The Magazine

Rumsfeld's Just War

Generals meet theologians at the Pentagon.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By JOE LOCONTE
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CRITICS of the U.S. war in Afghanistan have been wrong about virtually everything. They predicted that a Soviet-style quagmire awaited American troops; that chaos on the ground would turn millions of Afghans into refugees; and that tens of thousands of civilians would be killed by errant U.S. bombs. They saw a conflict that would be immoral in its effect, if not its intent.

Little more than two months after the first bombs fell, U.S. forces have guided rebel troops to victory with just a handful of American fatalities. The Taliban's army has fled or surrendered in droves, and their government, a case study in Islamic repression, has collapsed. Though a frightening number of Afghans are at risk of starvation (as they were before September 11), no mass exodus has occurred--and the fall of the regime makes emergency relief efforts infinitely easier.

Perhaps most important, the United States has waged a war on terrorists while mostly avoiding civilian casualties--which is to say it is fighting a just war with just means.

That seemed to be the consensus, at least, at a recent Pentagon meeting between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and about a dozen prominent religious leaders and writers. Prison Fellowship's Chuck Colson, citing Christian theologians who first defined the moral limits of warfare, said the U.S. campaign "would fit the Augustinian-Aquinas playbook perfectly."

Rumsfeld invited the eclectic group--some representing religious bodies critical of U.S. actions--for a frank discussion of the war on terrorism. His guests included the Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington; Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia; evangelicals Colson and Franklin Graham of Samaritan's Purse; M. Bruce Lustig, senior rabbi of the Washington Hebrew Congregation; Imam Khoj, director of the Islamic Center of Washington; and journalists Deal Hudson of Crisis magazine and myself.

If anyone was expecting evasive talk about "collateral damage," it didn't happen. Instead, Vice Admiral Thomas Ray Wilson, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, explained in detail how military targets are chosen. Damage estimates to enemy forces are measured against possible harm to innocents before every strike. War planes, including fighter jets as well as B-52 heavy bombers, focus on narrowly defined areas. Strike times are varied to minimize risks to civilians. Intelligence sometimes scuttles attack plans at the last moment.

It's a policy, we were reminded, that carries a cost. "We slow the pace of the campaign and increase the risk of the people executing it," Wilson said. "But we do this because of the laws of armed conflict and because of our own moral values." The result, despite Taliban tales to the contrary, is that remarkably few non-combatants have been caught in the crossfire--the first requirement for fighting a just war.

Critics also warned that U.S. military tactics would unleash a nightmare of humanitarian ills. The liberal magazine Sojourners even assailed the United States for "standing in the way of feeding starving people."

But at the Pentagon briefing, Joe Collins, deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs, described "unprecedented coordination" between the military and emergency relief teams. U.S. planes, for example, have dropped roughly 2.3 million food packages into the country since the war began. The opening of the "Friendship Bridge" into northern Afghanistan from Uzbekistan just two weeks ago has allowed 42,000 tons of food into the neediest parts of the country. Later this month, the United States will join an international conference in Europe to help secure billions of dollars for reconstruction efforts.

Immense problems still plague the Afghan people--disease, malnutrition, homelessness--but their causes lie elsewhere. More than two decades of war, four years of drought, and five years of Islamic tyranny have created a humanitarian crisis affecting millions. "The Taliban did their absolute best to interfere with humanitarian assistance to their own people," Collins said. "It's almost impossible to overstate how bad things are."

Nevertheless, the situation is slowly stabilizing. Food and medical convoys are finally getting into the country unimpeded. Order is being restored. As Rumsfeld put it: "There probably will be the least violent change of power in Afghanistan in modern times." That's no small accomplishment, and it fits the just war principle of proportionality: The use of force must not produce more evil than it would prevent.