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Lest we forget: how do we justify Afghanistan?

By Scott MacInnes - posted Wednesday, 2 November 2011

When Remembrance Day comes around next week many of us will pause for a moment’s reflection on the dreadful human cost of military conflict. The admonition 'Lest we forget' was based on the hope that if we could only keep close in our collective memory the experience of the horror of war then we would never go there again.

Meanwhile the horror continues.

With the recent tragic deaths of yet more Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and the tenth anniversary of our military intervention there, many concerned citizens are asking themselves whether the sacrifice of human lives (on all sides) can still be justified, notwithstanding the predictable Government reassurances, public indifference and the lack of proper media scrutiny.


While our involvement in Afghanistan is easy to explain, it is much more difficult to justify. The terrible truth is that what we have to be able to justify is the sacrifice and killing of other human beings. There have to be very good reasons to justify what would otherwise be regarded as state-sponsored murder. The question is: are our reasons still good enough?

The need to apply fundamental principles

The primary threshold question should always be whether we can still morally justify exposing our troops and an ever increasing number of innocent civilians to death or injury. This must be determined quite independently from any arguments concerning our broader national interests. This is because the latter policy issues may involve considerations that it would be quite improper to take into account when determining the primary ethical issues.

The only way forward is for such decisions to be based on well-established international legal principles, which arise out of "just war' moral principles and derive ultimately from our inherent and commonly shared personal 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 frame; and whether further threats of violence are likely to be reduced or exacerbated by military action.

By contrast, among the policy arguments excluded at this stage are such factors as: the pressure to support a military ally; the desirability of regime change; adjusting the international balance of power; the wish to promote democracy; to protect trade interests; to secure energy resources; to gain economic or political advantages; to advance social welfare; and all other public policy agendas.

It is important to keep in mind the above distinctions not only when thinking about our original justifications for getting involved militarily in Afghanistan but also for our continuing involvement. This requires ongoing moral justification, having regard to ever changing circumstances.


Of the two 'official' reasons put forward to justify our continuing military involvement, the first is disingenuous because it cannot operate as an independent justification. And the second now lacks all credibility.

Our commitment to the US alliance

Our total subservience to the US alliance remains the simplest and most credible explanation for our involvement. We are there solely 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. All the other reasons are merely justifications after the fact.

This is a legally and morally indefensible position for any government to hold.

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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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