorists who plan and execute foreign attacks that intentionally result in the deaths of more than two thousand civilians of other states is certainly one whose domestic policy results in serious international injustices. Additionally, the states whose citizens died in such attacks have a duty to protect the security of their citizens, which duty justifies pursuing those who carried out the attacks both to prevent them from carrying out further attacks and to deter others from trying something similar. Hence, one could claim that preventing and deterring future attacks on civilians is a justified cause of war.

There are, however, several criticisms of the justice of the cause of the war in Afghanistan that require consideration. I wish to examine four.

1. The strength of Islamic fundamentalism in the region is the product of US cold war policy.

There are well-documented accounts of the provision of aid to Islamic militants by the CIA in an effort to turn back the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and to cause trouble for the Soviet Union more generally.[9] It is unclear whether bin Laden actually benefited from this aid.[10] In any case, the larger movement of which he is a part certainly did benefit. So, it is highly plausible that the strength of Islamic fundamentalism in that area is a product of US policy. In a sense, then, the current threat to the security of US civilians is in part the result of the certain activities of the US government.

Although the role of the US government in creating the present security threat is an indictment of its Afghanistan policy (and perhaps its Cold War policy more generally), it does not provide the basis for rejecting the existence of just cause for the war in Afghanistan. The argument that it does would seem to be the following: Since the US government is in very significant ways responsible for the threat to US (and other) civilians, it has no right to attempt to destroy the threat. But this is nonsense. Consider an analogy. Due to the negligence or recklessness of the tourist guides, a group of tourists are brought under attack by armed bandits. It in no way follows that these guides have no right to protect the tourists from the bandits. On the contrary, it would seem an additional moral failure if the tourist guides did not try to protect the tourists from a threat the guides themselves are in part responsible for. I see no reason why the same reasoning does not apply in the case of the terrorist threat from Islamic fundamentalists.

2. The real intent of the war-makers is to secure strategic oil reserves.

One criticism of the war is that the purported cause of the war to defeat terrorism is a pretext for the war’s real intention, namely to access strategic oil reserves in central Asia.[11] According to this view, the war is really naked imperialism dressed-up as self-defence. Insofar as this is a criticism of the intentions of the US and its allies it is (for the reasons argued above) weak: Intentions are difficult to ascribe to governments; they are no help in assessing the justice of policy; and enough work can be done by determining whether the war is reasonably likely to be successful and proportional in the pursuit of a justified cause. So, if the war is reasonably likely to offer security from terrorism without creating significant injustices, it might be justified even though it may also open up central Asian oil reserves to Western imperialism

In any case it seems implausible that the prevention of terrorist attacks is not the main intent of the US leadership. If an agent has mixed intentions for an action, the ‘real’ or primary one must exist even if the secondary ones don’t exist. Additionally, to claim that one has an intention requires some evidence of the disposition to act on it. Hence, the advocate of the criticism of this section has to give evidence that the US had a willingness to engage in warfare in pursuit of Central Asian oil even in the absence of the terrorist attacks. To the best of my knowledge, no one who defends this criticism has been able to offer such evidence. The objection seems to be no more powerful than the claim that the intentions of the US and its allies are mixed.

3. Terrorism is a justified countermeasure to terrorism.

Terrorist actions can be defined as violent actions that involve intentionally and successfully killing or severely harming non-combatants.[12] According to this definition the two attacks of 11 September on the World Trade Centre are terrorist actions. The attack on the Pentagon may not be; and if the fourth plane was headed for the White House and the commander-in-chief it also may not be. There is some ambiguity with respect to these last two attacks because although the targets of these attacks may have been military ones, they nonetheless involved using passengers merely as means to effect the destruction of military targets. It might be objected that this definition of terrorism is too broad, for what makes an action terrorist is that its perpetrators also intend to cause terror. I see no reason for this additional requirement. Although we call violent acts against non-combatants resulting from their intentional targeting terrorist because they typically cause terror, their moral import is less the terror caused, and more the physical harm done to non-combatants and their property. So, regardless of whether these acts in fact cause terror they are typically wrong in virtue their intentional harm to innocents.

