Small Wars Journal

Losing the High Ground: How the U.S. lost Moral Justification for the War in Afghanistan

Wed, 08/17/2022 - 3:36am

Losing the High Ground:

How the U.S. lost Moral Justification for the War in Afghanistan

By Dan Pace

The United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks, dismantle the Taliban government that provided the perpetrators with safe haven, and deny Afghanistan as a base of operations for future terrorist attacks.  At the time, the war received widespread international support and was generally regarded as “a legally appropriate use of force,” but by the war’s end in 2021, regard for the justice of the U.S. cause had diminished somewhat. (Lietzau 2004, 415-416)   What changed, and how did the U.S. lose the moral high ground it enjoyed in 2001?

As it turns out, a great deal changed.  Over twenty years, the U.S. war objectives changed, the participants in the conflict changed, and even the cause the U.S. was fighting for was itself different in many ways.  By evaluating these changes against Just War Theory’s criteria for Jus ad bellum, this paper demonstrates that these changes undermined the justice of the U.S. cause because objectives that were just to begin with became disproportionate or otherwise inappropriate as conditions on the ground and military objectives changed.  The paper then offers thoughts on how the U.S. – or other future belligerents – can avoid finding themselves stuck in an unjust war, and what choices they have if they do. 


The methodology used here to evaluate the justice of the U.S. cause is Just War Theory.  Just War Theory provides a framework to evaluate the whether the initiation of a war is just, or jus ad bellum.  To be Jus ad bellum a war must have the following six attributes: the objectives must be just, violence must not initiated until all other reasonable options are exhausted, the war must be endorsed by a legitimate authority, the initiator must have just intentions, the war’s objectives must be proportion to the ends used in its prosecution, and there must be a reasonable chance of succeeding at the endeavor. (Moseley n.d.)  Moreover, to remain just the war must be reassessed periodically to ensure that as conditions change, the war continues to possess these attributes. (Mollendorf 2008)

Were the Goals Just?

Throughout the conflict, the U.S. sought to destroy the international terrorist networks that lived (and still live) in eastern and southeastern Afghanistan and to create some sort of security structure to keep that area clear of future, like-minded groups.[1] (Government 2017, 50)  The United Nations, which began its mission in 2002, added the aim to establish a capable, internationally integrated government in Afghanistan that recognized and upheld western standards on corruption and a variety of humanitarian rights issues. (Council 2018, 1-11) Then the manner in which those objectives were pursued changed in 2004 when they had to be pursued through GIROA rather than unilaterally.  This also added the complication that coalition forces had to incorporate reconciliation with the Taliban into their effort (while continuing to include killing Taliban fighters). (State 2018)

In 2001-2002 the initial U.S. counterterrorist objectives raised very little international objection, and were generally seen a valid instance of anticipatory/retaliatory defense by the U.S. (Lucas 2011, 690-693)  This effort was perceived as just through the end of the war.  While there is substantial debate surrounding the morality and effectiveness of many counter-terrorism practices, there seems to be the general consensus that ridding the world of terrorism is a just goal, and the terrorists in Afghanistan in 2021 were just as capable and dedicated as their predecessors were. (Fisher 2007, 1-2, 15-16)  The denial of Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorist groups remained just as well.  The effort was essentially a bilateral effort led by GIROA to maintain its sovereignty in contested areas of Afghanistan, and the international community supported this effort fully. (Council 2018, 8) 

The U.N. objective began as a humanitarian mission to assist the recently liberated people of Afghanistan.  In 2001, this mission was limited in scope, and popular sentiment was heavily against the radically conservative Taliban government, so the U.N. mission was widely perceived as just.  (Lucas 2011, 690-693)  Eventually, U.N. mission expanded to encompass the broad westernization of Afghanistan through GIROA.  This effort had numerous objectives, including a reduction of corruption and drug cultivation, education and empowerment of women, and strengthening the national democratic institutions of the GIROA, but as the war continued, debate arose about the validity of employing wartime violence to achieve these objectives.  At heart, the two sides of this debate center on the international community’s right to influence the cultural and political situation in Afghanistan.

