Phil Gasper

Department of Philosophy

Notre Dame de Namur University

Belmont, CA 94002


Presentation at the conference on “Terror and Justice”, California State University at Hayward, May 11 2002



1. Introduction.


·        US war in Afghanistan has been going on for seven months with apparently no end in sight.

·        US troops acting as “advisors” in the Philippines.

·        Escalating US involvement in Columbia.

·        While states are slashing spending on education and tens of millions lack health care, the Pentagon budget is being dramatically increased and is rapidly approaching $400 billion a year.

·        The Bush administration has made it clear that it is planning a major military assault on Iraq, involving at least 200,000 ground troops, perhaps as early as this summer.

·        VP Cheney tells us that we should be prepared to be at war for the rest of our lives.


Mainstream media has been largely uncritical of these developments—indeed it has seen its main goal as acting as a cheerleader for administration policy. Stunned by the attacks of September 11, most of the population has supported, or at least accepted, the use of military force and escalating military spending. At the very least, many see it as a necessary evil.


Philosophers, however, should never accept the received wisdom without subjecting it to critical scrutiny, and there is no more urgent area for critical scrutiny than what the Bush administration claims is a “war on terrorism”.


The traditional framework for asking questions about the morality of military intervention is known as just war theory. I’ll begin by sketching the generally agreed principles of that theory and then use it to assess first the war on Afghanistan, and then more briefly the administration’s broader “war on terrorism”. I’ll argue that neither the narrower nor the broader war meets the criteria for a just war. Finally, I’ll say a little about what alternative policies we should be urging the US government to adopt.


2. Just War Theory.


Originates with St. Augustine as a means of justifying the use of (limited) military force! Nevertheless, provides a useful framework for assessing the morality of military intervention.


Two main areas. (a) Principles that need to be satisfied for war to be justified—jus ad bellum. (b) Principles for the just conduct of a war—jus in bello.


(a) Jus ad bellum.


(i) Just cause—e.g., self-defense, responding to aggression, restoring rights unjustly denied, etc. These are examples—there is no definitive list.


(ii) Proportionality—probable good must outweigh likely evil (e.g. innocent deaths).


(iii) Last resort—if there are any courses of action other than war with a reasonable chance of achieving the same goals, they must be considered first. War should only be considered when it is clear that other means are unavailable.


(iv) Right intention—intervention should be directed to the goal set by the cause and to the eventual goal of a just peace. The war should not be used as an excuse to pursue other goals or hidden agendas.


(b) Jus in bello.


(i) Proportionality—minimum necessary force should be used, and force should be proporttionate to the importance of the particular objective for the cause as a whole.


(ii) Discrimination—every effort must be made to avoid attacking non-military targets and non-combatants. Not sufficient merely to avoid targeting non-combatants intentionally. States are responsible not just for the intended consequences of their actions, but for the unintended but forseeable consequences of their actions too.


Given the nature of modern warfare—in particular high intensity bombing campaigns—these are stringent criteria. Let’s see how the war in Afghanistan measures up.


3. The War on Afghanistan.


First, was there a just cause to go to war? Three main justifications have been offered by the administration.


(a) Self-defense.


In a letter to the UN Security Council, the US government cited Article 51 of the UN charter, which gives states the right to use force in self-defense.


But Article 51 provides no justification for the US bombing campaign—it permits states to use force to repel a military attack that is ongoing or imminent, as a temporary measure. It does not allow retaliation for an attack that has already occurred—and it does not permit retaliation against a country whose forces were not directly involved in any kind of attack on the US.


The US government itself has long argued that self-defense does not include pre-emptive strikes to prevent possible future attacks. During the Canadian rebellion of 1837, a British officer ordered an American ship, The Caroline, which was being used to supply Canadian rebels with munitions, to be boarded while it was moored at Fort Schlosser, New York. British forces assaulted the crew and killed two men, before burning the vessel and sending it over theNiagara Falls.


