Iraq, the War on Terror and Just War Theory
I will answer this question by focusing on the Iraq war, as it relates to the “war on terror”, arguing that it is by no means clear that it has been a just war. I will make this case by examining whether the actual conduct of the US-led coalition – in terms of both the initial invasion and the subsequent counter-insurgency conflict - measures up to the standards defined by Just War theory.
The US “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism” defines the goals of “war on terror” as “defeating terrorist organizations of global reach through the direct or indirect use of diplomatic, economic, information, law enforcement, military, financial, intelligence, and other instruments of power” (White House: February 2003). Given the breadth of this description, the issue of whether all of these various activities can be classed as warfare, and constraints of space, I will restrict my focus to the largest conventional war fought as part of the “war on terror”: the Iraq war.
The US-led war in Iraq has been explicitly claimed as part of the war on terror. US President Bush’s national radio address on 8 March 2003 (White House: March 2003), on the eve of the invasion, describe the alleged threat posed by Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” (“WMD”) specifically as a front in the war on terror. He said
“Saddam Hussein has a long history of reckless aggression and terrible crimes. He possesses weapons of terror. He provides funding and training and safe haven to terrorists who would willingly deliver weapons of mass destruction against America and other peace-loving countries.”
The US-led coalition also argued that Iraq posed a conventional military threat and that war was justified for this reason (Walt & Mearsheimer:2003). In addition, others have argued that in fact, the US invaded Iraq to secure strategic control over its natural resources (Chomsky:2003:125). For the purposes of this essay, I shall concentrate my review specifically on those aspects of the war relating or purportedly relating to the “war on terror”.
Finally, it is necessary to define what is meant by a just war. To focus on the question at hand I will forgo any debate on this issue and simply defer to an accepted version of Just War theory: that cited by Nicholas J. Wheeler (Wheeler:2002:207). According to Wheeler, Just War theory
“determines that a war is just if it satisfies the conditions of the jus ad bellum: just cause, last resort, right intention, reasonable prospect of success leading to a just peace and right authority. However, states that go to war whether for just or unjust reasons must also meet the requirement of the jus in bello. This establishes the absolute and overriding constraint that states are not permitted to deliberately harm the innocent.”
Accepting these as the defining criteria of Just War theory, I will measure the conduct of the coalition prosecuting the Iraq war against these standards.
Jus Ad Bellum
The invasion of Iraq
The controversial circumstances under which the Iraq war was launched are well known, and it is difficult to say with certainty that its stated objectives were the actual objectives. For example, a minute of a meeting in July 2002 between the British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary and other senior figures stated that “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” (Sunday Times: May 2005).
This assessment has been corroborated by former UN Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, who said that the coalition gave the WMD case “a spin that was not acceptable. They put exclamation marks where there had been question marks and I think that is hyping, a spin, that leads the public to the wrong conclusions.” (BBC:2004)
In addition to the question marks over the existence of Iraqi WMD stockpiles (which in the event were never discovered) there were also doubts concerning whether Iraq would have been likely to transfer any such WMD to terrorists. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer noted that
“there is no credible evidence that Iraq had anything to do with the terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or more generally that Iraq is collaborating with al Qaeda against the United States. Hawks inside and outside the Bush administration have gone to extraordinary lengths over the past months to find a link, but they have come up empty-handed” (Walt & Mearsheimer:2003).
Walt and Mearsheimer also pointed out the essential and established enmity between the religious extremist Osama bin Laden and the secular Ba’ath regime, and that it would be very unlikely that any co-operation could emerge since it would likely be traced back to Iraq, eliciting a devastating response from the US.
At this point we may address the “Jus Ad Bellum” sub-criteria of “last resort”. Plainly the US was not under attack from Iraq in March 2003. Nor did the coalition claim that offensive military action instigated by Iraq was imminent. The US and its allies certainly argued that the “war on terror” was ongoing, that the US had been attacked on September 11, 2001, and that this provided the justification for any necessary defensive measures. But since no plausible links existed between Baghdad and the 9/11 attacks or al Qaeda, the invasion of Iraq could not be credibly portrayed as a “last resort” measure against an ongoing attack. Indeed, it may even be argued that the question marks over those links and over the existence of WMD render any argument of “last resort” superfluous. Since there was no proven threat, no attack nor any known prospect of attack, the US was not obliged to “resort” to invasion, whether in the first or last instance.