Some assert that while the pre-invasion Taliban government of 2001 may have been heavy handed, many of its policies were in line with both Islamic and traditional Afghan culture, and the implementation of Western-style reforms to Afghan family and societal norms may not only be practically impossible, but to some degree immoral. (Huntington 1996)  Similarly, while eradicating one of the world’s major sources of opium is a U.N. goal, poppy cultivation represents a major source of revenue for Afghanistan’s people, and it is not objectively clear that eradication of one of the sources of their material well-being to alleviate the west’s drug crisis is morally justified. (Asfar, Samples and Wood 2008, 64)  This is not to suggest there is consensus across the various proponents of these views on what action should (or should not) be taken, but there is a shared sense that deliberately working to manipulate Afghan culture is not a just cause for waging war.

The opponents to this line of thought claim the basic human rights of individual Afghans (as described in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights) trump traditional cultural values.  By 2001, humanitarian intervention was seen as a valid (and possibly morally obligatory) justification for the employment of military force, and the principle has been used to successfully justify international intervention numerous times since. (Lietzau 2004)  The latter-war incarnation of this effort in Afghanistan focused on a variety of issues ranging from women’s rights, to anti-corruption campaigns, to alternative crop solutions, similar incarnations of which were and still often are viewed as just elsewhere in the world.  The fact that these projects were pursued with the knowledge and support of the GIROA, further strengthened their legitimacy.

Ultimately, the determination of whether the human rights objectives pursued in Afghanistan were just or not hinges on whether or not one believes the international community has the right (or obligation) to intervene in Afghan cultural affairs; the other objectives of the coalition mission were generally accepted as just.  Rather than saving the people of Afghanistan from an oppressive regime, by the end of the war, the U.N. mission had become an effort to change fundamental elements of Afghan culture.  Whether or not that is justified depends on one’s point of view.  What is not controversial is the idea that in the future, international forces working through a sovereign partner would be wise to ensure their security objectives are not jeopardized by association with perceived western intrusion into Afghan daily life.

Was Violence Being Employed as the Last Resort?

Just war theory states that war should always be the last resort to resolve a given situation.  While this criterion is generally applied at the onset of a conflict, periodically reevaluating the requirement for wartime activities is necessary in a long, evolving conflict like the war in Afghanistan, as what justified violence at the onset of the war does not necessarily justify its continuation. (Mollendorf 2008)  On September 19, 2001, the U.S. declared war against the Taliban by executive order; hostilities started a few weeks later. (Bush 2001)  There was little outcry over this decision at the time despite the relative paucity of other options presented to the government of Afghanistan prior to the invasion.  This was primarily because of the severity of the 9/11 attacks and the open belligerence of the Taliban response to issued ultimatums to turn over Osama Bin Laden. (Associated_Press 2001)  As the conflict ground on though, were wartime levels of violence still necessary to achieve U.S. and U.N. objectives, or could they have been achieved through diplomacy or police action? 

The coalition engaged diplomatically with the Taliban for most of the conflict, but the effort never achieved enough to prevent the further use of military force in Afghanistan.  Coalition counterterrorism objectives were unattainable diplomatically because the international terrorist groups taking refuge in Afghanistan were never willing to compromise with the U.S, U.N, or the GIROA.  On the contrary, their hardline stance was in large part defined in opposition to U.N. goals in the region and to western values worldwide.  Diplomacy may have been a potential solution to resolve the civil war between the GIROA and the Taliban, but in hindsight, it never appeared that either side took the negotiations very seriously.  The Taliban refused to negotiate with GIROA, or even recognize it as legitimate (a diplomatic slight the U.S. overlooked), and in spite of occasional pauses on the targeting of Taliban personnel, throughout the conflict the Coalition never really stopped killing Taliban personnel.