The British ambassador to the US pleaded self-defence, but the US government argued that self-defence may be exercised only when the “necessity is instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”. Those are the standards recognized by international law.


In any case, the US was not attacked by another state on September 11. If a self-defense justification for a military response could be offered, it would have to be reasonable to assume that such a response would make future terrorist attacks on the US less likely. But its very hard to believe that that is true.


What the US government calls “terrorism”—violent acts by political groups that it disagrees with—can’t be ended by militarily targeting particular groups, like the shadowy al-Qaeda network. Terrorism is a symptom, not the underlying problem. You can’t get rid of the symptom without tackling the underlying causes, and far from tackling those causes, the US attack on Afghanistan has probably exacerbated them by creating more people who hate the US government and the way it throws it power around in the world. If so, the war on Afghanistan won’t make the US population safer in any way whatsoever.


(b) Justice.


A second justification for the war is that it was necessary to bring the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks to justice. But who was responsible for the attacks? The immediate perpetrators died in the attacks themselves, but the US government claims that they were masterminded by Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the al-Qaeda network.


There’s no doubting that bin Laden is a nasty piece of work—and the US government should know because they helped create him, when they were busy giving billions of dollars of support to the most extreme Islamic organizations fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.


The CIA helped bin Laden bring to Afghanistan thousands of Islamic radicals from numerous countries, where they were trained in guerrilla warfare, sabotage, drug smuggling, money laundering and other useful techniques. These were the people that were later to form the backbone of bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.


But did bin Laden mastermind the September 11 attacks or is he just a convenient scapegoat—someone who the US government would like to eliminate regardless of whether he was directly responsible for those attacks? Certainly bin Laden has been high on the US government’s hate list since the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.


In 1999, however, the New York Times reported that


In their war against bin Laden, American officials portray him as the world's most dangerous terrorist. But reporters for The New York Times and the PBS program ‘Frontline,’ working in cooperation, have found him to be less a commander of terrorists than an inspiration for them....

      Larry Johnson, the State Department deputy counterterrorism director from 1988 to 1993, said Administration officials had “tended to make Osama bin Laden sort of a Superman in Muslim garb -- he's 10 feet tall, he's everywhere, he knows everything, he’s got lots of money and he can't be challenged.”


After the trial two years ago of those charged with bombing the embassies in, Frontline reported that “There was ... no direct evidence presented at trial that bin Laden himself ordered the bombings....”


As for the September 11 attacks, the US government has never provided evidence to show that bin Laden was responsible. LA Times columnist Robert Scheer noted recently that “There still is not a single strong lead connecting the hijackers with the Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders whom the president has yet to capture, ‘dead or alive.’” Nor have any of the prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay been charged in connection with the attacks. (If any of them ever are charged, they have already been denied in advance the possiblility of a fair trial.)


But if the US government did have a case against bin Laden, how should it have pursued it? What it did last year was to refuse to release any evidence, and then make non-negotiable demands on the Afghan government: do what we say, or we bomb you.


Furthermore, the Bush administration was apparently quite determined that it would not take yes for an answer. According to Australian journalist John Pilger,


... in late September and early October, leaders of Pakistan's two Islamic parties negotiated bin Laden's extradition to Pakistan to stand trial for the September 11 attacks. The deal was that he would be held under house arrest in Peshawar.

      According to reports in Pakistan (and the Daily Telegraph), this had both bin Laden's approval and that of Mullah Omah, the Taliban leader.

      The offer was that he would face an international tribunal, which would decide whether to try him or hand him over to America.

      Either way, he would have been out of Afghanistan, and a tentative justice would be seen to be in progress. It was vetoed by Pakistans president Musharraf who said he “could not guarantee bin Laden's safety”.

      But who really killed the deal?

      The US Ambassador to Pakistan was notified in advance of the proposal and the mission to put it to the Taliban. Later, a US official said that “casting our objectives too narrowly” risked “a premature collapse of the international effort if by some luck chance Mr bin Laden was captured”.