The objection of this section may be put as follows: Terrorism is not always wrong because the principle of non-combatant immunity is conditional. It constrains a warring party only if its enemy observes it.[13] The US and other Western states are instrumental in the execution of policies that intentionally target non-combatants in, for example, Iraq where UN sanctions cause the death of some 40,000 children under five each year, more than 15 times as many people who died in all four attacks on 11 September.[14] These deaths are not spectacular, nor are they the subject of around the clock CNN coverage, but they are just as final as those on 11 September. This lack of regard for non-combatant immunity on the part of the US justifies intentionally targeting non-combatants on US soil.

One might try to reject this argument on the grounds that trade sanctions do not intentionally target non-combatants. Rather sanctions target regimes; their goal is to topple regimes or at least change their policies. The problem with this response is that it allows too much. For it maintains that an activity does not intentionally target civilians if its goal is to topple regimes or at least change their policies. According to this view smashing aeroplanes into busy city buildings also may not intentionally target non-combatants. In fact, in both cases civilians are intentionally targeted as a means to affecting the policies of regimes.

The real problems with the argument lie elsewhere. First, even if one accepted the conditional nature of the principle of non-combatant immunity, it would only justify terrorist attacks sanctioned by those states that are the victims of the terrorism supported by Western states. Second, and most importantly, there are good reasons to think that the principle of non-combatant immunity is not as weak as the argument requires. Perhaps there are conceivable circumstances in which the principle has exceptions, but I have difficulty imagining realistic circumstances in which it has exceptions. The presumption in favour of non-combatant immunity is much higher than the argument requires, even if it is not quite indefeasible.

The standard reasons in favour of the principle of non-combatant immunity are twofold. One is opposition to using persons merely as a means. The other is that intentionally targeting civilians dramatically increases the misery of war. Perhaps cases are imaginable in which just the opposite is true. The possibility of such cases gives some reason to doubt the complete indefeasibility of the principle, at least if one allows that consequences matter. Still, the two reasons provide a very strong presumption in favour of the principle. And in the absence of arguments that honouring such a principle would result in catastrophic consequences, the principle stands. In the case of the 11 September attacks there is absolutely no reason to believe that the terrorist attacks were to prevent such consequences – indeed they wrought horrific consequences. So, the criticism fails.

4. There is insufficient evidence to establish Osama bin Laden’s responsibility.

This criticism of the claim that the war in Afghanistan satisfies the criterion of just cause accepts the general terms of the argument that just cause exists for the effort to prevent and deter further attacks of terror. The devil, the criticism maintains, is in the detail. The Bush administration has not been very concerned to make public evidence that would establish Osama bin Laden’s or Al Qaeda’s responsibility for the 11 September attacks. It has failed in this regard to take seriously the democratic requirement of justifying the war to the population, even if most of the population and press were generally not in the mood to demand a justification. Prime Minister Blair, on the other hand, has been especially eager to make the case, releasing a document summarising the evidence against bin Laden and Al Qaeda in October just prior to the beginning of the war, and an updated version later in November.

Of the two documents released by Blair, the earlier is the more important since what is at issue is whether there was sufficient evidence of the responsibility of bin Laden and Al Qaeda prior to the beginning of the war. The document claims to provide sufficient evidence of this and of the capacity for further attacks.[15] On a question as important as whether going to war is just, it would be unreasonable to adopt a stance that simply gave the British government the benefit of the doubt. One has to examine the evidence.

The case is made on the basis of several categories of evidence, including (1) historical evidence to establish a motive and a will for terrorist attacks against the US, (2) similarities between the 11 September attacks and previous attacks for which there is good evidence implicating bin Laden and Al Qaeda and (3) alleged actions and pronouncements directly implicating bin Laden and Al Qaeda in the 11 September attacks.

The evidence under the first two categories is much stronger than that under the third. With respect to motive, the document cites quotations by bin Laden, now in the public domain, to the effect that Muslims have a religious duty to terrorise Americans as a reprisal for the US presence in the Middle East.[16] It also contains public statements by bin Laden praising the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre as well as the attacks on US troops in Somalia in 1993 and on the US embassies in Kenyan and Tanzanian in 1998.[17]