For Walt and Mearsheimer, the only conceivable scenario in which an ad hoc al Qaeda-Ba’ath axis could form would be where Saddam judged that he had nothing to lose, i.e. where there was an attempt to overthrow him. Here the “Jus Ad Bellum” consideration of “reasonable prospect of success” intertwines with that of “just cause, right intention”. Not only, as we have seen, was both the existence of Iraqi WMD and any links with between Saddam and bin Laden highly questionable, but a stronger argument could be made that invading Iraq would actually increase the threat from terrorism. In other words, there was a serious prospect of the exact opposite of success.
There was an additional reason to suspect the invasion would have been counter productive in counter-terror terms. The invasion could prove a recruiting sergeant for jihadist groups, a factor which may well have been understood by policymakers at the time. Five weeks before the invasion The British government’s Joint Intelligence Committee warned the government in strong terms that military action would increase the risk of terrorist attacks against Britain by groups such as al Qaeda. In the British Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee’s description: “The JIC assessed that al-Qa'eda and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq” (Daily Telegraph:2003).
At the point of the invasion of Iraq, focusing specifically on the relationship between that action and the “war on terror”, it was by no means clear that the war met the Just War theory standard of “just cause, last resort, right intention, reasonable prospect of success”. To look at the last of these criteria in full - “reasonable prospect of success leading to a just peace and right authority” – it is necessary to look at the US-led attempts post-invasion to impose authority on Iraq, and the counter-insurgency war fought to that end.
From invasion to counter-insurgency
There is strong evidence to suggest that a large number of Iraqis support armed attacks on coalition forces. A poll conducted by the British Ministry of Defence in 2005 found that across Iraq as a whole, 45 per cent of people felt such attacks are justified (Daily Telegraph:2005). A poll published in early 2006 found that 47 per cent of all Iraqis, including 41 per cent of Shia and 88 per cent of Sunni Iraqis, approved of attacks on US-led forces (PIPA:2006:7). Michael Walzer argues that if the insurgents have the support of a substantive amount of the population then (a) the war has no “reasonable prospect of success” since the insurgents can never be isolated, and (b) in circumstances such as these, the war against the insurgents will necessarily also be against the people. It will be an “anti-social war” which can not, by definition, lead to a “just peace” or a “right authority” (Walzer:1977:187). I shall return to this point, which links the principles of “Jus ad Bellum” and “Jus in Bello”, at the end of this essay.
Finally, in terms of “Jus ad Bellum”, we should revisit the argument that the counter-insurgency war has links to the wider “war on terror”. Bush has said that “if we lose [in Iraq], if this young democracy fails, the enemy will be emboldened. They will have resources in which to launch attacks. They have declared their desire to have a caliphate throughout the Middle East, and one of their targets is to topple modern governments” (ABC News:2006).
The analysis conducted by Robert Pape into suicide bombing over the past twenty years contradicts this assessment. Pape’s study strongly suggests that a coalition withdrawal from Iraq would have the opposite effect from that described by Bush (Pape:2003). Pape’s study of 188 suicide attacks from 1980 to 2001 reveals that, rather than being motivated by religious fanaticism, this form of terrorism is driven by clear secular goals, namely the expulsion of an occupying force from a national territory. The dominant pattern of behaviour identified by Pape in his extensive study reveals not fanaticism or irrationality but cold strategic calculation focused on the limited goal of ending occupation, and nothing more ambitious beyond this.
In respect of the threat of terrorist attacks on western soil, it has been argued that the continued presence of the coalition in Iraq increases the threat of terrorism. A joint Home Office and Foreign Office dossier, ordered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2004 described the Iraq conflict as a "recruiting sergeant" for extremism amongst young Britons (Sunday Times: July 2005). The following year the Guardian reported that “the Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre - which includes officials from MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the police” had warned the British government that “events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the UK” (Guardian:July 2005).
It is therefore unclear that Bush was correct to describe the counter-insurgency war in Iraq as presenting a reasonable prospect of a wider success in the “war on terror”. In fact, the global terror threat may well increase as long as Iraq is occupied by the coalition.
Jus in Bello
As large parts of Iraq have been a war zone since March 2003, it is hard to establish the precise nature of events on the ground with any real certainty. However, even in the absence of thorough and impartial investigations or war crimes trials, it is possible, by collecting information from a variety of credible sources, to put together a reasonably reliable picture of the conduct of coalition forces in Iraq. I will not argue that the coalition forces have certainly failed to meet the criteria of “Jus in Bello”. But I will argue that there is good reason to believe that they have not met those criteria.
Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Amnesty International reported that it was “deeply concerned” about the “reported use of cluster bombs by US forces in heavily populated areas” (Amnesty:2003:1). Cluster bombs scatter scores of small bomblets over a large area, many of which do not explode, effectively becoming land mines. Amnesty noted that that the “devastating consequences of using cluster bombs in civilian areas are utterly predictable”, that the coalition had acknowledged using these weapons, and that the unexploded bomblets “invariably pose a continuing threat to civilians, especially children” (my emphasis) (Amnesty:2003:3).
In his description of the “Jus in Bello” criteria (the “overriding constraint that states are not permitted to deliberately harm the innocent”) Wheeler defines “innocent” as not having the “capacity to harm others”, which may justify some civilian deaths as some civilians do have the “capacity to harm others”. However, this would certainly not cover the children apparently put at risk according to Amnesty International (Wheeler:2002:207). Wheeler quotes Walzer who says that “the relevant distinction is … between those who make what soldiers need to fight and those who make what they need to live”. So, for example, civilians working in munitions factories may legitimately be killed, but not civilians providing essential utilities. Crucial to the “Jus in Bello” criteria is the concept of proportionality. This is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions, for example, Article 52(2) which allows states only to attack “objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action” (Wheeler:2002:209).
This definition leaves much to interpretation. So it is unclear, for example, that coalition strikes on power plants in Basra, reported by Amnesty International, could legitimately be described as proportionate without far more factual data available. Whatever their military utility, these power plants were also required to pump clean water through the city. According to Amnesty “by 31 March , half the 1.2 million people in the beleaguered city lacked water” and that some “were reduced to drinking ‘garden water’ normally used for irrigation, which is not safe to wash in, let alone drink”. This suggests that, whatever claims might be made about proportionality, the “overriding constraint that states are not permitted to deliberately harm the innocent” had been breached in this instance (Amnesty:2003:5).
Counter-insurgency and Jus in Bello: the case of al-Fallujah
In terms of the conflict that followed the initial invasion, an examination of coalition conduct in respect of the “Jus in Bello” principle can be made by focussing on the case of al-Fallujah, a city in western Iraq that became synonymous with the US-led counter-insurgency war.
According to Human Rights Watch, US troops entered al-Fallujah after the Ba’ath regime had fallen, to find that the city’s people had successfully established order in the city, avoiding the chaos and looting that devastated places like Baghdad (Human Rights Watch:2003:4). Local people resented the presence of US troops, alleging rough and inappropriate behaviour. The troops set up base in a primary school, prompting popular demonstrations which were fired upon by US troops in disputed circumstances, with many killed and injured (Human Rights Watch:2003:1). Human Rights Watch stated that, though a “full, independent and impartial investigation” of the incidents was required, its own findings pointed to “excessive force used by US troops”. (Human Rights Watch:2003:2).
These incidents sparked a slowly escalating cycle of violence between local groups and the coalition. In April 2004, US Marines responded to the killing of four US security guards with a major operation that, according to sources cited by Amnesty International, killed at least 600 people, at least half of whom were civilians, including children. The US failed to impose its will on the city to its satisfaction, and as insurgent attacks on its forces increased, sporadic air-strikes on “insurgent ‘safe houses’” in the city followed in subsequent months, reportedly killing many more civilians. (Amnesty:2004)
Finally, in November 2004 a major assault was launched to re-take the city. According to sources cited in Noam Chomsky’s account of the attack, civilians were driven out of the city by preliminary bombing, though “men ages fifteen to forty-five who attempted to flee were turned back”. A ground attack followed, whose first target was the city hospital, shut down because its reports of civilian casualties served as a “propaganda” weapon for the insurgents according to a New York Times report quoted by Chomsky. During subsequent US-led operations, the Iraqi Red Crescent was denied access to the city (Chomsky:2006:46-50).
According to Jonathan Steele and Dahr Jamail, writing for the Guardian, coalition forces had by this stage declared the city a “free-fire zone”. Allegations of atrocities followed. The city was reduced to rubble in many parts, and thereafter run under maximum security. For Steele and Jamail, al-Fallujah would become “this decade’s unforgettable monument to brutality and overkill” to rank alongside Grozny in the 1990s and Guernica in the 1930s (Guardian: April 2005). Al-Fallujah sits in the centre of the Sunni dominated area of Iraq where, according to the poll previously cited, 88 per cent of the population were in favour of attacks on US forces by late 2005.
