Image for Afghanistan and the alliance argument

In previous articles in this journal ( HERE ) it was argued that the official reason for fighting in Afghanistan, national security, made no sense and that US policy had implicitly acknowledged this by endorsing ‘reconciliation’ talks with insurgent leaders. This argument relied on factual accounts of the war which were inevitably selective; I hope they were relevant and not too tedious. This paper deals with another justification which Australia, but not the US or the UK, relies heavily on; so much so that any serious review of the war power must consider its role.

Before addressing this argument it should be said that the new US policy referred to has not yet been clearly articulated and it is not hard to see why; the claims of a terrorist threat have been so effective in shaping public opinion that peace talks are likely to be seen as a victory for global terrorism. This point is important, because it means Australia’s war policy is now tied to the vagaries of a US mid-term election campaign.

The second Australian reason for war, re-affirmed in speeches by the Prime Minister and Defence Minister prior to the elections, is the value of the US alliance, which has an immediate appeal for those who support the war and for many critics, even if they think it is outweighed by the cost in lives and resources. The alliance goes back to the Second World War and the return of Australian troops from the Middle East to fight in the Pacific. Its benefits were clear in the Australia-led, UN mandated peace-keeping intervention in East Timor - it is doubtful we would have accepted this role without the protection afforded by an offshore US fleet with air cover.

These are clear cases where the use of force is justified both in international law and ordinary morality. In too many instances this is either unclear or clearly wrong; it is not widely realized that in the latter case the alliance argument is specious, even though it continues to influence debates. To bring out this point it is worth asking why so many people are deeply troubled by the idea that war can be justified - that lethal force can be used against others - for reasons of national self-interest, that is, to protect our commercial and security interests in a good relationship with a powerful ally.

They believe exactly the opposite, that self-interest can never justify harming others. They assume that to justify war one must argue on widely accepted moral grounds. Nations do this when they appeal, however sincerely, to principles of justice and humanity which underlie the right of self-defence in international law, or a supposed right to intervene in a civil war. International law is clear on this point; it prohibits discretionary wars fought to serve national interests; otherwise nations could, like school bullies, justify violence simply by pointing to the spoils.

Expressed in this way, few politicians would disagree. This is despite an often-voiced claim that ordinary moral values do not apply in the world of foreign relations such that regime change, extra-judicial killing, torture etc. can be justified in other ways, mostly by appeal to ‘the national interest.’ But this ignores what it means to argue from a moral position, which requires coherence, arguably in the name of integrity; the claim that one can have two sets of rules, one moral and the other pragmatic, is just a pretext to treat inconsistencies as exceptions.

How nations behave is, of course, another matter. Henry Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State, political scientist and Nobel laureate, is charged by his many critics, most notably by Christopher Hitchens, with acting on this Realpolitik theory during the 1970’s, when he was instrumental in shaping US cold war policy. Until the matter is resolved Kissinger cannot hope to visit the Prado or the Louvre without risking arrest for war crimes arising from the CIA backed coup in Chile.

The question is why the alliance argument, which seeks to treat interests as values, has proved so resilient. Part of the reason is that an alliance is an obvious and prudent choice for any nation facing a threat of war. As a mutual defence pact few would question it. But in practice things get blurred; the claim of pre-emptive defence may be a pretext for an armed strike or invasion contrary to international law. If the claim is controversial in this way, as it was in the Iraq War, the public debate tends to focus on legal and factual arguments over whether the war is one of aggression or defence.

In these circumstances it is easy to forget that the alliance presupposes a genuine threat to at least one party and that armed force is necessary to counter it. That is, the threat will in principle justify going to war without allies, if there is really no other way. But this means the alliance claim cannot be a separate argument to back up the threat to national security; it makes sense only if read as the same argument in a different dress, but with a duty to assist other parties facing this danger. The alliance, in short, assumes that the war is independently justified.

This suggests the argument confuses a justification with an ancillary benefit. Although the alliance is not a reason to fight a discretionary war, the goodwill is important if the war is justified in principle. This is why it is invoked only by the weaker party. The US President and the UK Prime Minister would be ridiculed if they tried to explain the Afghanistan war as also justified by the value of ‘the Australian alliance’.

Despite its defects the alliance claim, because it highlights long term security needs and keeping faith with a commitment, has a special appeal for political leaders, more so when many people find the primary case for war unconvincing. For John Howard and many others it was another reason for the Iraq war. It also brings with it a special danger, that once accepted we are vulnerable to assumptions of fact which underpin the substantive case for war but which (as in Iraq) cannot easily be supported by the evidence. Any serious review of the defence power and its use should, after Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, keep this danger in mind.

Many people would think a case for intervention, if it can be made, should rest on a concern for the people of Afghanistan. Australian forces show this concern when building schools and teaching trade skills, and when they risk casualties to defend villagers. But the Government does not try to make this case, perhaps because violent contests for power, like natural disasters, are common in Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. Instead it justifies the cost in Australian lives by a claim about our own security. The effect has been to confuse the debate, and to exclude options which would be considered if the primary aim was the welfare of the Afghan people.

Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defence Association, invoked this aim when he said ‘everyone keeps pointing to the flaws and forgetting the big picture, that we just can’t let Afghanistan sink back into what it was - it’s just inhumanitarian to do so’ (ABC, 21 August).

Many war critics agree, and say a duty of concern arises from the original invasion, and a failure to ensure security in the rush to war with Iraq. They condemn the war precisely because they share the same humanitarian values, but think the issue is confused by claims of a threat to Australia. If these claims, and our alliance concerns, are put aside, the need to try to settle this war for the sake of the Afghan people is compelling.

Max Atkinson is a former teacher at the University of Tasmania Law School with interests in legal theory and and international law.