❄ Afghanistan: war of choice? necessity?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

❄ Afghanistan: war of choice? necessity?

In an op-ed in the New York Times [Note 1] Richard N. Haass defines the current Afghan War as a ‘war of choice’, not a ‘war of necessity’, disagreeing with Barack Obama’s statement on 17 August that “We must never forget. This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity.” What’s odd about this op-ed is that Haass claims the US move to “oust the Taliban” after 9.11 was necessary, that today the Afghan War is war of choice, but that the United States should “proceed, for now, with Mr. Obama’s measured strategy.” How does he accomplish this sleight of hand?

Haass offers a doubtful definition of a ‘war of necessity’. “Wars of necessity,” he tells us, “must meet two tests. They involve, first, vital national interests and, second, a lack of viable alternatives to the use of military force to protect those interests.” ‘Involve’ is inordinately vague. The phrase ‘vital national interests’ does not identify objective facts, but rather claims made by advocates of force in a given circumstance. And whether there are ‘viable alternatives’ usually requires trying means short of war, before it’s even possible to conclude that those means will fail.

But he’s on the right track. Better criteria would be that [a] the country (including appurtances, such as shipping and military forces lawfully abroad) had been attacked, or was the known object of imminent attack, and [b] that methods of dissuasion or defence short of war had been tried and proven insufficient. A ‘war of necessity’ in this vein requires either having been attacked or its equivalent [that the precondition in international law for ‘preemptive war’, sure knowledge that an attack is imminent, is met]. Anything less is a ‘war of choice’ and is forbidden by the UN Charter and customary international law.

But Haass is not interested in the law. He centers his gaze on ‘interests’. He tells us “wars of choice are not inherently good or bad.” What then are the criteria by which to judge whether to launch a ‘war of choice’? “It depends on whether military involvement would probably accomplish more than it would cost and whether employing force is more promising than the alternatives.” In other words, war is just another instrument of realpolitik. Cost will be weighed against geopolitical profit. That is, foreseen cost will be weighed against imagined profit. Does war, for Haass, impose human costs on those ordered to fight and the people living where it is waged? War is rarely “promising” for the fighters or the men, women and children among whom it is fought, which is one reason why the strictures against launching a ‘war of choice’ are so severe.

Advocates and apologists of wars often argue that there was no other choice. “In the wake of 9/11, invading Afghanistan was a war of necessity. The United States needed to act in self-defense to oust the Taliban. There was no viable alternative.” So Haass asserts, but there are problems. The Taliban did not attack the United States and there is no evidence it intended to do so: so much for ‘self-defence’. [Note 2] It is often forgotten that the GW Bush Administration, immediately after 9.11, asked the Taliban to surrender bin Laden to the United States. [Note 3] The Taliban refused. Had the Taliban agreed, it could not have been pictured as a ‘terrorist’ enemy, part of ‘Al Qaeda and those who harbor it’. In my view, given the 9.11 attack the United States had a perfect right to pursue and suppress Al Qaeda by force of arms, and would have been correct to resist any effort by the Taliban to prevent it from doing so. But neither 9.11, nor prudence, justified more. What then happened? The White House failed to close on Al Qaeda’s high command, which apparently took refuge in Pakistan, as 9.11 reprisal was transformed into an eight-year-long anti-Taliban Afghan War. The claim that “there was no viable alternative” in Afghanistan was never canvassed on the ground.

To Haass’ credit, he writes that the United States “must undertake regular, rigorous assessments of whether these efforts are bearing fruit or are likely to. If it appears they are not, the president should roll back the combat role or withdraw militarily.” He calls Afghanistan today a ‘war of choice’ and adopts a position consistent with his general view of such wars which is, it seems, that war’s ok if you can gain something by it.


[Note 1] Richard N. Haass, “In Afghanistan, the Choice is Ours.” The New York Times, 21 August 2009. Dr. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations (New York and Washington, DC). From January 2001 to June 2003 he was director of policy planning in the US Department of State.

[Note 2] Within a few hours of the 9.11 attack the senior Taliban spokesman in Kandahar, Abdul Hai Mutmain, met with foreign reporters and said “We are confident that if a fair investigation is carried out by American authorities, the Taliban will not be found guilty of involvement in such cowardly acts.” Barry Bearak, “AFTER THE ATTACKS: THE AFGHANS; Taliban Plead for Mercy to the Miserable in a Land of Nothing,” The New York Times, 13 September 2001.

[Note 3] See John F. Burns, “A NATION CHALLENGED: LAST CHANCE; Taliban Refuse Quick Decision Over bin Laden,”, The New York Times, 18 September 2001.

[Bruce’s Blog: 2009.08.22 Post: B04 Short Link: P=22 Front Door Index: http://blog.learnworld.com Permalink: http://www.learnworld.com/BRUCE/uncategorized/❄-afghanistan-war-of-choice-necessity/]


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