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On The Contemporary Nature Of Just Wars

On The Contemporary Nature Of Just Wars


Paul G. Buchanan
12-19-04

Revelations that the SAS detachment to Afghanistan received a US presidential unit citation for its actions as part of the multinational task force supporting nation-building and counter-terror operations in that country have occasioned varying responses from the New Zealand political spectrum. On the one hand, conservative commentators wax poetic over the great job the boys of the SAS are doing in the war on terror. That may be true, but in reality presidential unit citations are relatively minor honours given as standard procedure for the successful completion of assigned operational tasks, in this case within the boundaries of a larger coalition mandate that involves military forces from several nations (and not, as some have said, for the individual accomplishments of the NZSAS). Thus pride in the SAS may be over-inflated given the realities of the situation, although it certainly should reaffirm public faith in the competence of New Zealand’s best fighting force. Not surprisingly, given the NZSAS track record, conservatives call for the New Zealand commitment of combat troops to be extended to the “other” war on terrorism, in Iraq, in what they see as an extension of the just fight against global Islamicism.

In contrast, left-leaning observers point to the Labour government’s apparent embarrassment at news of the commendation, denouncing it as evidence of New Zealand complicity in the “dirty” war conducted by the US military in Afghanistan. For these pundits the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are equivalent, both being instances of US imperialist aggression against the civilian populations of selectively targeted failed states. This is why they believe the government should be ashamed about New Zealand involvement in Afghanistan (and its recently concluded operational deployment of military engineers to Basra). In their mind the overseas combat force commitment (as opposed to peace-keeping duties) should be reduced, not expanded.

Both views are wrong because they fail to address the nature of just and unjust wars in the contemporary geo-strategic context. To give background to the issue, consider what guerrilla strategist par excellance, Mao Zedong, defined as just versus unjust wars. In his reckoning “just” wars were those involved in anti-imperialist struggles, the so-called wars of national liberation. “Unjust” wars were all other conflicts, especially imperialist or colonial wars of conquest. The simplicity of such reasoning allowed Mao to recruit vast numbers of people to the Peoples Popular Army, which ended its famed Long March with the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China (now the emerging superpower of the 21st century). However simplistic, his definition had the virtue of moral clarity and ideological appeal to a target audience, and may in fact be the definition that the Iraqi resistance and jihadis the world over are currently using.

For contemporary Western strategists the issue is slightly more complicated. “Just” wars are usually considered those that have majority international backing, specifically those that the UN Security Council and General Assembly have voted to authorize on humanitarian grounds or because of pressing urgency to counter universally recognized security threats. Recent multilateral military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and East Timor fall under that criteria. Contrary to what the political Left claim, the Afghan exercise in post-conflict nation building is much more this type of UN-directed exercise than it is an excuse for a bloodthirsty US military to kill innocent civilians. To be sure, the bulk of counter-insurgency operations against al-Qaeda remnants and Taliban diehards are directed by US military commanders, but that was part of the bargain when NATO agreed to assume control of security operations earlier this year. As it stands, in spite of ongoing combat operations along the Pakistani border, episodic flare-ups with warlords and drug barons, and sporadic kidnapping and killing of foreigners, nation-building under UN supervision in Afghanistan continues to move apace in what heretofore has been a barren political landscape devoid of hope when it came to peace, prosperity and social equality for its citizens. Although there has been a civilian price to pay in the Afghan “pacification” operations, it is arguably less costly than that paid under Taliban rule, and has the potential for far greater returns when it comes to the welfare of the entire Afghan population.

Under contemporary notions of international justice, wars that are engaged without international approval, defined as a majority vote of the UN Security Council and/or General Assembly, are classified as “unjust.” In that light, the US doctrine of unilateral pre-emption, which offered a rationale for the invasion and occupation of Iraq in pursuit of “regime change,” is the strategic blueprint for unjust war. That the US tried hard to cloak its decision to invade Iraq with compelling security rationales—the elusive weapons of mass destruction poised to strike on 30 minutes notice, the ethereal links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda—is proof that it was cognizant of the moral speciousness of the real reasons it had for going to war. Hence, as the diminishing numbers of members in the “Coalition for the Willing” demonstrate, the absence of a broadly accepted rationale for invading and occupying Iraq has led to a generalized view that the US attack on Iraq was unjust. True, Saddam was a very bad dictator who committed numerous atrocities and other horrible acts. But there are plenty more like him who do not incur the US wrath, and some of whom are supported by it. Thus the seemingly hypocritical pursuit of forcible regime change in Iraq is, by most international standards, unjust.

Arguments that the war in Afghanistan is “dirty” only confuse the issue. “Dirty” wars are campaigns of state terror against civilian populations. They are designed to psychologically and physically destroy popular resistance to dictatorial regimes. Practiced in places like Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and Iraq in the 1970s and 1980s (all, as it turns out, by regimes that received US support), and by the Indonesian Army and militias in East Timor in the 1990s, “dirty” wars contravene the basic tenets of the Laws of War because they are not military confrontations. Instead, they are state-sanctioned mass murder and torture on grand scale. They are illegal wars by states against their own subjects.

No one can credibly argue that this is what is occurring in Afghanistan. Nor is credible to claim that the ugly armed struggle unfolding in Iraq is akin to a “dirty war,” reports of war crimes in Falluja notwithstanding. If nothing else, this is because there are at least two recognized belligerents in Iraq, with the unconventional resistance more prone to attacking civilian targets than the military occupiers. Thus, in Afghanistan the conflict is just and relatively “clean” by international standards, whereas in Iraq, although unjust and ugly, the conflict is nowhere close to being a “dirty” war.

All of this is water under the bridge. The issue now is how to make the most of a bad situation in Iraq, one that promotes peace and stability in the nearest term possible. Here Afghanistan may serve as an example, admitting the very different geopolitical realities between the two countries. More specifically, notwithstanding the seemingly unjust nature of the invasion of Iraq, what can be universally recognized, and thus be considered a “just” intervention, is the reconstitution of Iraq as an independent state free from foreign military occupation. Even the US has posited this as an achievable goal.

It is incumbent upon the larger international community, in spite of the scandals that beset the UN leadership, to begin to relieve the US of the burden of national reconstruction in Iraq. Afghanistan is the model for doing so, and New Zealand can have a strong role to play in that process because it is seen as a relatively neutral honest broker not beholden to the strategic interests of the Bush administration or the Islamicist cause, with a commendable record of achievement in UN mandated multilateral peace-keeping and nations building operations. As it stands, NATO has begun to increase its military training assistance to Iraqi defense forces, and there is hope that UN humanitarian teams can begin to return to Iraq in increased numbers once the security situation begins to stabilize—assuming that it does.

With a broader basis of multinational support for post-conflict nation-building gradually replacing the security conditions required to hold Iraqi national elections early in 2005 (and which can be used as an incentive for the holding of such), it is possible that a strategy and timetable for foreign disengagement can be devised that satisfies the concerns of all involved. Otherwise the conflict in Iraq will remain an attritional contest of factional violence and will with no end in sight. For the common Iraqi’s who are the people most affected, that is the gravest injustice of all. The Afghans can attest to that.


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Paul G. Buchanan is the Director of the Working Group on Alternative Security Perspectives at the University of Auckland.

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