If the US really did kill this deal, then we have a blatant violation of the principle that war should only be a measure of last resort. It seems that war was actually the US government’s preferred option, which raises questions about what its goals really were—an issue to which I will return momentarily.


One final point about justice. If the US government were serious about this, you might think that over the years it would have supported institutions that can enforce international law. But it hasn’t recognized the jurisdiction of the World Court since 1986, when it withdrew after the Court condemned it for attacking Nicaragua by mining its harbors and funding the terrorist acts of the contras. And earlier this week, in an unprecedented move, it withdrew from the treaty to establish an International Criminal Court, because it doesn’t want any US officials to face charges there.


But you can’t seriously talk about justice if the only people who can get prosecuted are those that the US government regards as its enemies. Your not pursuing justice if your philosophy is “might makes right.”


(c) Human rights.


The third justification for the war was that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was so egregious in its violation of human rights, that it had to be removed. In Bush’s words, it was “one of the most repressive, evil regimes history has ever known.”


The Taliban were certainly extremely unpleasant, but it’s worth remembering that they came to power with US support in 1996, and the Bush administration had no criticisms of their human rights’ policies before last September and in fact gave the Taliban a $42 million grant less than a year ago.


It’s also worth remembering that the US government has a long history of supporting repressive regimes with horrific human rights’ records so long as it regards it as in its interests to do so, including many of its allies in the current war.


But have US actions really improved human rights in Afghanistan? The Taliban regime is gone, but it has been replaced by a central government based largely on the Northern Alliance, whose leaders have horrendous records of mass murder and human rights abuses, including sex slavery and mass rape.


As the British journalist Robert Fisk put it: “we’re ready to hire one gang of terrorists—our terrorists—to rid ourselves of another gang of terrorists [the Taliban].”


Even ignoring the death and destruction caused by the war itself, the human rights situation is little improved and may even be worse. Women have not been liberated by the war, large areas of the country are once again being run by war lords who do as they please, and Sharia law remains in place. A Chicago Tribune story last month reported that “the [Kabul] jail is filled with teenage girls accused of crimes ranging from falling in love to having illicit affairs, from leaving unbending parents to running away from abusive husbands.”


According to one Afghani judge, adulterers will continue to be stoned to death, “but we will use only small stones.” Public executions and amputations will continue, but while “the Taliban used to hang the victim’s body in public for four days ... [w]e will only hang the body for a short time.”


This hardly seems sufficient justification for war.


I’ll be quick on the other criteria, beginning with proportionality. Critics of the war raised two serious objections from the outset. First, that the war put at risk several million people who were dependent on food aid to survive. Apart from the PR execerise of dropping small amounts of food along with the bombs, the US government simply disregarded this risk. As a result, thousands of people have needlessly died of malnutrition.


Second, the nature of the US intervention was bound to result in the destruction of vital infrastructure and the deaths of many civilians. The US government downplayed these risks too. We don’t know how many Afghani civilians have been killed as the result of US bombing, but credible estimates put the figure at several thousand. In all likelihood, the number of non-combatants killed in Afghanistan exceeds the number killed in the September 11 attacks.


I’ve already talked about the fact that the US government does not seem to have treated war as a last resort but as a preferred option, which brings us to the question of intentions. What were the US government’s real goals in launching the war in Afghanistan?


It’s no secret that since the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991, US oil companies and their friends in the State Department have been salivating at the prospect of gaining access to the huge oil and natural gas reserves in the former Soviet republics bordering the Caspian Sea and in Central Asia, which have been estimated as worth $4 trillion.


According to the Middle East Economic Digest, Central Asia’s oil and natural gas reserves make it "the Middle East of the 21st century." And while he was still CEO of Halliburton, the world’s biggest oil services company, vice-president Dick Cheney told other industry executives , “I can't think of a time when we've had a region emerge as suddenly to become as strategically significant as the Caspian.”


