Just War & the Fight against Terrorism

Defeating terrorists has been one of the chief concerns of voters since the attacks of 9/11/01. The battle against pan-Islamic reactionaries has been extremely difficult since their scattershot network of cells and individual supporters can strike without warning in many places around the world. Unlike traditional conflicts, we can’t “win” by occupying a particular nation or territory, since the terrorists’ goals go beyond borders and ethnicities.
The Catholic Church’s Catechism says, “Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.” (2307) [1] But the Catechism goes on to say that although all “citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war,” given that “the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.” (2308)

The Church’s moral teaching on how wars must be conducted to be legitimate is further illuminated in sections 2309 through 2317. The teaching developed from theologians like St. Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, who weighed the question of whether war might be morally permissible in certain circumstances.  The “Just War” tradition in the Church has informed other religious leaders, monarchs, presidents, academics, and military leaders alike. Just War principles have become a major influence in international treaties and compacts like the Geneva Conventions. [2] In “Just War” certain conditions must be met. A war must only be conducted to serve a just cause. It must be put into action by a legitimate authority. War should only be engaged in after sincere efforts to keep peace have been exhausted. Conflicts should be avoided unless there is a high probability of success, and should not cause harm disproportionate to the amount of good to be achieved.

The Second World War is frequently cited as an example of the Allied Nations having a just cause. The invasion of Taliban controlled Afghanistan post 9/11 is also an often invoked candidate. But our government’s actions in Iraq have been far more questionable morally, especially in light of the weakness and sectarianism on display after the fall and execution of Saddam Hussein that our invasion set in motion. Combine weakness in the rule of law, a lack of justice, religious feuds, and poor economic performance, and the rise of ISIS was inevitable. It has caused an existential threat to the region by carving out a self-styled “state,” crossing the boundaries of Iraq and Syria.

Syria’s brutal and repressive regime under Bashar al-Assad was first challenged by largely peaceful protests during the Arab Spring of 2011. Quickly though, armed insurrection began amongst a variety of groups hostile to Assad, but frequently also opposed to their fellow rebels. The almost complete breakdown of law and order outside government-held territory allowed ISIS to gain a foothold among rebels with extremist religious views. At its height, the Islamic State controlled approximately 35,000 square miles (about the size of the state of Maine), although defeats have whittled its territory down to about 25,000 square miles (about the size of the state of West Virginia). [3]
Should we continue to fight ISIS? If so how should we? How can we prevent similar groups from forming in the future? President Barack Obama hit upon themes of Just War in his 2014 commencement remarks at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it -- when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.  In these circumstances, we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just. International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life.” [4]        

President Obama’s remarks are just elastic enough to allow for activities that may not be “just,” strictly speaking. In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter’s Vinnie Rotondaro, Gerard Powers of the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies [5] raises concerns about how just our efforts in the fight against terror have been. Professor Powers says that our government has committed a double moral failing by inappropriately invading Iraq in 2003 and by engaging in misguided and incompetent administrative policies in the years that followed to help create a toxic situation in the hastily rebuilt country. [6]  Powers states that since our government’s ill-handling of Iraq led to conditions that made the formation of ISIS possible, there is now a duty to act against the extremists as a just cause which may include the use of limited military forces. Michael Walzer explores similar ground in Dissent. But Walzer suggests that a fight against ISIS is not just because it is not likely to have a just end, considering the various factions that are sworn enemies of each other. [7] Another view, closer to Powers’s suggestion, comes from Andrew McMahan in the Washington Post. McMahan’s view of Just War theory is that ISIS’s brutality and targeting of minority populations meets the requirement to intervene for humanitarian reasons. [8]  

Troops that engage ISIS should be indigenous whenever and wherever possible. This is not only to counter the extremists’ “clash of civilizations” rhetoric, but also because these are the people who would continue to reside in ISIS threatened areas and would face the future results of the actions taken. Whoever arms the rebels or intervenes with their own troops, whether that will be us or the Arab states, will be involved in a long-term process of state building. Local populations will need help from within and without to develop governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that can secure peace, foster reconciliation among warring factions, and work for the rule of law and human rights. If U.S. soldiers return in numbers to the Near East for purposes beyond training and advising local forces, the Pentagon would be wise to heed the experience of Ronald Fry.

