Beyond Just War in Afghanistan

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Author: Maryann Cusimano Love

General David Petraeus was in the hot seat during his Senate confirmation hearings in Washington this summer, and it had nothing to do with the heat wave outside.

While senators were confirming Petraeus as commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, they criticized the tactical guidance issued last year ordering greater restraint of U.S. forces to protect against civilian deaths. Although it was the deadliest summer for U.S. troops in nine years of war, some senators and media commentators were complaining about limitations on air strikes.

Rather than caving to criticism, Petraeus issued tactical guidance that reinforced civilian protections. “We must continue — indeed, redouble — our efforts to reduce the loss of innocent civilian life to an absolute minimum,” he said.

Good news and bad

General Petraeus knows the United States cannot kill every Taliban, insurgent or Al Qaeda sympathizer. In media interviews, he explained that the strategy of protecting civilians is working. United Nations figures bear this out, sort of.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s recent report on protection of civilians notes a 64 percent decrease in deaths and injuries from coalition aerial attacks and a 30 percent decline in the civilian casualties caused by coalition and Afghan government forces. That’s the good news. The bad news is that overall civilian casualties in Afghanistan have dramatically increased by 31 percent due to increased killing of civilians by antigovernment forces.

Exposing fundamental flaws

Afghans understand the Taliban and insurgents are responsible for nearly 80 percent of civilian deaths compared to 12 percent caused by coalition forces. Yet coalition forces do not get credit for increased civilian protection efforts. Instead they are blamed, even for the civilians killed by the enemy, under the belief that the very presence of U.S. and international forces in the country exacerbates the violence.

This exposes some of the fundamental problems with the Afghan and other counterinsurgency operations. It is difficult for centralized violence (exemplified by the U.S. military organization) to meet and contain highly decentralized violence. It is difficult to use military force, which will always cause unintended civilian casualties, as a means of upholding the norm of civilian protection. You can’t argue that every noncombatant life is sacred while killing noncombatants. As General Petraeus notes, “Every Afghan civilian death diminishes our cause.”

Beyond just war

We urgently need to expand just peace norms and practices. Just war logic helps institutionalize the protection of civilians, but restraining airpower and the use of force, however laudable, is not building peace. In a forthcoming volume, Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis, I argue that peacebuilding is the only sustainable path for protecting civilians in the long term. The United States must enlarge the policy tool box and go beyond the current heavy emphasis on the use of force to place greater attention on peacebuilding norms and practices, particularly participation and reconciliation.

Current U.S. government peacebuilding ideas and practices are inadequate. When U.S. and international military leaders discuss splitting off and working with Taliban fighters “who can be reconciled,” they are not talking about genuine reconciliation, which is the repair of relationships to build sustainable peace. Rather, they have in mind a process of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration. This is necessary in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but it is not reconciliation. Genuine peacebuilding requires talking with the Taliban, but U.S. officials are reluctant to do so, and a recent Supreme Court decision equates talking with adversaries to providing illegal material support to terrorists.

A higher moral standard

Protecting civilians requires more than restrictive tactical directives. The U.S. government must learn how to build peace. Operating on a higher moral plain than enemies who deliberately kill civilians is difficult but necessary for military and political success. To prevent noncombatant deaths and advance the norm of civilian protection, the U.S. must hold to a higher moral standard and create new norms of just peace.


Maryann Cusimano Love is associate professor of international relations at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. This essay, titled “From Civilian Immunity to Just Peace,” and others investigating violent conflict can be found at the webzine Peace Policy, published by Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.


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