If diplomacy was not effective, could the Coalition’s objectives instead have been achieved through support to the GIROA police organizations?  To determine this, one should consider whether the situation in Afghanistan more closely resembled a police or military problem and then assess the effectiveness of the various police assistance programs pursued during the war.  In spite of (or perhaps in support of) the ever-present negotiations that occurred between coalition forces and the Taliban, Afghanistan remained a very violent place throughout the war.  Wartime acts took place multiple times per day, every day, across the country.  These ranged from suicide bombings to military-style attacks on the Taliban side, and from drone strikes to large-scale military clearing operations on the coalition side. (Salahuddin 2019)[2]  The disposition of GIROA and Taliban forces across the country was also suggestive of a military problem.  In many Afghan provinces this disposition more closely resembled the frontline of a battlefield – complete with bunkers, fortified compounds, trenches and tunnels – than a peacetime distribution of civilian and police. (xuxin 2018)  This was particularly prevalent in the areas that had the most terrorist (ISIS or Taliban) presence (e.g. Nangarhar or Helmand provinces), and in many of these areas coalition forces never had reliable access except through the execution of combat operations.  The quantity and type of violence present in Afghanistan were indicative of a military problem rather than a police problem.

Given all of the above, and given the actual military destruction of GIROA by the Taliban last summer, it seems unlikely coalition forces could have accomplished their counterterrorism objectives through either diplomacy or support of GIROA police activities; military force continued to be necessary throughout the conflict.  Similarly, as the U.N. objectives required access to the population, time, and security to accomplish, and as the population was generally not amenable to them without coercion anyway, the objectives would never have been achievable without military force.  The application of military force was the only viable option to achieve coalition objectives and is therefore valid according to just war theory.

Was This War Authorized by a Proper Authority?

When launched in 2001, the war in Afghanistan was widely supported by the international community as a valid war of anticipatory defense.  The U.N. Security Council recognized its legitimacy, and even rival powers acknowledged the justice of the U.S. cause. (Dougherty 2002)  By the war’s end, the principle factor that changed was the presence of the GIROA.  As the internationally recognized sovereign government of Afghanistan, the GIROA provided legal authorization for the U.S. and U.N. missions.  Even assuming that were not enough, the U.N. Security Council produced an annual resolution authorizing the continuation of the operation. (Council 2018)  This is as solid a foundation as a modern war can have, unless one questions the legitimacy of the GIROA (or the U.N.) entirely.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Taliban did just that. (Hirsch 2019)  The Taliban never recognized GIROA as the government of Afghanistan.  Given that the Taliban was an insurgent organization in that country, this is perhaps unremarkable, but the assertion was not entirely groundless.  The Taliban was (and is) a primarily Pashtun, Islamic tribal movement, and throughout the country’s history, the central government in Kabul has rarely spoken for or exercised any control over the Pashtun tribes of rural Afghanistan. (Asfar, Samples and Wood 2008, 59-68)  Thus, from a multiculturalist perspective, one could argue the Taliban’s point is valid, and the GIROA never represented them.[3]

In spite of the Taliban’s objections, the majority of people in the world did recognize the government of Afghanistan as legitimate, as formalized by the GIROA’s membership in the U.N.  While this looks a bit silly given the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, this recognition does mean war in Afghanistan was being conducted with the full support of the recognized global authorities, and was thus (by this criteria) just.

Were the U.S. and U.N. Intentions Selfless?

Just war theory holds that a war is unjust if “reasons of national interest are paramount or overwhelm the pretext of fighting aggression.” (Moseley n.d.)  As the U.S. unhappily discovered in 2003, if the international community believes there are going to be direct financial benefits gleaned by the initiator of a war, the justification provided for the war draws substantially more scrutiny than it otherwise would.  In this sense (and probably no other), it is beneficial that the Afghanistan campaign remained a wholly unprofitable endeavor for the U.S. and U.N. participants throughout its execution.