The document also cites testimony and admissions linking bin Laden and Al Qaeda to the embassy bombings, the attack on the USS. Cole and a failed attempt on Los Angeles International Airport. One of the persons apprehended in the attack on the embassy in Kenya, Mohamed Sadeek Odeh, admitted personal involvement, and identified three others who intelligence authorities claim are members of Al Qaeda or Islamic Jihad. This later claim, however, has no independent confirmation and is therefore of questionable value in making a case against Al Qaeda.[18] Additionally intelligence reports claim that Odeh phoned a number in Yemen requesting money, and that that number was also used to contact bin Laden on the same day.[19] Stronger evidence is to be found in the statement of Khaflan Khamis Mohamed, arrested for the bombing of the embassy in Tanzania. Mr. Mohamed admitted membership in Al Qaeda.[20] Assuming Mr. Mohamed’s statement is credible, it is implausible that Al Qaeda would be behind only one of two embassy bombings on the same day. The surviving member of the two-person bombing-party on the embassy in Kenya, Al ‘Owali, identified the two commanders of the attack on the USS. Cole as participants in the east African embassy bombings.[21] So, there would appear to be a plausible evidentiary trail connecting Al Qaeda to the USS. Cole attack. Additionally, Ahmed Ressam, arrested crossing the border from Canada into the US with over 100 lbs. of bomb-making material admitted both to planning to set-off a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport and to having received training in Al Qaeda camps.[22]

The above evidence seems to demonstrate a will by Al Qaeda members to attack US sights, and a number of attempts to do so on fairly large scale although the scale pales in comparison to that of the 11 September attacks. The testimonials and admissions do not directly implicate bin Laden. The unconfirmed intelligence report of the phone call to him provides a fairly slender thread. However, since it is generally agreed that he is the leader of Al Qaeda, he can be implicated in conspiracies to attack the various targets through his leadership role. As the document states, there are additional similarities between the earlier attacks and the attacks of 11 September, namely the involvement of suicide missions, the coordination of attacks on the same day, the absence of warning and the existence of long-term planning.[23]

The third category, comprising evidence of actions and pronouncements directly implicating Al Qaeda members and bin Laden in the 11 September attacks, is generally weak. The document cites seven pieces of evidence in this regard:[24]

(i) The positive identification of at least three of the hijackers as associates of Al Qaeda.

The media has provided speculation about the identities of these three, but no independent confirmation of the claim.[25]


This existence of an anti-US and anti-Jewish propaganda campaign has been independently confirmed in the press, but not one threatening attacks.[26]

(iii) An assertion by bin Laden, prior to 11 September, that he was preparing for a major attack on the US

There is no further detail or evidence provided to support this claim. There was a rumour circulating in the media that bin Laden had tipped-off his mother just prior to the attacks. The veracity of this rumour has been challenged by independent media sources.[27] However, Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, claims that bin Laden’s followers warned his newspaper by telephone of a major attack three weeks in advance of 11 September.[28]

(iv) A warning to bin Laden associates to return to Afghanistan prior to 11 September.

I have found no independent confirmation of this claim in the media.

(v) Statements by bin Laden associates prior to 11 September providing the date of the attacks.

This also does not appear to have independent confirmation.

(vi) The identification of one of bin Laden’s closest associates as responsible for the attacks.

No further detail or evidence is provided to support this claim. There has been some speculation in the media about who this might be, but no independent confirmation.[29]

(vii) Evidence of a ‘very specific nature’ relating the guilt of bin Laden and his associates that is too sensitive to release publicly.

A worry that greater detail may compromise security sources may be the reason for the lack of detail. Apparently greater detail has withstood the scrutiny of the leaders of the two main opposition parties in Britain.[30] The impression this makes is likely to depend upon how predisposed one is to believe the proclamations of the government, the leaders of the ruling party, and the leaders of the main opposition parties; and any determination of whether one should be so predisposed would of necessity involve the examination of a number of historical cases.

The sort of examination referred to above, however, may be unnecessary. If the evidence provided under the first two categories discussed above is sufficient to establish that bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the probable causes of the 11 September attack, and if probable cause is the correct standard against which to measure the evidence, then a further examination of the evidence under the third category need not detain us.

