Catholic social teaching took center stage in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10 when President Barack Obama called the Afghanistan fight a “just war.”

Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize just nine days after he announced that he was increasing the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan by 30,000.

In his acceptance speech, he explained, “The concept of a just war emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

That’s a partial accounting of just war theory, one of several Catholic social teachings that insist on human dignity.

Just war preconditions

U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Father Michael R. Duesterhaus, who has been deployed to Iraq as a chaplain three times, ticked off the preconditions the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives to just war, and applied them to Afghanistan.

Self-defense? Given the Afghan Taliban’s role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “there is little question on who the aggressor is.” Alternatives to fighting? “Our enemy … has no desire to discuss, dialogue or negotiate.” The proper authority? “The president of the United States, with authorization from Congress, is leading this war.” He said that leaves “two key issues — Is success possible, and in our battle plans are we applying rules of engagement that are equally as just as our cause?”

Obama told his Oslo audience that the Afghanistan fight is “self-defense” using “proportional” violence. Afghanistan is “a conflict that America did not seek,” and “an effort to defend ourselves … from further attacks” after Sept. 11. He compared America’s “Operation Enduring Freedom” with the military efforts that “halted Hitler’s armies.”

The U.S. assault on Taliban strongholds began Oct. 7, 2001. Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said in a Vatican Radio interview at the time: “According to the Christian tradition, one cannot exclude that, in a world marked by sin, there might be an evil aggression that threatens to destroy not only values and people, but also man’s image as such. In this case, to defend oneself in order to defend the other could be a duty.”

Albany, N.Y., Bishop Howard Hubbard, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, agrees that “when we went into Afghanistan after 9/11, each criterion of a just war was met. We had been attacked and there was an intent to have a proportionate response.

”When Obama first announced the surge at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y., Dec. 1, he put his order in continuity with President George W. Bush’s original aims.“

Our overarching goal remains the same,” he said, “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.”

Cautious approach

But eight years later, are those goals still just? U.S. Army Lt. Col. Father Eric Albertson, one of 10 Catholic chaplains in Afghanistan in the last 18 months, addressed just war questions in an e-mail.

“Some wonder if dialogue with the enemy might prove fruitful,” he said. “Yet when we look at their pattern of devastating attacks on the innocent, it is hard to imagine any reasonable success.”

Al-Qaida attacks on civilians in Pakistan near the Afghan border have been so severe Catholics had to cancel major Christmas celebrations.

Father Albertson stressed that “we have never had to fight a war quite like this one.” He added, “if terror is allowed freedom of movement and left unchecked, then what we experience in Afghanistan and in Iraq would be commonplace in the United States.”

Father Duesterhaus said key to just war questions in Afghanistan now are questions of how the war is fought.

“Very tight ROEs (rules of engagement) have been in play in both Iraq and Afghanistan for many years,” he said. “The ROE card that every Marine and soldier carries on their person is a clear listing of procedures that express the uniquely Western way of fighting a war.”

He said the commanders are likely to err on the side of caution. “This can lead to frustrations and even anger at times, but ‘blowing everyone up’ is not only immoral, it also will not win the day.”

Anti-war criticism

Even so, the surge has plenty of detractors. When asked whether Obama’s surge could help win a victory, Andrew Bacevich at Boston University, a professor of international relations, said, “The big question is: win what?”“

The strategic rationale for the president’s escalation is vague and unpersuasive,” said the former first lieutenant and West Point graduate, who served in Vietnam and lost a son in Iraq. “It rests on the assumption that determining the fate of Afghanistan ranks as a vital national security interest of the United States. I question that assumption.”

Bishop Hubbard agreed. “I believe the reason for a just war there evaporated,” he said. Nonetheless, he praised the strategy as an attempt to “repair the damage done,” stressing that Obama is “not the one who initiated the war; he inherited the war. I think he’s trying to develop a plan that will stabilize the Afghan government.”

Bacevich was less forgiving: “Anti-war Catholics will be disappointed in the president’s decision. The degree of their disappointment will be determined by the way that events in Afghanistan unfold.”

Political calculations?

But Bill McGurn, a vice president of News Corp. who worked in the White House during the last administration and who wrote Bush’s speech announcing the successful 2007 troop surge in Iraq, argues that, given the justice of the decision to go to war, it is now necessary to win. There are “few things more immoral than fighting a war you are not trying to win,” he said.

Which raises a question for the president. Obama insisted in his West Point speech that the surge would last for “18 months” only, but White House officials soon clarified that on the 19th month only gradual changes would begin.

McGurn worried that “the emphasis on getting out instead of prevailing” was counterproductive. “The stress on a timetable … might encourage the terrorists to wait us out,” he said.

But what would success look like? Father Duesterhaus said Operation Enduring Freedom will be successful when “the Taliban, being composed mostly of fighters foreign to Afghanistan, can be denied of a base of operations to train and prepare to harm others.”

The New York Times said Obama has decided there will be no follow-up if the surge fails to finish the job. The Dec. 5 report also spelled out how the president made his decision after phone calls to U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

“President Obama came to office promising to change the way Washington works,” Bacevich said of Obama’s decision. “The Afghanistan issue provided him with a ready-made opportunity to do so. He muffed the chance.”

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.

Catechism's Just war criteria (sidebar)

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  •  the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain;
  •  all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  •  there must be serious prospects of success;
  •  the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition" (No. 2309).