In spite of numerous articles written over the years on the untapped mineral potential of Afghanistan, the lack of security ensured no real exploitation of that potential occurred by either GIROA or the coalition.[4] (Burhani 2018)  On the contrary, the coalition (and the U.S. in particular) spent a large amount of money on infrastructure projects, security improvement, and government development in Afghanistan that will probably never be recouped. (Amadeo 2019)  While this caused substantial unrest in Americans on all sides of the political spectrum for economic reasons, just war theorists can sleep easily knowing that the U.S. was never at war with Afghanistan because of economic self-interest.

Were the Objectives of the War in Proportion to the Means Employed?

This criteria aims to evaluate a war on two related areas: first, whether the level of force employed during the war is in proportion to the desired ends, and second whether the policy objectives of the war are in proportion to the justification for initiating the war. (Moseley n.d.)  The first is a jus in bellum issue and has to do with proportionality and discrimination at the level of individual soldiers and units.  It is addressed only briefly here.  The second is a question of proportionality on the strategic scale and is analyzed in more detail.

To the first point, the proportionality and discrimination demonstrated by U.S. forces during the war in Afghanistan were remarkable.  Precise munitions, widespread training on the law of war, exceptional investment in intelligence collection and targeting, and a hitherto impossible level of strategic scrutiny on tactical operations combined to ensure the war was fought with a remarkably low level of collateral damage, and that violations of the law of war were quickly caught and corrected.[5]  It was still a civil war, and there were certainly still noncombatant deaths, but the conduct of coalition forces was remarkably good.

Was the proportionality equally just at the strategic level though?  Certainly, the initial invasion was proportional.  In response to the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. attempted to locate and destroy the responsible parties and unseat the state sponsor that sheltered them.  There was no evidence of false pretense for the invasion or apparent overreach by the U.S.[6]  The continued counterterrorism mission also seemed proportional, given that it was limited in scope, and that the Afghan forces the U.S. is working with desired the destruction of the terrorists as much as the U.S. does.  The proportionality of the U.N. mission was somewhat more questionable, particularly in light of the expansion of the mission to include phrases such as “strengthen democratic institutions”, “women’s and girl’s empowerment”, “revised penal code”, and “anti-corruption strategy”. (Council 2018) 

From one point of view, the reforms were conducted through GIROA leaders and organizations, and therefore not an example of overreach, but rather the provision of aid to an allied government looking to modernize Afghanistan.  From another point of view, if one believes GIROA was not actually representative of the entire population of Afghanistan, GIROA appeared to be a proxy through which the western world aimed to force cultural change on an Islamic population.  This view is not as fringe as it perhaps sounds, and throughout the war a portion of the Islamic world found the U.N. efforts to affect cultural change in Afghanistan as threatening as parts of the western world continue to find the Islamization of formerly secular nations.

Ultimately, the determination of whether the U.N. mission was proportional depends on one’s beliefs about the international community’s role in a nation’s internal affairs, and one’s thoughts on the relationship between an individual’s rights and those of the culture to which he belongs.  The U.N. sought to change the elements of Afghan culture that were abhorrent to western civilization and incorporate Afghanistan into the international community.  The U.N conducted this without the consent of a large, vocal, armed portion of the population, and the war in Afghanistan was in large part driven by this friction.  If one believes the westernization of Afghanistan justified violence, this objective is justified.  Otherwise, it is disproportionate and overreaching.

Did the War have a Reasonable Chance of Success?

While the Coalition obviously lost the war, this criterion remains the most difficult to assess accurately because it relies heavily on subjective speculation on possible outcomes of the war.  The coalition probably could have achieved its counterterrorism goals if it had been willing to cede its support to GIROA in the civil war and simply provide logistical and operational support to the winning Afghan faction (whether Taliban or GIROA led).  The other two objectives were linked, as the successful cultural reform of Afghanistan would have uprooted the major cause of support for the Taliban, and the successful defeat of the Taliban would have allowed the desired cultural reforms to progress at a much faster rate. 