Afghanistan itself has no significant oil or gas reserves, but it is an attractive route for pipelines leading to Pakistan, India and the Arabian Sea. In the mid-1990s, a consortium led by the California-based Unocal Corporation proposed a $4.5 billion oil and gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan. But this required a stable central government in Afghanistan itself. Thus began several years of tacit US support for the Taliban in the hope that it would provide that stability.


Relations cooled in the late 1990s, but when the Bush administration took office it cozied up to the regime again in the hope of reviving the pipeline project. September 11 allowed a change in plan. A military response was required as a demonstration of force, but as an added benefit it could be used to replace the Taliban with a more compliant regime, willing to give the US its pipeline.


According to a recent report in the New York Times, “The State Department is exploring the potential for post-Taliban energy projects in the [Central Asian] region....” Secretary of State Colin Powell estimates that US oil companies could invest $200 billion in Kazakhstan over the next 5-10 years.


Meanwhile, in Afghanistan itself, the president of the new government installed by the US, Hamid Karzai, was himself formerly a consultant for Unocal. And on December 31, Bush appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as his special envoy to Afghanistan. Khalilzhad was Unocal’s chief consultant on the Afghan pipeline project in the 1990s.


Finally, with respect to the conduct of the war, what I’ve said so far should be sufficient to cast doubt on whether the principles of proportionality and discrimination have been met. In particular, the US has behaved as if it has no responsiblity for the large number of Afghani civilian deaths, since the aim of the war was not to kill civilians. It is has not made any attempt to estimate the number of deaths, and it has repeatedly denied reports of civilian deaths, even when western journalists and human rights organizations confirmed them.


Given the nature of the weapons being used, however, such casualties were all too predictable. Even smart bombs miss their targets at least 20 percent of the time, and in addition the US dropped thousands of cluster bombs which will continue to kill civilians, often children, for years to come.


So I conclude that on every criterion, the war on Afghanistan fails to meet the standard of a just war.


4. The “War on Terrorism”.


If the war on Afghanistan fails to meet that standard, it is even more obvious that the wider “war on terrorism” cannot meet it. I’ll just make a few quick points.


First, the US government likes to play fast and loose with the definition of ‘terrorism’. Only the actions of groups it dislikes are given the label. But if we look at official definitions of ‘terrorism’, its quite obvious that it shouldn’t be applied just to US enemies. One US army manual defines terrorism as that calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain political or religious ideological goals through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear. But if you accept that definition it applies not just to al-Qaeda, it applies to numerous US allies, and it applies to many actions of the US government itself. “State terrorism” exists just as much as terrorism by individuals or non-governmental groups.


The media critic Jeff Cohen offers the following definitions of ‘terrorist’:


1. One who engages in acts or an act of terrorism.


2. One who leads an armed group that kills civilians as a means of political intimidation -- unless he terrorizes Haitians while on the CIA-payroll, as did 1990s death squad leader Emmanuel Constant, in which case the U.S. refuses to extradite him to Haiti, even after Sept. 11, 2001.


3. One who targets civilian airliners and ships -- unless he blows up a Cuban civilian airliner, killing 73 people, and fires at a Polish freighter, like Orlando Bosch, in which case he is coddled and paroled by the Bush Justice Department in 1990, and his extradition is blocked.


4. One who leads a group that engages in kidnapping and murder -- unless the victims are Hondurans attacked by CIA-backed death squad Battalion 316, in which case Battalion architect Gustavo Alvarez becomes a Pentagon consultant, while the then-ambassador to Honduras who downplayed the terror, John Negroponte, is appointed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations days after Sept. 11.


5. One who uses rape and murder for political purposes -- unless the victims are four U.S. church women sexually assaulted and killed in 1980 by members of El Salvador’s U.S.-backed military, in which case excuses and distortions pour forth from then-U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick (“these nuns were not just nuns; they were also political activists”) and Secretary of State Al Haig (the nuns “may have tried to run a roadblock”).


6. One who designates civilians as “soft targets” to be attacked in the cause of political transformation -- unless the targets are Nicaraguans killed by Contra guerrillas armed and directed by the U.S who, according to Human Rights Watch, “systematically engage in violent abuses…so prevalent that these may be said to be their principal means of waging war.”