Many credible reports point to frequent contraventions of the “Jus in Bello” principle by coalition forces since the invasion of Iraq. Before concluding on this point, however, it is possible to use the case of al-Fallujah to make an observation regarding the interaction of counter-insurgency war and the two criteria Just War theory.
Counter-insurgency and the merging of Jus Ad Bellum and Jus in Bello
The story of al-Fallujah carries echoes of US counter-insurgency tactics in Vietnam, where the US also faced an insurgency rooted in and supported by the population According to Walzer, “the goal [of US forces] was to force the separation of combatants and non-combatants, and the means was terror” (Walzer:1977:189). As Richard Betts points out, “The contest between insurgents and counterinsurgents is ‘tripartite’, polarizing political alignments and gaining the support of attentistes or those in the middle” (Betts:2002:28). Walzer says “that is what is meant when it is said that the battle is for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people”. However, and this is the significance of al-Fallujah, “one cannot triumph in such a battle by treating the people as so many enemies to be attacked and killed along with the guerrillas who live among them” (Walzer:1977:187).
For Walzer, this has implications for Just War theory as a whole, in terms of its application to counter-insurgency.
“In the theory of war….considerations of jus ad bellum and jus in bello are logically independent, and the judgements we make in terms of one and the other are not necessarily the same. But here they come together. The war cannot be won, and it should not be won. It cannot be won, because the only available strategy involves a war against civilians; and it should not be won, because the degree of civilian support that rules out alternative strategies also makes the guerrillas the legitimate rulers of their country. The struggle against them is an unjust struggle as well as one that can only be carried on unjustly. Fought by foreigners, it is a war of aggression; if by a local regime alone, it is an act of tyranny. The position of the anti-guerrilla forces has become doubly untenable” (Walzer:1977:195-6).
In other words, an “anti-social war” can not be fought according to “Jus ad Bellum” or “Jus in Bello” principles. Its cause will be unjust and its prosecution will necessarily target the innocent.
This review suggests that it is unclear that the Iraq war, specifically in terms of its relationship to the war on terror, has been a just war. In conception, its intentions were unclear, and its cause unproven. It could not be argued that it was undertaken as a “last resort” since the purported threat itself was unproven. Not only were its prospects of success in terms of curbing the terrorist threat highly questionable, but it was arguable that the threat could actually increase as a result of military action. The prospects of success leading to a just peace and authority in terms of the counter-insurgency war are also decidedly slim, given that the insurgency has strong to near-unanimous support in many parts of the country, so its defeat would necessarily be to impose an unwanted and alien authority on the people.
In respect of how the war itself has been fought, it appears that many actions and atrocities that contravene the principle of “Jus In Bello” may have been committed by the coalition. This raises a final important point: a war fought against a popular insurgency will, by its very nature be neither “Jus ad Bellum” nor “Jus in Bello”.
ABC News, (7 September 2006), “Butler Report”.
Betts. R.K., (2002), “The Soft Underbelly of American Primacy: Tactical Advantages of Terror”, Political Science Quarterly 117 (1): 19-36.
Chomsky. N., (2003), “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance”, (London: Penguin).
Chomsky. N., (2006), “Failed States: the Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy”, (London:Hamish Hamilton)
Daily Telegraph, (12 September 2003), “Blair rejected terror warnings”.
Daily Telegraph, (22 October 2005), “Secret MoD poll: Iraqis support attacks on British troops”.
Guardian, (19 July 2005), “Intelligence 'warned of Iraq terror link'”.
Human Rights Watch, (June 2003), “Violent Response: the US Army in al-Fallujah”, (New York).
Pape. R.A., (2003), “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review 97 (3): 343-361.
Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), (31 January 2006), “What the Iraqi Public Wants”.
Sunday Times, (1 May 2005), “Leaked No 10 dossier reveals Al-Qaeda’s British recruits”.
Walt. S.M. and Mearsheimer. J.J., (2003), “An Unnecessary War”, Foreign Policy, January/February 2003.
Walzer. M., (1977), “Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations” (New York: Basic Books).
Wheeler. N.J., (2002), “Dying for Enduring Freedom: Accepting Responsibility for Civilian Casualties in the War Against Terrorism”, International Relations, 16(2), pp.205-225.
The White House, (February 2003), “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism”, (Washington).
The White House, (March 2003), “War on Terror: President’s radio address” , (Washington).