Solutions to Violent Conflict

Is Afghanistan a ‘Good War’?

In Afghanistan, Counterterrorism, War on October 1, 2009 at 9:02 am

Photo courtesy U.S. Army

U.S. Army soldiers on an early-morning patrol mission near Forward Operating Base Baylough, Zabul, Afghanistan, in March 2009. Photo credit: U.S. Army (Flickr).

David Cortright

This article includes video content. (4:00)

The goal of defeating Al Qaeda and preventing global terrorist strikes is a just cause. But current U.S. war policies in Afghanistan will not achieve that goal. In fact, they may make matters worse. U.S. policy in the region is based on the assumption that war is a necessary and appropriate means of defeating Al Qaeda-based terrorism. The United States also assumes that the Taliban is equivalent to Al Qaeda, and therefore it is a legitimate target for a multi-year counterinsurgency war. These assumptions are questionable — strategically and ethically.


War: The Wrong Approach

War is an ineffective means of countering terrorism and defeating a terrorist network like Al Qaeda. A 2008 RAND Corporation study showed that terrorist groups usually end through political processes and effective law enforcement, not through the use of military force. A study of 268 terrorist organizations that ended during a 40-year period found that the primary factors accounting for their demise were participation in political processes (43 percent) and effective policing (40 percent). Military force brought about the end of terrorist groups in only 7 percent of the cases.1

As long as these attitudes prevail, there will be no end of recruits willing to blow themselves up to kill Americans and their supporters.

The presence of foreign troops is the primary factor motivating armed resistance and insurgency in the region. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace cited opposition to external forces as “the most important factor in mobilizing support for the Taliban.” 2 In Pakistan, U.S. military policies and air strikes are “driving more and more Pashtuns into the arms of Al Qaeda and its jihadi allies,” according to former Washington Post correspondent Selig Harrison.3 When the United States invades and occupies Muslim countries, this tends to validate Osama bin Laden’s false claim that America is waging war on Islam. Polls in Muslim countries have shown that up to 80 percent of respondents agree that American policy seeks to weaken and divide the Islamic world.4 As long as these attitudes prevail, there will be no end of recruits willing to blow themselves up to kill Americans and their supporters.

Taliban: The Wrong Target

The United States is waging war primarily against the Taliban, not Al Qaeda. Only a few hundred Al Qaeda militants are estimated to be active in Afghanistan, and they play a minor role in armed attacks against NATO forces.5 This alters the moral calculus and casts doubt on self-defense as a justification for the war. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are closely intertwined, but they are different in important ways. The Taliban is a diverse network of Pashtun militia groups. Al Qaeda, by contrast, is an Arab-based network focused on a global agenda of attacking Western interests. Taliban groups do not have a transnational agenda. Unlike Al Qaeda, they have not committed aggression against or declared war on the United States. The Taliban is divided by ideology and purpose, but united in opposition to the Afghan government and by their determination to rid the region of foreign forces.

Even if U.S. forces could prevail in a ‘long war’ against the Taliban, it is doubtful that the costs in death and destruction would be proportional to the presumed benefit.

In just war doctrine, probability of success is an important criterion. It requires that military force not be used in a futile cause or in circumstances where disproportionate force would be needed to assure success. The prospects for success in the current campaign are highly uncertain. After eight years of U.S./NATO military operations, violent attacks and casualties are rising, and Taliban influence is spreading. The present troop increases will not be sufficient to turn the tide militarily, and may well spark greater armed resistance. Even if U.S. forces could prevail in a ‘”long war” against the Taliban, it is doubtful that the costs in death and destruction would be proportional to the presumed benefit.

The Right Strategy

The Obama administration has responded to requests for more troops in Afghanistan by calling for the development of new strategies in the region. This will require a critical evaluation of the assumptions underlying current policy and the development of less militarized means of isolating and defeating Al Qaeda. A more effective U.S. and NATO strategy would:

Shift the focus from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism, concentrating on suppressing Al Qaeda and jihadi extremists, protecting the Afghan people, and defending development and construction projects. The military shouldn’t be asked to fight a prolonged counterinsurgency war against the Taliban, which would require the deployment of tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops.

Support political reconciliation with elements of the Taliban that are willing to cooperate in removing safe havens and preventing the use of their territory for launching terrorist strikes. Limit the number of air strikes, including drone attacks, which kill large numbers of civilians and multiply hostility. Seek formal agreements with the Afghan and Pakistani governments on how military force should be used.

Work with Afghan and Pakistani partners to strengthen the foundations of political governance, including increasing diplomatic and financial support for efforts to fight corruption and to foster sustainable development and human rights. Engage with neighboring states, including Iran, to build diplomatic and economic support for regional stabilization.

Finally, build civilian peacebuilding capacity within the region and in the U.S. government. Don’t overburden the military with unnecessary and inappropriate missions. War is not an effective means of countering terrorism. And it can’t be good if it doesn’t work.

David Cortright is director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.


1 Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki, How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2008), xiii–xiv.

2 Gilles Dorronsoro, “Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War” (position paper, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2009, Washington, D.C.), 9, 13.
3 Selig S. Harrison, “Pakistan: The State of the Union” (special report, Center for International Policy, Washington, D.C., April 2009), 32.
4 Michael Scheuer, Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq (New York: Free Press, 2008), 155. See also, for example, Dr. Steven Kull, Director, Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), “Negative Attitudes Toward the United States in the Muslim World: Do They Matter?” (testimony before House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, 110th Cong., 1st sess., Washington, D.C., 17 May 2007), available at World Public Opinion.org, (accessed 11 June 2009). Dr. Kull referenced a recent poll conducted by PIPA which indicated that, among those polled in four Muslim countries, “8 in 10 believe that the U.S. seeks to ‘weaken and divide the Islamic world.’”
5 Gilles Dorronsoro, “Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War” (position paper, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2009, Washington, D.C.),

  1. I am grateful for the clarity and concise nature of the three articles.

  2. Thank you for this excellent article.

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