Were Afghanistan and Iraq “Just Wars”?

Posted on August 1, 2013 at 11:24 am,

This is the latest in our series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we’re finishing up the chapter on Defence policy, covering his arguments that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were just wars. We had a brief look at the criteria used to assess this situation in a Previous Post, so let’s just get down to how Grudem justifies this.

Did the wars have a just cause?

Grudem says that the aim of the Afghan and Iraq wars was to defend the United States against Islamic terrorists, who had attacked them on 9/11. He says that the Taliban and Al Qaeda were controlling Afghanistan and that Saddam Hussein was providing terrorist training grounds and paying money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Grudem says that a second just cause is that Saddam was continuing to prevent site visits to verify that he had no nuclear weapons. He claims that the Iraqi regime might have had chemical and biological weapons, and smuggled them into Syria. Grudem also says that an additional justification was that, by introducing (i.e. forcing) a democratic system of government on the two countries, it would provide “a more effective long-term antidote to Islamic terrorism”. He claims that this is because “countries that are governed by open democratic processes do not launch wars of conquest against other nations”.

On the first point, Afghanistan was controlled by the Taliban, but it was not controlled by Al Qaeda. However, the Taliban were sheltering Bin Laden from the US. Whether this justified an invasion is open to question. Iraq, on the other hand, had no links with Al Qaeda. Yes, they had supported some terrorist groups who were attacking Israel, Turkey, and Iran. But Saddam supported secular terrorist groups, rather than Islamic ones. Saddam was a pan-Arab secularist, and the only common ground between him and Al Qaeda was that they had both made enemies of the United States and its allies.

As for the question of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the evidence that Iraq still possessed them looked decidedly shaky back in 2003, and looks even more so now that we know there was no trace of them anywhere in Iraq. Whether Iraq’s occasional obstruction of the weapons inspectors was a violation of the UN resolutions or the 1993 surrender agreement is a more complicated question. But it’s certainly possible to argue that it constituted a grounds for war, albeit a fairly weak one.

Finally, “bringing democracy” as an antidote to terrorism is not a justification for war. Firstly, invading in order to bring democracy means that we are using war to force our idea of social good on these two nations (something which Grudem rejected elsewhere in the chapter). Secondly, as a result of the invasion of Iraq, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have established a presence there where they didn’t have one before. Thirdly, Grudem’s claim that no democratic nation has ever launched a war of conquest is historically ignorant. The British Empire conquered a quarter of the world’s land surface, and had a democratic government (although only men could vote). Fourthly, even if that was true, terrorist attacks are not wars of conquest, making the point irrelevant.

Were they declared by a competent authority?

Grudem says that both wars were declared by the American President and Congress. Which is not the whole story – the Iraq war involved a number of different countries, whose declarations of war were made by their own government. Both wars pass this one – although given the cause of the Iraq war, a UN resolution should really have been part of the declaration process.

Was there comparative justice?

This one basically means “is it clear that your side was in the right and theirs in the wrong”. Grudem claims that the “great evil propagated by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq” makes this a clear pass. I don’t think that this one is quite as clear-cut as he makes out.

The war in Afghanistan was triggered because the Taliban refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden to the US. From what was reported in the media at the time, my understanding was that the US had given very little evidence that Bin Laden (or, indeed, Al Qaeda) were responsible for 9/11. If Bin Laden had been living in the UK, then based on the evidence that was public at the time, it is unlikely that there would have been enough evidence to extradite him. Yes, the Taliban was a particularly nasty regime, and were in cahoots with Al Qaeda, but it’s nowhere near as clear cut as Grudem seems to think.

In Iraq, the justification was that Saddam had broken United Nations sanctions and still possessed weapons of mass destruction. Given that it was not clear whether he did or not, the question of who was in the right is far more ambiguous.

Was war the last resort?

Grudem says that it was, because other negotiations and diplomacy had gone on for years without any significant change. In the case of Afghanistan, this is somewhat odd. The invasion happened less than a year after the event it was a response to. It’s not clear that all other options had been exhausted. In the case of Iraq, yes there were years of negotiations and diplomacy, but the UN weapons inspectors were very close to completing their report – declaring war before it was finished definitely seems premature.

Was there a great probability of success?

Grudem says there was. Whether he was right depends on precisely what the aim was. In Afghanistan, the probability of capturing or killing Bin Laden appears with hindsight to have been very low, though the probability of overthrowing the Taliban was relatively high. In Iraq, the probability of overthrowing Saddam’s regime was clearly very high. But given that nobody had thought about what to do next, the probability of any other goals were fairly low.

Was the proportionality of projected results in the US’s favour?

This one basically means “will the good of winning outweigh the harm of waging war?” Grudem says that it did, because Iraqi and Afghan terrorism was world-threatening, and because great good would come out of changing their governments. He claims that both nations have emerged as functioning democracies, and that oppressive regimes have been replaced with comparative freedom.

Grudem appears to be overstating the case here. Whilst both Iraq and Afghanistan are democracies, they may not be functioning democracies. In particular, there were serious problems with the 2009 Afghan elections – with widespread ballot stuffing, intimidation, and other electoral fraud (something in the region of a quarter of the votes were thrown out due to fraud). And there are definitely parts of Iraqi society who are less free and less secure than they were – Christians in particular.

Were the wars carried out in the right spirit?

Grudem says that the two wars were carried out with regret that the war was necessary, but but a determination to bring it to a successful conclusion. Whilst there are plenty of people who would dispute that, it’s reasonable to give the benefit of the doubt on this one.


Whilst both wars pass at least some of the Just War criteria, Grudem seems to be stretching when he says that they both pass all of them. Afghanistan seems to me to have rather more points in favour of it being (at least to start with) a Just War. Either way, this demonstrates that defining what is and isn’t a Just War is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Even World War Two has points where the case is weak (the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki were all rather disproportionate).

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