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Ethical appraisal of the Afghanistan War

https://global-strategy.org/ethical-appraisal-of-the-afghanistan-war/ Ethical appraisal of the Afghanistan War 2021-02-19 11:41:34 Juan José De Arriba Muñoz Blog post War Studies Afganistán Asia Central Ética
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Afghanistan has been a country marked for several civil wars. In the 1960s and early 1970s the Soviet Union made inroads in Afghanistan. The internal struggle of Afghanistan was manifested in the 1973 coup by Mohammad Daoud, the subsequent Communist coup of 1978 and Soviet invasion of 1979, and the decade of a bloody war that destroyed the country in the 1980s[1]. During this decade, Pakistan became the third leading recipient of American foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt. With the end of the Soviet Union itself, the US began to immediately pull back from its extensive involvement in the region and cut off all assistance to Pakistan.

The Taliban emerged in the summer of 1994 near Kandahar. Trained in Pakistan, the Taliban gained control rapidly of almost all of Afghanistan, capturing Kabul in September 1996. When the Taliban gained Jalalabad that year, they began a partnership with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization based in that area.

In 1999, the UN imposed an air embargo and financial sanctions to force Afghanistan to hand over Osama bin Laden. Over the next few years, the Taliban–al-Qaeda nexus became more intolerant of Afghanistan’s northern minorities, and larger numbers of Pakistani “volunteers” joined the movement. Al-Qaeda became increasingly aggressive, targeting the U.S. in several high-profile operations[2]. The high point was the 9/11 attacks on American soil.

Ethical implications

The previous context is important because first, the UN already knew about the intentions of Osama Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda group; second, the country had a long story of invasions and bloody wars in the 20th century.

From the jus Ad Bellum perspective, the US intervention in Afghanistan took place only under Article 51 of the UN, which said that “right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations” but retain the actions until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. The decision to go to war and respond to the attack was taken. However, it was not taken under the right authority, the UNSC Resolution of the day after the attacks allowed “to combat by all means threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts”, but nowhere in the resolution allowed an invasion. No invasion was legitimized[3]. The threat of further acts of terrorism became increasingly imminent in the days following 9/11 and was the reason given as a last resort. Afghanistan as a sponsored state governed by the Taliban was giving shelter to al-Qaeda, required an immediate intervention.

Regarding jus In Bello, the proportionality in the conflict has been hardly criticized. In the first part of the war, the immediateness of the intervention was considered a physical retaliation instead a self-defense operation, arguing that the Art 2.3 of the UN was not taken seriously[4]. The level of force applied was debatable and in the last years of war after the surge, the attacks were notably increased, reaching the limits with the Obama administration and Resolute Support Operation. Nonetheless, the coalition means were not disproportionate in figures from the military side of the operation.

The force was applied as humanely as possible, although Human Right Watch (HRW) reported some cases of US forces abuses during arrests; arbitrary arrests and indefinite detention; and mistreatment in detention (in addition to Guantanamo Bay cases). The civilian casualties due to collateral damage or incorrect targeting were assumed in the first part of the conflict, but from the year 2009, the topic was addressed by the US administration and the UN[5] encouraging troops to minimize casualties to not lose the support of the population.

The net benefit of the war has been one of the controversial topics in the ethical audit. The Afghan intervention was very ambitious: to halt the Taliban regime, to defeat al-Qaeda and their allies; to set up a democratic government; to promote development, security, and human rights; in a drug-lord tribal scenario. The costs of the military campaign have been enormous. The US spent $686 billion on the operation up to 2014[6]. The cost in lives has been high also, the US reported 2353[7] casualties from a total of 3577[8] casualties, an excessive burden for the US. The US put great effort into the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The PRTs were born, developed, and expanded in 2003-2004 to the east and south of the country where the presence of the Taliban was higher. They were a tool to foster reconstruction and development, enhance security, and expand the footprint of the Afghan government. The Afghan National Army, the education, and the trade market made little progress. Even with these efforts, Afghanistan is located today in position 169 of the HDI[9] index of the UN and classified as “Low Human Development”.

In the Afghanistan postbellum scenario, it can be argued that the main benefit of extending the war was achieved by some corporations or even administrations. For instance, Lockheed Martin recorded net profits of $2.7 billion in 2011[10].

The initial idea of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) was to limit the size and intrusiveness of the US. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, all the indicators suggested that the outcome of the war is going to change. Today, twenty years after, it seems fair to point out that neither benefit nor objectives have been achieved. How can a war that was designed as a quick reaction war achieved twenty years of history? The Taliban gained control of certain parts of the country in 2006 and continued seizing the country.