Fry, a former Army captain and Green Beret, wrote Hammerhead Six [9], a book about his unit’s successes with unconventional warfare in Afghanistan. His unit did not lose a single American life during their service, in part due to their recruitment and empowerment of locals to help them fight a common enemy. Captain Fry says in Time that they met and worked with tribal elders and local officials to determine goals, and tied their objectives with the unit’s. [10] They respected the customs of Afghans, and integrated local fighters into prime positions against the hated Taliban. Hammerhead Six worked frugally, yet captured more extremist armaments than anywhere else in the country. Fry decries the seeming unwillingness of the Department of Defense to use Hammerhead techniques in other theaters of battle or in future planning.

Plans that emphasize unilateral targeting and hunting of militants with little or no interaction with the local population frequently cause resentment and anger when mistakes (sometimes tragic ones) are made. Fry says that the war on terror won’t be won by military planners in Washington but, instead, with troops making alliances and assessing local conditions at the grass roots level.

Norman Loayza, writing at Brookings, identifies intelligence, integration, and development as the key components in defeating terrorism. [11] Nations need intelligence services and public policy researchers to analyze the motivations, organizational structure, and techniques of terrorist groups. A proactive and ongoing analysis can allow law enforcement to better counter and interdict their operations. Better integration of immigrants, and those of different religions and cultural backgrounds, is critical for all residents to feel a vested interest and concern for society. Economic reforms, government investment, and spreading opportunities equally is required to counter the grievances of the disenfranchised and unemployed that could be receptive to extremist messages.

Fortunately, there is a nation that is already working toward these goals in the Arab world. Tunisia, which ushered in the Arab Spring, is showing how a moderate and inclusive approach can fend off extremism. Rached Ghannouchi, president of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, notes that, while the push toward democracy in his country is in its early stages, they have held multiple free and fair elections. Women have been integrated into the political and civic life of the nation, and they enacted a constitution that stipulates the rule of law, separation of powers, and provides freedom of conscience and expression. [12] Ghannouchi says that Ennahda’s blueprint was to achieve a national political consensus by bringing together competing parties, business leaders, and NGOs. Since groups like ISIS thrive in areas where there is weak or bad government, the Tunisians’ goal is to spread human rights and development in order to keep its citizens invested in its system. With conflict settled by dialogue instead of violence, Ghannouchi hopes to prove that democracy and Islam are not incompatible.

States around the world that have been victimized by terrorist violence because of their support of the war against ISIS need to take care that their policies and procedures do not abuse the rights of suspects or violate due process. Failure in this regard will aid terrorist recruiting by alienating immigrant or Muslim populations. All states should adopt humane immigration and refugee policies, particularly with respect those fleeing areas controlled or impacted by ISIS. Welcoming refugees (after appropriate vetting) can diffuse the “crusader” tension cultivated by terrorists.

Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, said to an American audience in Washington as far back as November 2003 (not long after American tanks had rolled victoriously into Baghdad) that “winning the war means winning the peace.” [13] The Archbishop called on the participants of the Iraq invasion to fight poverty with development so that human potential could be realized in the region. “It may take time,” he said, “but establishing effective, participatory structure of governance is the real long term answer to international security.”

Archbishop Martin places Just War in perspective as a last resort. Instead the Church and its adherents should focus on what Pope John Paul II referred to as ongoing “gestures of peace” – such as “marching for peace…demonstrating for peace…reflecting on peace.” Working toward the goal of international peace and cooperation is always the best answer, wherever and whenever it is possible.
Kirk G. Morrison, MLIS

(Mr. Morrison is a librarian in Connecticut, is interested in issues of social justice, and in rebuilding social capital in communities nationwide.)