What does the evidence of the first two categories establish? It establishes that bin Laden and Al Qaeda have the motivation and the will to carry out the 11 September attacks. This alone makes them suspect. The case is strengthened, however, by the resemblance of the 11 September attacks to previous attacks for which there is strong evidence of bin Laden’s and Al Qaeda’s responsibility. This still does not make it probable that they were responsible, for there may be other organisations with similar motives, capabilities and manners of attack that are at least as likely to have committed it. The final reason to believe that bin Laden and Al Qaeda are probably the cause is that there do not appear to be other non-state agents with the same combination of motives and capabilities. Much of the British government’s case necessarily rests on this point, and complete confidence in it would require a thorough examination of known terrorist organisations.[31] But it seems a plausible point. Hence, it appears probable that bin Laden and Al Qaeda are responsible for the 11 September attacks.

The remaining matter is the degree of proof required in order to establish just cause in the pursuit of suspected threats to security. In cases of requests for extradition, under US law the standard is probable cause, which can be establish by hearsay evidence and evidence not admissible in criminal matters.[32] Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not required to make the case for extraditing someone to stand trial. Although there was no extradition treaty between the US and Afghanistan, the US’s demand to handover bin Laden for trial was similar to the kinds of demands that are subject to the standard of probable cause in extradition treaties. Given the nature of the demand, it is reasonable to require nothing more than probable cause in this case.

It might be objected that before beginning a war greater certainty than probable cause should be required because it is in the nature of wars to cause great suffering especially to innocent persons.[33] There are several problems with this view. First, it would be inappropriate to require a showing of criminal guilt prior to a criminal trial. If this standard were to be required, there would be no reason to require a trial. In any case, a showing of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt must be the product of a process that fairly weighs the claims of the adversaries. Certitude beyond a reasonable doubt cannot properly be expected in the absence of a trial. Second, if probable cause is the appropriate standard in a request to hand over bin Laden and to dismantle Al Qaeda camps, then it would be inappropriate to require a higher standard in formulating a response to the failure to handover. Finally, a worry of eventual further attacks from those who were responsible for the attacks on 11 September seemed justified. Requiring a higher standard than probable cause would allow those who were the probable cause of that attack and who were quite possibly planning other attacks to remain free to do so, perhaps indefinitely.

To summarise, on the basis of only some the evidence provided by the British government and independently confirmed, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda can reasonably be thought to be the probable causes of the 11 September attacks; and this suffices to defend the justice of the cause of the war against the criticism that there is insufficient evidence of responsibility.

IV. A reasonable likelihood of success

The criterion of reasonable likelihood of success traditionally stipulates that wars can be justified only if the cause pursued is reasonably likely to be achieved. Assuming the war is justified only if it pursues a just cause, if the means of war are unlikely to achieve the end, then the war is unjust. In the case of the war in Afghanistan the just cause is to prevent and deter future attacks against US and other civilians. There are reasons to doubt the likelihood of success in this pursuit by means of a war.

One reason has to do with the nature of the enemy. By all accounts Al Qaeda is a highly decentralised organisation with autonomous cells in a large number of countries, perhaps as many as 34.[34] Thus, there is reason to worry about the organisation of reprisal attacks from multiple locations. These quite probably would require long-term planning. It may be responded that taking out the training camps in Afghanistan will prevent the education of additional terrorists. This, however, does nothing to prevent attacks from those who are already trained and operating in other countries.

Another reason to doubt the likelihood of success is that the deterrent force of the war is probably severely limited. The idea behind deterrence is that if there is a credible threat that the cost of certain kinds of actions is on the increase, the motivation to act in that manner may be lowered. The cost in this case is supposed to be death in warfare. It is, however, doubtful that death in warfare would be seen as a prohibitively high cost for members of terrorist organisations who are willing to engage in suicide missions. On the contrary, a military campaign may rather increase resentment within some quarters of Islam, thereby increasing the motivation for terrorist attacks. Admittedly, any speculation about the motives of possible terrorists will be more or less a priori. This is one of many uncertain judgements that we are stuck with in forecasting the likely responses to the war.

Perhaps the deterrence claim has greater force with respect to governments that may be considering allowing international terrorists refuge within their borders. If the war serves to deter other governments in this way, it may indirectly have some deterrent effect on members of terrorist organisations, insofar as other governments may be more willing to police them. Terrorists might nonetheless operate clandestinely within the borders of a state.

Even if the war’s preventive and deterrent effects are doubtful one might still wonder whether not going to war would be worse still. Perhaps, if the US did not go to war it would be as if it were declaring its impotence in protecting against terrorist threats and this would bring even more attacks than going to war. So, even if war is not likely to succeed in increasing security, it may be more likely than the alternatives; and perhaps this is enough to satisfy the moral requirement of likelihood of success.