As a response to the resurgence, Obama ordered a significant troop surge, without tangible results. Another consequence of such a long war is the anti-American effect or “blowback”, a term used by Kenneth Anderson[11]. The standing long-presence of US troops in the country, the collateral damages, and the lack of results make the local communities even more fertile ground for anti-American operations.

About the exit plans, most of the nations started to withdraw troops in 2011/2012 arguing that the goals were achieved[12]. NATO forces and the US remained in the country as trainers and advisers. Without peace on the horizon, it is surprising that the highest number of drone strikes were in the period Sep.2018-Nov.2019. In 2018, the Taliban demanded the US as its counterpart for peace negotiations instead of the Afghan administration. After completing eight meetings between the US and Taliban, it was announced that the parties were close to a deal. Negotiations restarted in December 2019, which ended with the decision of an active cease-fire under the context of “reduction in violence.”. Finally, a peace deal was signed on Saturday, Feb 29, 2020. The original cause and purpose have been forgotten and the reasons for intervening in Afghanistan are still present today. The US and the International community were not able of building durable or lasting peace and security supported by human development.


The ethical audit of the Afghanistan War would not obtain a passing grade. First, in the rush to intervene in the country, the invasion took place under no UNSC resolution or international agreement. The conflict started as a race against terrorism intervening without the right authority, and with a shallow operation not addressing the real problems of the country. Second, it was a twenty-year lasting conflict in which the military and civilian casualties on both sides exceed the affordable figures. The existence of abuses during arrests; indefinite detention; and mistreatment in detention, in conjunction with the excessive fatalities demonstrate that the right conduct appears not to have been exercised by the coalition. Third, the last resort discourse was built alleging immediate further attacks, but to what extent all other means of conflict resolution have been exhausted? As we have seen, the efforts made pre-and post-war towards reconstructing the country and looking for peace negotiations were not sufficient.

Lastly, eradicate the axis of evil[13] requires a set of measures. Afghanistan war should have been a counterinsurgency war focused on PRTs as much as defeating al-Qaeda. Leaving an autonomous country able to fight terrorism and corruption should have been the postbellum scenario desired since the beginning. However, “when failure became inevitable, US leaders did not look for an acceptable off-ramp, and the public did not pressure them to do so”[14].

[1] An enormous number of Afghans died during the Soviet invasion (1978 -1989); reasonable estimates a minimum of 500,000. World Peace Foundation. “Afghanistan: Soviet Invasion and Civil War,” August 7, 2015. https://sites.tufts.edu/atrocityendings/2015/08/07/afghanistan-soviet-invasion-civil-war/

[2] The worst attack took place in the US Embassy in Nairobi. Cooke, Cassandra (2017) “Remembering the 1998 Embassy Bombings – United States Department of State.” US Department of State. https://www.state.gov/remembering-the-1998-embassy-bombings-2/

[3] The UNSC established the ISAF mission in December 2001.

[4] Art 2.3 Un Chart – International disputes must be resolved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

[5] UN Tactical Directive of 9 July 2009 providing guidance and intent for the employment of force. https://www.nato.int/isaf/docu/official_texts/Tactical_Directive_090706.pdf

[6] Belasco, Amy (2009) The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11, Congressional Research Service, Report RL33110, 15 May, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf;

[7] US Dept of Defense (2020), Casualty Status. https://www.defense.gov/casualty.pdf 

[8] Iraq Coalition Casualty Count (2020) http://icasualties.org/App/AfghanFatalities

[9] Human Development Index (HDI): A composite index measuring average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development – a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living.

Source: UNDP 2020.

[10] Weigley, Samuel. (2013) “10 Companies Profiting the Most from War.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network. https://eu.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2013/03/10/10-companies-profiting-most-from-war/1970997/

[11] Anderson, Kenneth. (2013) “The Case for Drones” Commentary.


[12] The transition process was completed and Afghan forces assumed full security responsibility at the end of 2014 when the ISAF mission was completed.

[13] Bush, George W. (2002), President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address, US Congress.

[14] Cofman, Tamara, and Kevin Huggard. (2019). “The Lessons of the Afghanistan Papers.” Brookings.


Juan José De Arriba Muñoz

Piloto de F-18. Profesor Asociado de la Universidad de Navarra. Máster en Relaciones Internacionales por Johns Hopkins School of Advance International Studies

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