There are many ways to answer that question. However, the primary way the question should be approached is ethical: will our continued, escalated military action in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) prevent more human suffering than it causes?
As utilitarian, and even crass, as it may sound, questions about whether we will save more lives or cause more deaths, whether a refugee crisis outweighs the mass denial of civil rights, and if there will be a net increase or decrease of poverty as a result of the escalation are actually the humanist questions that must be addressed before determining if the escalation is just. After all, if we are causing a net increase in fatalities, injuries, refugees and poverty, then it becomes virtually impossible to justify the escalation by any standard. Or, at least, any standard that considers human life to be both valuable and equal, regardless of its place of origin.
Obviously, these are very difficult questions to answer. However, in his speech justifying our military escalation in Afghanistan, President Obama offered the potential benefits, all of which were framed in the context of reduced human suffering. As such, they serve as a useful starting point for discussion on this topic.
Many people in the United States – and many in partner countries that have sacrificed so much – have a simple question: What is our purpose in Afghanistan ? After so many years, they ask, why do our men and women still fight and die there? They deserve a straightforward answer.
So let me be clear: al Qaeda and its allies – the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks – are in Pakistan and Afghanistan . Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe-haven in Pakistan . And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban – or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged – that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can. (…)
But this is not simply an American problem – far from it. It is, instead, an international security challenge of the highest order. Terrorist attacks in London and Bali were tied to al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan , as were attacks in North Africa and the Middle East, in Islamabad and Kabul . If there is a major attack on an Asian, European, or African city, it – too – is likely to have ties to al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan . The safety of people around the world is at stake.
For the Afghan people, a return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy, and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people – especially women and girls. The return in force of al Qaeda terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence.
Do these benefits outweigh the human suffering caused by the invasion? In the extended entry, I attempt to answer that question.
Military intervention hasn’t reduced terrorism, but has killed over 9,000
President Obama’s first rationale for that continuing the war in Afghanistan is that it will save lives by reducing terrorism. This claim is dubious, at best. So far, as a result of the American military intervention, there have been a minimum of 8, 172 civilian deaths , and 1,128 coalition military fatalities. That is a minimum death toll of 9,300 deaths caused by the invasion. Maximum estimates are 28,892, not including 4,576 deaths among Afghanistan security forces, since such deaths are not clearly caused by our military intervention.
By contrast, it isn’t clear that the military intervention has saved any lives at all. Since the start of our intervention, deaths caused by terrorism worldwide have actually increased by several thousand lives a year. If the military intervention hasn’t caused a decline in deaths caused by terrorism, but has caused at least 9,300 deaths in Afghanistan (and many more in Pakistan), it appears fairly cut and dry that the military intervention has been a significant death producer rather than reducer.
Short-term reduction of violence within Afghanistan
It is possible that, after a short-term spike, coalition military intervention did actually reduce the overall violence within Afghanistan itself. Around September 11th, the Taliban and the North Alliance were estimated to have about 56,000 troops in the field combined. Further, mass killings had taken place, in once instance claiming over 4,000 lives.
However, while this lowers the overall net human death toll from the military intervention, the Afghanistan civil war has slowly reignited since 2002, and people are still dying from it. The temporary reduction in violence has not led to a long-term stoppage. As such, the military intervention has still probably caused more deaths than it prevented.
What about the future?
One objection raised to the previous two sections of this argument is that while the intervention has upped the death toll so far, an escalation will reduce the death toll in the future. This seems highly unlikely, both given the track record of the first seven years of the war, and given the increased frequency of increased drone attacks:
AMERICAN drone attacks on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan are causing a massive humanitarian emergency, Pakistani officials claimed after a new attack yesterday killed 13 people. Â The dead and injured included foreign militants, but women and children were also killed when two missiles hit a house in the village of Data Khel, near the Afghan border, according to local officials.
As many as 1m people have fled their homes in the Tribal Areas to escape attacks by the unmanned spy planes as well as bombings by the Pakistani army. Â So far 546,000 have registered as internally displaced people (IDPs) according to figures provided by Rabia Ali, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and Maqbool Shah Roghani, administrator for IDPs at the Commission for Afghan Refugees.
Jamil Amjad, the commissioner in charge of the refugees, says the government is running short of resources to feed and shelter such large numbers. A fortnight ago two refugees were killed and six injured in clashes with police during protests over shortages of water, food and tents.
These drone attacks are going to kill a lot more civilians than they will save. In fact, they are a form of terrorism themselves. Given that we are only going to increase these attacks in the coming weeks and months, there is little prospect that the escalation will actually reduce the number of deaths in Afghanistan (and Pakistan).
Military intervention has been a net positive for refugees
One aspect of human suffering in Afghanistan that President Obama did not directly cite as a rationale for military escalation in Afghanistan was refugees. He might have been well-served by doing so, because the military intervention has been a net positive for refugees in Afghanistan. Despite the drone attacks described above, and despite at least 200,000 civilians being displaced by the heavy bombing in the first few months of the war, over 5,000,000 million Afghani refugees have repatriated since the start of the U.S.-led military intervention. This represents roughly two-thirds of all Afghani refugees from before the war.
While the damage caused by the drone attacks is obviously unjustifiable terrorism of the highest order, overall the coalition military intervention has improved the refugee situation in the region.
Even before 9/11, as a younger man I wondered if it would be justifiable to overthrow the Taliban because of their massive human rights abuses. Many other people have clearly weighed this question too, given that the abuses of the Taliban have been cited as a reason to intervene militarily from September 12th, 2001, to President Obama in the speech quoted above.
Without question, human rights have increased in most areas of Afghanistan since the military intervention. However, they are still limited by our own standards, and appear to be heading in the wrong direction. There are improvements, but how stable those improvements actually are, and how those improvements can be weighed alongside the fatality and refugee situations, is very difficult to say.
Here is a sticky question: do the human rights improvements, plus the net return of about three to four million refugees, outweigh the roughly 20,000 excess deaths? That isn’t an easy question to answer. However, it still serves as a decent starting point for determining whether the war in Afghanistan is justified. It certainly is much better than geo-political strategic rationales.
Largely because it is unlikely the balance of human suffering will change much, ethical determinations on whether the escalation is justified are connected to the overall question of whether the war is justified. While my gut reaction tells me that it isn’t worth it, I can honestly say that I don’t know the answer to the basic question. Are the human rights improvements, plus the net return of about three to four million refugees, worth the roughly 20,000 excess deaths in Afghanistan? As I said, that isn’t an an easy question to answer, but it probably is a question everyone should answer before deciding where they stand on this war.
(Cross-posted from Open Left.)