7. One who facilitates a massacre of civilians -- unless the victims are 900 Palestinians shot and hacked to death in the Sabra and Shatila camps by Lebanese Christian militia as Israeli soldiers stood guard, in which case Israel’s then-Defense Minster (now Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon remains a U.S. “War on Terrorism” ally after being censured as indirectly responsible for the massacre by an Israeli commission of inquiry.


It is hard not to conclude that the “war on terrorism” has become little more than a convenient excuse for the Bush administration to push through a domestic and foreign agenda which it would otherwise be unable to get away with. At home it has meant a significant curtailment of civil liberties. In terms of foreign policy it has permitted the US to extend its global military and economic domination.


The US government now controls the largest and most powerful empire in the history of the world, including military bases in 100 countries around the world and effective control over major international economic institutions. The “war on terrorism” gives it a flexible excuse to use its military strength in particular to increase its wealth and power even further.


5. Alternatives.


The only way to seriously address the problem of terrorism—whether that’s terrorism committed by US enemies, by US allies, or by the US government—is to fundamentally change the policies of the US government itself.


US political and economic elites ruthlessly pursue their own interests around the world often in flagrant disregard of the most elementary moral principles. In the words of a statement distributed by a group of US intellectuals recently, “Most US citizens are unaware that the effect of US power abroad has nothing to do with the ‘values’ celebrated at home and indeed often serves to deprive people in other countries of the opportunity to attempt to enjoy them, should they care to do so.”


If we genuinely want to combat injustice and violence in the world—whether its commited by al-Qaeda or our own government—the most important goal for people in this country is to change US government policy, including its support for repressive regimes around the world, the double standards with which it frequently operates, and its willingness to use massive levels of violence to pursue its own goals. That’s a daunting task, but I think it’s the only way of ultimately achieving a world based on justice.



Phil Gasper


I. Mainstream media in the US are one-sided and unreliable sources of news and analysis on US foreign policy and world affairs. Anyone seeking a more balanced and informed view should consult alternative sources in the US as well as the international media. Here are some of the sources which I find useful.


A. Alternative US Media


Common Dreams ("News and views for the progressive community")


CounterPunch (Political newsletter edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair)


Democracy Now! (News and analysis from Pacifica Radio)


Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (Media watchdog)


Flashpoints (Investigative news program from KPFA, 94.1 FM)


International Socialist Review (Bimonthly magazine)


In These Times (Biweekly magazine)


Robert Jensen (Journalism Professor at the University of Texas)


The Progressive (Monthly magazine)


Socialist Worker (Weekly newspaper)


WorkingForChange (Resources from Working Assets)


Z Magazine (Monthly magazine and extensive website)


B. International Media


Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt)


Al Jazeera (Qatar)


Dawn (Pakistan)


Frontline (India)


The Guardian (Britain)


The Hindu (India)


The Independent (Britain)


Le Monde Diplomatique (France)


John Pilger (Australian journalist based in Britain)


II. Reading on the background to 9/11.


Raja Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan (Verso, 1989)

John K. Cooley, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, 2nd ed. (Pluto, 2000)

Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Holt, 2000)

Michael Klare, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict (Holt, 2001)

Jonathan Neale, "The Afghan Tragedy", International Socialism 2:12 (Spring 1981),

Jonathan Neale, "The Long Torment of Afghanistan", International Socialism 2:93 (Winter 2001),

Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale, 2000)


III. 9/11 Course Anthology


Here's a link to the Jeff Cohen article on defining 'terrorism' that

I quoted:


"Afghanistan, the CIA, bin Laden and the Taliban": I think my

list of websites for alternative sources of news and analysis is on

my computer at school--I will send it to you as soon as I locate it.


Here are a few of other links.

(1) "Using Afghan Women to Sell Washington's War":



(2) "New Crusade: The US War on Terrorism":


(3) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on "War":


(4) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on "Just War Theory":