Suppose that the claim about probabilities is true in this instance. Is the re-interpretation of the moral requirement plausible? It amounts to taking the criterion of likelihood of success in comparative terms: An option would satisfy the criterion even if its success were improbable because it is still more probable than the alternatives. In this case the high probability of great suffering caused by war, particularly in the attacked country, would be discounted against a low probability of success in increasing security for citizens in the attacking country. This view requires one to accept something like ChristopherBertram’s claim that states may weigh the interests of citizens differently from those of non-citizens. That claim, however, would permit wars simply in virtue of their service to citizens’ interests without any consideration of global justice. The danger of justifying wars of naked self-interest is one reason to think that states should not give different weight to different persons’ interests depending on their citizenship status. If states should not do this, it is hard to see how a war that is likely to fail and likely to produce a great deal of suffering in another state can be justified on the basis of the interests of the citizens of the warring state.

The claim that states may not weigh the interests of persons differently on the basis of their citizenship is compatible with the claim that states may have special responsibilities to their citizens. A state may be primarily responsible for the security interests of its own citizens, although responsible for the security interests of non-citizens if their state fails to protect them.[35] But unless a state may merely discount the interests of non-citizens, it may not engage in a war that is likely to fail simply because it is more likely than other alternatives to succeed in the pursuit of a just cause.

A more promising response to the doubts about likelihood success is to re-interpret the criterion with an additional requirement. One might claim that a war that is more likely than other options to succeed and that is not reasonably likely to fail meets the criterion, at least in cases where the cause presents a grave danger. This version of the criterion does not require weighing peoples’ interests unequally since a likely loss is not to be pursued at the expense of the interests of non-citizens. Such an interpretation may be necessary if the European war against Nazi Germany is to be found to be just prior to the entrance of the Soviet Union.

I have some sympathy with the relaxing of the constraint of likelihood of success to this limited degree. In the case of the war in Afghanistan it would require showing that resorting to war was more likely to succeed than other alternatives. Non-belligerent means were being pursued. UN Security Council Resolution 1373 required extensive counter terrorist efforts of member states. Intelligence and police operations were underway and showing some success in Europe. The financial assets of Al Qaeda were being frozen. Diplomatic efforts with Afghanistan to have bin Laden tried might have born some success.

However, the most difficult matter to be handled peacefully probably would have been the destruction of Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan since the Taliban seemed to rely on the assistance of Al Qaeda to maintain control over the country. Because we are dealing with empirical and counterfactual forecasts with few analogies to past experience, there is room for reasonable disagreement. Certainly diplomatic efforts to achieve the destruction of the training camps would have been worth the effort, but it is hard to be very optimistic about how successful they would have been. There is a basis then for believing that the war satisfies the re-interpreted criterion of reasonable likelihood of success.

Even if there are grounds for believing that the war meets the (re-interpreted) criterion of reasonable likelihood of success in the short-term. Over the long-term the effort to reduce terrorism of which the war is a part is much more likely to fail if the war serves to build additional resentment against the US. Perhaps the war may succeed in the short-term, but produce a longer-term failure. Once again we are engaged in speculative forecasts. It would seem that resentment could be limited to some degree if three policy restrictions were observed. First, counter-terrorist wars should seek multi-lateral legitimacy. Second, they should scrupulously observe the requirements of jus in bello. And third they should be accompanied by a more just US foreign policy. With respect to the latter, consider US support for the sanctions against Iraq and the policies of Israel. Even if we assume that there is a just cause for intervention against Iraq in the pursuit of deterring its manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, the means of sanctions are massively disproportionate. These sanctions have killed more non-combatants than all use of weapons of mass destructions combined.[36] Additionally, the US has remained steadfastly solicitous of Israel despite its direct and indirect involvement in a host of human rights violations, including the forced removal of Arabs, the occupation of territories, the destruction of Palestinian residences, the massacres in Lebanon, and the torture of detainees.

