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Afghanistan: can we justify being there?

By Scott MacInnes - posted Tuesday, 19 October 2010

It would be a great pity if the parliamentary debate on the war gets bogged down in operational details of how it is progressing and the prospects of “success”, rather than addressing the fundamental issue of whether we can still morally justify exposing our troops, other combatants and an ever increasing number of innocent civilians to death, injury and extreme suffering.

Because a decision to go to war involves a decision to justify killing people, the primary threshold question should always be whether it can be regarded as legally and morally justifiable. This should be determined quite independently from any arguments concerning our broader national interests. This is because the latter may involve political and economic considerations that it would be quite improper to take into account when determining the primary moral issue.

Values v. interests

Ultimately, such decisions must be based on well established international legal principles, which arise out of our shared moral values. These emphasize such factors as: the right to self-defence from the threat of an imminent attack; whether military action is a last resort (or whether diplomacy or aid might produce a more peaceful outcome); the proportionality of our response to the threat; the minimization of injury to innocent third parties; the likelihood of a successful restoration of peace within a foreseeable time; and whether further threats of violence are likely to be avoided or exacerbated by military action. These are all legitimate considerations in deciding whether a war is legally and morally justifiable.


By contrast, among the public policy arguments excluded at this threshold stage are such factors as: the existence of a military alliance; the desirability of regime change; restoring stability; trade interests; economic or political advantages etc. While such matters may be relevant at a later stage in determining whether a war can be justified in the national interest, they are not relevant and should be ignored when determining whether a war is legally and morally justifiable.

The terrible truth is that what we have to be able to justify is the killing of other human beings. This is not generally permitted under the values we profess to live by. There have to be very good reasons to justify what would otherwise be regarded as murder. The question is: are our reasons good enough?

First let me address the two official reasons put forward by our government.

Our commitment to the US alliance

Does anyone really believe we would be in Afghanistan if the US were not?

We are there for the same reason we went to Vietnam and Iraq: because of pressure from our US allies and our belief in the need to support them in the hope that this will serve our future security and/or trade interests.

The alliance with the US may well be in our long term security and economic interests. But the question is: does the fact that it serves our national interest in these ways, of itself, legally and morally justify our involvement? And the answer is clearly NO. One cannot justify killing other human beings simply to please one’s friends.


Nevertheless, our total subservience to the US alliance remains, in my opinion, the reason sine qua non for our involvement. All the other reasons are simply justifications after the fact. The alliance argument should be exposed for what it is: a legally and morally indefensible position for any government to hold.

One way to test its worth is to ask: are there any circumstances involving the sacrifice of human lives in which we would not support our allies? If the answer is NO then it means we do not accept there are ever any ethical constraints - or that these can be overridden when convenient, which amounts to the same thing. If the answer is YES, then it is likely to be because we believe there comes a point where we do accept limits on our freedom to kill people. The implication is that we simply have not reached that threshold yet.

Many commentators believe this point will only be reached when the number of Australian casualties becomes too much for public sentiment to stomach. This is why we are never told the full physical, emotional and psychological impacts of the war on our own soldiers and their families. The equally devastating impacts on the many more Afghan combatants and others similarly affected in Afghanistan hardly rate even a mention.

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About the Author

Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.

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Related Links
Afghanistan: why are we still there?
An ethical debate on the war in Afghanistan

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