Based on my own long experience with the war, I do not believe either of these objectives had any reasonable chance of success, as the Coalition (including GIROA in this case) never had the ability to project enough power into rural Afghanistan to achieve either goal.  Even if the forces had been available, I am skeptical that GIROA ever took the reforms seriously enough to achieve them or that a 21st century foreign power could have imposed them against local resistance. 

My opinion aside, to provide the widest allowances for subjective analysis, this paper assumes the coalition’s objectives could have been achieved, and thus that there was a reasonable chance of success.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The cause the U.S. and its allies fought for in Afghanistan lost a good deal of its moral justification between the invasion in 2001 and the pullout in 2021.  The U.S. objectives to prevent future global terrorist attacks from originating in Afghanistan and to deny that country as a sanction to international terrorists remained just throughout the war, but the Coalition role in the Afghan civil war was more questionable.  While the war was fought at the behest of the sovereign government of Afghanistan, it was never universally accepted that GIROA was the legitimate representative of the Afghan people and not simply a western puppet. Also, it is questionable whether the Taliban should have continued to be pursued for its role in the 9/11 attacks, given that by the end of the conflict, the vast majority of the Taliban leaders involved were dead, and that the new generation of Taliban leaders were often as hostile to current international terror groups as the U.S.  The U.N. objectives in Afghanistan may actually have been unjust, depending on one’s perspective.  Not only were they most likely unattainable, but the use of force in pursuit of them may have been immoral if one accepts that Pashtun-Islamic cultural values are valid.  While supporting the 9/11 attacks was reprehensible and deserved military retribution, the employment of military force for twenty years to reshape the Pashtun-Islamic culture in Afghanistan may have been a disproportionate response. 

While discussion on whether or not the cause was just is moot for the war in Afghanistan itself, the implications for future conflicts are significant.  What options are available to a belligerent that finds itself in an unjust war, and from a Jus ex Bello perspective, how does one justly end a conflict when the justice of one’s cause has unraveled?  Further, how can one ensure one’s cause remains just throughout the execution of a long conflict and does not lose its moral footing?

In response to the first question, when one finds one’s self in an unjust conflict, there seem to be three options available (assuming one cares about the justice of the cause at all).  First, upon recognition that the war is no longer just, the belligerent can end the war as quickly and justly as possible.   Second, the belligerent can continue prosecution of the war until he is able to restore the justice of his cause to bring the war to a just conclusion.  Third, the belligerent can prune the unjust or questionable objectives, thus reducing the scale of the conflict back to something morally justifiable.

The U.S. tried to achieve a hybrid of the above options in Afghanistan by ending most of its involvement in the war quickly while maintaining the ability to conduct its counterterrorism mission by aiding GIROA security forces and conducting out-of-country targeting.  Unfortunately, GIROA collapsed more quickly than foreseen, and while the assassination of Zawahiri this year demonstrates the U.S. can still effectively kill terrorists in Afghanistan, losing GIROA support severely undermines the moral justification for those operations.   However, given the state of the war in 2021, it is unclear that any other choices the U.S. could have made would have produced a more morally justifiable outcome, so perhaps ending things quickly and dealing with the aftermath was the best decision in a bad lot.

The problem of maintaining the justice of one’s cause through the execution of a lengthy war is a different sort of problem, as it requires the internal awareness and self-control to recognize accurately how the war is going and to limit progress deliberately down avenues that might lead to unjust objectives.  One of the simplest methods to achieve these is to limit the number of people that get to make decisions about the conduct of the war.  The U.S. began the war as the sole combatant on its side of the conflict.  By the war’s end, twenty-seven different countries had a stake in the conduct of the war, and in most cases, each of them had specific interests and national caveats that had to be considered during prosecution of the war (Defense n.d.).   This greatly increased the complexity of making decisions on the conduct of the war, and it ensured the U.S. had much more difficulty controlling the scope and potential outcomes of the war. 