V. Proportionality

A judgement of proportionality depends in large part upon a judgement of just cause and likelihood of success. Is going to war (within the constraints of jus in bello) likely to result in less over all injustice? This depends in part on whether the cause is just and success is likely. The additional consideration introduced by proportionality concerns the overall moral costs of success.[38]

Whether the war in Afghanistan meets the requirement of proportionality would appear to depend on whether it meets the requirement reasonable likelihood of success. If it is likely to fail, it is not likely to result in a net gain for justice. One might respond that the war satisfies proportionality independently of likelihood of success. For if it was reasonably likely to cause the collapse of the Taliban, a brutally unjust regime, this might be counted as a gain for justice, and perhaps a reason to think that proportionality could be satisfied independently of reasonable likelihood of success in combating terrorism.

The problem with this view is that it was not at all clear just prior to the war that a new regime would offer much improvement on the injustices of the Taliban. Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch were warning the US against alliances with many of the Northern Alliance leaders who were blamed for several attacks on civilians, summary executions, rampages and widespread rapes.[39] Prior to the US military response the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan were sceptical of its results and equally critical of the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.[40] So, at the time, there was reason to doubt that the collapse of the Taliban would improve the situation much. Therefore, proportionality could not be satisfied independently reasonable likelihood of success.

VI. Last resort

The criterion of last resort requires that reasonable measures be taken to seek the achievement of the just cause of the war through non-violent means. It does not require that belligerents take all conceivable measures, no matter the time spent or the opportunities lost. Last resort in this case, then, should be understood as the last resort for preventing and deterring additional terrorist attacks.

The several weeks between the terrorist attacks of 11 September and the initiation of the aerial campaign offered ample time to pursue a diplomatic solution that may have prevented the war. Since the US did not have an extradition treaty with Afghanistan, there is reason to believe sensitive bilateral diplomacy would be required in order to achieve the extradition of those believed to be responsible for the attacks. In fact, however, the US never sought bilateral discussions with the Taliban. They were content merely to work with the Pakistani intermediary. Of course, Pakistan, and not the US, had diplomatic relations with the Taliban, but this need not have prevented the US from seeking discussions.

Any contention that bilateral discussions were certain to fail seem facile in the face of the horrors that war unleashes.[41] Moreover, there is some evidence that the Taliban may have been in the mood for compromise. There were reports of defections in their ranks;[42] and they had shown signs of willingness to make concessions. Immediately preceding the aerial campaign they expressed a willingness to talk about having bin Laden tried in Afghanistan or even a third country;[43] they released British journalist Yvonne Ridley;[44] and they offered to release 18 foreign aid workers.[45] The biggest sticking point probably would have been the dismantling of Al Qaeda training camps. But an appropriate regard for the moral costs of war requires making even improbable attempts to prevent it where the costs of doing so are not prohibitive. Since US made no attempts at bilateral diplomacy, it seems reasonable to conclude that the war in Afghanistan is not a war of last resort.

VII. Before and after the beginning

I have argued that the war in Afghanistan meets the criterion of just cause. Whether it satisfies the criterion of reasonable likelihood of success is less clear, but this looks plausible in the short-term at least if the criterion is re-interpreted. However, any confidence in the long-term success of the effort to reduce terrorism of which the war is a part would certainly be strengthened if the war were not largely a unilateral effort, if it were conducted justly, and if it were accompanied by a more just US foreign policy. In the absence of these, the war is less likely to bring long-term security and may generate additional resentment. The war’s satisfaction of proportionality depends upon its satisfaction of reasonable likelihood of success. Finally, the war was not one of last resort. Since the four criteria are necessary conditions of the justice of war, resorting to war was unjust. Still, some restraint in the moral condemnation of the war may be in order.

Unlike an assessment of just cause, assessments of reasonable likelihood of success, proportionality, and last resort require extensive empirical speculation concerning what might have happened if a different policy had been pursued and what still might happen as a result of the chosen policy. Facing up to this, I think, requires accepting that there is probably room for reasonable disagreement. Once one accepts that the cause of a war is just, any further criticism of the war has to be tempered by the fact that remaining judgements are not about matters in which a great degree of certainty can be had.

