Weighing war in Afghanistan on a moral scale

US officers appear to be duly considering questions related to 'just war' as military action proceeds.

As US warplanes intensify their strikes on Taliban and terrorist forces with increasingly lethal and close-range firepower, few question the preponderance of American military superiority.

US commanders this week declared the Taliban combat power "eviscerated" and noted that the Afghan militias were often failing to return fire from stepped-up attacks, which brought to well over 2,000 the number of bombs and missiles shot.

Yet in the moral calculus of war, such great strength demands great responsibility to ensure that the goals, targets, and aftermath of armed conflict outweigh the destruction and chaos caused, military ethicists say.

"The United States has military capabilities that no one else in the world has," says James Turner Johnson, an expert on "just war" theory at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Yet such disproportionate power "doesn't mean you have the right to do anything."

Any war - but especially the murky war on terrorism - raises a host of ethical questions:

Are the US and its allies justified in attacking sovereign states to get at terrorists? Who and what should the US-led forces legitimately target? What type of force should be used to minimize civilian casualties?

Another vital question is whether the Bush administration, in fighting for a "just" cause, is also laying the way for a future "just peace" in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

While military commanders often have wide discretion in making decisions on how to fight, they are obliged at least to weigh their actions on a moral scale, Mr. Johnson and other ethicists say, and it appears so far that US officers are doing so.

"Military force is a blunt instrument," says philosophy professor Jeffrey Whitman, also a former Army major who taught "just war" theory at West Point. "I think the US military to this point has done their best," he says, adding, "We recognize if we kill a whole bunch of innocents in Afghanistan, we are no better than the terrorists."

From the decision to go to war to the search for a new peace, the following offers a moral checklist for Washington and gauges the ethical implications of its actions so far.

• Is it justified to attack states and overturn regimes to get at terrorists?

US actions to destroy the power of the Taliban regime are tied directly to the failure of that leadership to meet demands by President Bush to hand over Osama bin Laden and leaders of his Al Qaeda network.

While Afghanistan offers a relatively clear case of holding a regime accountable for harboring terrorists, the links between terrorist groups and other states may be far less obvious. "You have to be sensitive to the nature of the harboring or support," says John Kelsay, a professor of religion at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

• Can the US legitimately target political figures like Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar?

Military ethicists generally agree with the Pentagon view that Mr. Omar is part of the Taliban military "command and control" and therefore represents a legitimate target. Yet they say it is questionable to pinpoint a figure for assassination. "Assassination is a little dicey because it looks too much like murder," Johnson says.

Indeed, the US military's near miss of Omar early in the campaign demonstrates the extreme caution of US commanders in verifying targets. After tracking Omar's convoy to a building, the military held off on an attack to try to photograph Omar.

"They wanted to be sure they could ID him," says journalist Seymour Hersh. As a result, Omar escaped.

"It is practically impossible to know with certainty who is on the ground in any given location by name and serial number," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a carefully worded reaction. But he reiterated his "desire to deal aggressively with command and control."

• What are US obligations in terms of minimizing civilian casualties?

The imperative of averting civilian casualties is central to "just war" theory, as well as international law and military training, ethicists say. US military leaders state unequivocally that they follow this imperative, unlike the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attack that killed more than 5,000 civilians.

"Nobody, no armed force, no coalition has ever shown such care and caution in discriminating, has put so much effort in planning and in selection of tactics, techniques, and weapons to ensure that ... unintended casualties are kept to a minimum," said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold this week.

Yet at the same time, the Pentagon makes it clear that some civilian casualties are inevitable, as they apparently were when the US missiles struck two underground tunnel complexes near the village of Karam last week, reportedly killing several people.

In such cases, military commanders must weigh the need to destroy a target with the cost in civilian lives, experts say. "The collateral damage [civilian deaths] has to be proportionate to the good I want to do," says Stephen Lammers, a religion professor and ethicist at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.

• What type of force should be used?

Ultimately, limiting casualties will require a shift away from the less discriminatory air power to the use of ground forces, experts say. "We are going to have to use ground troops so we can separate out the criminals from the other people," says Mr. Whitman. The military's decision this week to begin using the lower-flying, slower, yet more accurate AC-130 gunships to hit moving targets is a move in this direction.

• When should US forces take prisoners, rather than killing Afghan troops?

According to "just war" theory, enemy soldiers are legitimate targets until they lay down their arms and surrender. Nevertheless, Whitman says, the mowing down of retreating Iraqi troops in the Gulf War was so "distasteful" to US pilots that ultimately they were called off.

• Is there a plan for peace?

The Bush administration's initial "hands-off" approach to Afghan's future government was misplaced, experts say. "Once we have attacked the Taliban and destabilized it," Johnson says, "then morally we are obliged to consider creating a more peaceful result than the one we started with."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.