The granting of sovereignty to GIROA further complicated the situation.  Throughout the war, Afghan leadership limited the U.S. ability to steer the conflict both directly through the insertion of Afghan approval requirements on most operations and indirectly by requiring the U.S. to underwrite Afghan decisions made without U.S. consent to present a unified front.  In its race to legitimize the war by creating a sovereign entity through which to fight it, the U.S. created an entity that often undermined the credibility and justice of the U.S. cause. (Brooks 2017, Volume 7, No 1.)  Maintaining unilateral control of the war would have enabled the U.S. to prevent the pursuit of unjust objectives, or to cull those objectives more easily once they arose.

The counterargument – that international consensus on the justice of one’s military efforts is necessary for them to be perceived as just and that Afghans should lead the Afghan people – is valid, as is the argument that allowing the Afghan people to govern Afghanistan strengthens the justification of one’s cause.  However, the strength those arguments provide to the justification of one’s cause is moot if they create the conditions that undermine that cause entirely.  It may be worth a potential belligerent’s time to build consensus on the justice of his cause in a manner that avoids incorporating others into the pursuit of that cause, and after occupying a country, one should very carefully consider what autonomy he is giving away before granting anyone sovereignty.

As the U.S. discovered (again), the conduct of a long war can make maintaining the justice of one’s cause difficult, particularly as the number of participants in that conflict and the complexity of their desired outcomes increase.  In the future, the risk of this can be mitigated somewhat by pursuing unilateral, limited objectives with achievable milestones.   It also helps to avoid tying the conditions for victory to cultural impositions that require one to apply lethal force to achieve them.  Bombing people that want to keep you from re-educating their children is a bad look and hard to justify under the principles of proportionality.  Finally, countries should be very hesitant to destroy existing governmental power structures, as it places them in the dilemma of having to either manage the mess created by a post-war power vacuum, create a government that will almost certainly be viewed as a puppet, or occupy the area themselves.  All three of these options create the conditions that are highly likely to undermine the justice of one’s cause.  By learning these lessons, future belligerents can maintain the strength of their cause for the duration of the conflict and avoid losing the moral high ground.




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[1] Though some of the names have changed a bit.  Al Qaeda still has a small but existent presence, but the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria - Khorasan (ISIS-K – the Afghan-based offshoot of the group) has taken refuge in the area now. (Intelligence 2018)

[2] As of 2018, about 25 GIROA security forces personnel were killed every day (compared to .39 police casualties per day in the U.S.), with correspondingly high casualty figures on the Taliban side as well.  (Abed and Nordland 2018)

[3] Taken to its logical conclusion, this was a darkly humorous situation, where the U.N. (through GIROA) insisted Taliban women change their cultural attitude toward women’s education while simultaneously denying the Taliban’s ability to insist non-Taliban women living in Taliban controlled areas do the same.

[4] Although a small number of individuals became quite wealthy working with the coalition, and the opium industry thrived during the conflict.

[5] While official U.N. records only date back to 2009, high estimates place the civilian casualty rate in Afghanistan at around 1,500 civilian deaths per year (or around 30,000 total), and this is inclusive of deaths caused by all belligerents.  By comparison, the atomic bomb killed 70,000 civilians in a single day in Hiroshima, and an estimated two million civilians were killed between 1954 and 1975 in the extended civil war in Vietnam.

[6] A notable example of both overreach and false pretense is the Mukden incident in 1931, during which Imperial Japan faked an attack on their own infrastructure in China and used the event as pretext for the conquest of Manchuria. (Chen n.d.)

About the Author(s)

Dan Pace is an active duty Special Forces Officer.  He has served in a variety of positions in Iraq, Afghanistan, South America, and elsewhere across the globe, and he is now stationed in Stuttgart, Germany.