Additionally, a judgement that resorting to war was unjust does not entail that it should have been halted once it began and before it had been given a reasonable chance to achieve its objectives. Bertram thinks that this is a ‘weird’ claim. I think that there is a simple, but important, moral reason for this: Once one engages upon an unjust course of action, one acquires responsibility for events set in motion that would not otherwise have occurred. This responsibility may require seeing through a course of action that it would have been better not to have started. There are three reasons to think that once the war had been started the second best course of action may have been to give it time to meet its objectives within the constraints of the just conduct of war. First, since the cause is just, the achievement of its goal would be a moral good. Second, if the war only fails with respect to last resort, there may be no way after war has begun, and before the Taliban’s military defeat is immanent, to reconstruct the negotiating opportunities lost by going to war. Third, in entering an on going civil war, the US and its allies owed a duty to those who had come to rely on them for survival. Pulling-out of the war may well have left many people exposed to hostility. These reasons would not entail that the war should have been pursued indefinitely if it had become clear that its objectives could not be met. If it is clear that a war cannot succeed in its cause, then it should be halted in a manner that honours the responsibilities the belligerent party has assumed in engaging in the war.

In the end my conclusion is an uncomfortably mixed one: Resorting to war in Afghanistan may have been unjust although I concede that the reasons for believing this do not offer the kind of certainty of belief that we would like to guide our actions. Moreover, once the war began it may have been the lesser of two evils. One larger moral of this story is that when a cause is just, the left’s evaluation of the war should be both sensitive to the amount of speculation that is necessarily involved in much of the remaining evaluation of the war and flexible enough to consider the important moral change that an unjust war may bring about.


* This symposium on September 11th and the war in Afghanistan consists of three papers. Although the papers by Christopher Bertram and Saladin Meckled-Garcia were originally drafted as responses to an initial piece by Darrel Moellendorf, Moellendorf has revised his paper in the light of their responses and they have also revised in the light of his. The accounts for oddities of cross-reference. Bertram and Meckled-Garcia have not responded to one another’s papers, which are each directed at Moellendorf’s.

[1] An earlier version of this paper was presented at a Hoernlé research seminar in the Philosophy Department of the University of the Witwatersrand. I am grateful to participants for the many helpful comments. I would also like to thank the editors of Imprints for giving me this opportunity to think through my confused thoughts on the war in the context of a lively debate, ChristopherBertram and Saladin Meckled-Garcia for their thought provoking responses and for allowing me to revise in light of their own papers, and Thad Metz, Michael Pendlebury, and Kok-Chor Tan for advice on an earlier draft.

[2] A defence of this view can be found in Robert Holmes, On War and Morality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

[3] I discuss the pacifist position at greater length in Cosmopolitan Justice (Boulder: Westview Press, 2002), chp. 7.

[4] Cf. Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy (London: Merlin Press, 1976); Rudolf Hilferding, Finance Capital (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981); J.A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (London: James Nisbet and Co., 1902); and V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Collected Works, vol. 19, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964) and Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1963).

[5] The classic texts in underdevelopment theory are Paul A. Baran, The Political Economy Of Growth (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1978), Arghiri Emmanuel, Unequal Exchange (London: Monthly Review Press, 1972), Andre Gunder Frank, Capitalism And Underdevelopment in Latin America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969) and Immanuel Wallerstein, The Capitalist World-Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[6] Consider article two of the United Nations Charter: ‘2(4) All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.’ Leland M. Goodrich, et al., Charter of the United Nations, 3rd edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), p. 60. In fairness, there is a very extensive debate in the literature about whether 2(4) would sanction unilateral interventions that do not violate territorial integrity and political sovereignty but promote justice. For representative samples of the negative answer cf. Michael Akehurst, ‘Humanitarian Intervention,’ in Hedley Bull (ed.) Intervention in World Politics (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1984), pp. 95-118; and Ian Brownlie, ‘Humanitarian Intervention’, in John Norton Moore (ed.) Law and Civil War in the Modern World (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), pp. 217-228. For representative samples of the affirmative answer cf. Richard B. Lillich, ‘Humanitarian Intervention: A Reply to Ian Brownlie and a Plea for Constructive Alternatives’, Law and Civil War in the Modern World, pp. 229-251; and Fernando R. Tesón, Humanitarian Intervention, 2nd edition (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Transnational Publishers, Inc., 1997).

[7] The concept of the basic structure is set out by John Rawls. He takes the basic structure to be ‘the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of political advantages for social cooperation.’ Among major social institutions Rawls includes ‘the political constitution and principal economic and social arrangements.’ John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, revised edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 6.

