The Ethical Case for War in Afghanistan (is Strong but Insufficient)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I considered the human rights/women’s rights issue to be the most convincing case for the war in Afghanistan.  (IMHO, This is the Strongest Case for the Afghan War).

This argument yielded a vigorous push-back from Fabius Maximus here: Bernard Finel shows how to end the Af-Pak in days. Now. Guaranteed. and here: We destroy a secular regime in Afghanistan (& its women’s rights), then we wage war on the new regime to restore women’s rights. Welcome to the American Empire.

Our discussion, summarized in FM’s discussion thread:

FM: “you are in effect calling for Crusades to conquer and remake a large fraction of the 3rd world.

I am not calling for anything in particular. I am noting that the nations of the world have asserted that there are some principles of universal human rights that trump sovereignty. And I am noting that I believe that people with power have a responsibility to use it in order to prevent suffering. Neither is a hugely controversial argument. In practice, the cases where this justifies military intervention are few and far between. But Rwanda was one, and Afghanistan might be another. We should at least discuss the issue, not simply dismiss it.

FM: “Whom by the way we’ve never asked if they want our protection (the number of western-type feminists is an infinitesimal fraction of the population).

This is a strawman. No one is saying there is a duty to make it possible for all Afghan women to wear miniskirts in public. We’re talking about a much narrower set of concerns — preventing child rape, access to basic education.

FM reply to Prof Finel’s response: It is not a strawman. I doubt either Prof Finel or I has any idea what the majority of Afghanistan’s women want. Using military force to change their society without making some effort to ask is IMO arrogant.

I’ll note that in an email exchange I accepted the charge of arrogance, and also acknowledged my argument was paternalistic.

But let’s me add another issue that I think is relevant to this discussion:

The more persuasive the case that we “broke” Afghanistan, the more compelling the moral argument for remaining.  It take an inherently problematic argument about universal human rights and turns into a more narrowly contingent argument about the obligations to make amends for our previous mistakes.  On the other hand, it is compelling argument against our ability to understand and predict the consequences of our actions.

The ethical issues are incredibly complicated.  Universal moral obligations compete against practicality.  Contingent obligations compete against our inability to foresee the unintended consequences.  Moral hazards litter the debate like the landmines that continue to take Afghan lives and limbs.

Ultimately, I don’t think we “owe” the Afghans anything due to our actions.  By historical standards the invasion of Afghanistan after 2001 was just, and our treatment of Afghan civilians has gone far above and beyond established standards of dealing with non-combatants in a military conflict.  Similarly, our universal obligation to prevent human rights abuses in Afghanistan runs up against a fundamental cost/benefit calculation.  In some cases, war can improve human rights, but war is usually a cauldron for exacerbating human rights problems.  The uncertainty over goals, outcomes, and effectiveness is so large that I don’t think a compelling ethical case can be made to remain in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the ethical argument is not usually addressed systematically.  Instead, it is usually brought in as an add-on, either to question the character of war skeptics or to score debating points.

The main lesson I learned from my support of the Iraq war in 2003 was that a string of individually insufficient arguments for war does not add up to a compelling case for war collectively.  What we have in Afghanistan now is a series of argument — regarding regional security, counter-terrorism, human rights, reputation, etc. — that are individually insufficient to justify a continuing of the conflict, much less an expansion of it.  From my perspective, the human rights case comes the closest, but even that falls far short from being the long pole on which to build an escalation of the war.

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