[8] For a longer discussion of this principle see my Cosmopolitan Justice, chp. 5

[9] For a recent example see Peter Popham’s ‘Taliban is a “monster hatched by the US”’, Independent, 17 September 2001.

[10] ‘Osama bin Laden: The Truth about the world’s most wanted man’, Independent, 16 September 2001.

[11] Although not subscribing to the exclusivity of imperialist intentions, George Monibot argues for the motivational importance of central Asian oil reserves in ‘America’s Pipe Dream: The war against terrorism is also a struggle for oil and regional control’, Guardian, 23 September 2001.

[12] See also C.A.J. Coady, ‘The Morality of Terrorism’, Philosophy, vol. 60, no. 1, (1985), pp. 47-69.

[13] For a defence of the conditional nature of non-combatant immunity see George I. Mavrodes, ‘Conventions and the Morality of War’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 4, no. 2 (1975), pp. 117-131.

[14] John Mueller and Karl Mueller, ‘Sanctions of Mass Destruction’, Foreign Affairs, 78:3, May/June, 1999, p.49.

[15] Responsibility For The Terrorist Atrocities In The United States, 11 September 2001, 4 Oct. 2001. Available at

[16] Ibid, secs. 22 and 54.

[17] Ibid. However, in this regard it is noteworthy that although the document claims that bin Laden has taken responsibility for the Somalia and embassy attacks, it does not adequately substantiate that claim. See the claim is made at sec. 4.

[18] Ibid, sec. 47.

[19] Ibid, sec. 46.

[20] Ibid, secs. 47-48.

[21] Ibid, sec. 58.

[22] Ibid, sec. 55.

[23] Ibid. sec. 5.

[24] Ibid, secs. 61-62.

[25] For an example of some of the speculation see Julian Borger, Giles Foden and Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Does it make him guilty of terror attacks?’, Guardian, 5 October 2001 and Chris Blackhurst, ‘Missing: Crucial facts from the official charge sheet against Bin Laden’, Independent, 7 October 2001.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] ‘US suspects Osama bin Laden’, Business Day, 12 September 2001.

[29] See Borger et al. and Blackhurst for some of the speculation.

[30] ‘The evidence would not convict in court – but it does justify a limited war,’ Independent, 5 October 2001.

[31] Responsibility For The Terrorist Atrocities In The United States, 11 September 2001, sec. 69.

[32] Jordan Puast, et al., International Criminal Law (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press), p. 320.

[33] One call for proof can be found in Chris Blackhurst’s, ‘Missing: Crucial facts from the official charge sheet against Bin Laden.’

[34] ‘Bin laden active in 34 nations’, Business Day, 14 September 2001 and Maurice Tamman, ‘Al Qaeda’s web remains a threat, experts warn’, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 12 December 2001.

[35] See Robert E. Goodin, ‘What Is So Special About Our Fellow Countrymen?’, Ethics, vol. 98, no. 4, (1988), pp. 663-686.

[36] John Mueller and Karl Mueller, ‘Sanctions of Mass Destruction.’

[37] For one account of the causes of US solicitude towards Israel see Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle (Boston: South End Press, 1983), chp. 2.

[38] I did not clearly see the manner in which consideration of proportionality incorporates considerations from just cause and likelihood of success in Cosmopolitan Justice, p. 120.

[39] ‘Rights Group Cautions Against US Siding with Afghans Tied to Abuses’, The Los Angeles Times, 7 Oct. 2001.

[40] ‘Taliban should be overthrown by the uprising of Afghan nation’, RAWA statement on the US strikes on Afghanistan, 4 Oct. 2001,

[41] There was no way to know at the time how many Afghani civilians would die as the result of the war, and there are still no firm estimates in the public record, but some Médècins San Frontières workers estimate the dead to be between 2,000 and 3,000. See Ian Taylor, ‘Afghans are dying, but who’s counting?’, Mail and Guardian, 15-21 Feb. 2002

43" name="_ftn43" title="">[42] ‘Another way of winning’, Guardian, 6 Oct. 2001.

[43]Taliban ‘will try Bin Laden if US provides the evidence’, Guardian, 5 Oct. 2001.

[44] ‘British journalist to freed by Taliban’, Independent, 6 Oct. 2001.

[45] ‘Taliban’s last-minute offer fails to halt inevitable’, Independent, 8 Oct. 2001.