Education And Debate

Was the Afghan conflict a just war?

BMJ 2002; 324 doi: (Published 09 February 2002) Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:353
  1. Jennifer Leaning, professor of international health (
  1. Harvard School of Public Health, 651 Huntingdon Avenue, Boston, MA 02115
  • Accepted 12 January 2002

An analysis of the “just war” theory poses questions about US action in Afghanistan

Wars fought to redress grievous wrongs or put a stop to evil have been termed “just wars.” 1 2 The concept has its origins in classical and theological philosophy and was explicit in the Christian ethics of Saint Augustine.2 Just war theory describes narrow circumstances and tight constraints on the ends and means that are required to apply this term.3 Although Western law has slowly come to accept war as an inevitable instrument of national policy4 and turned its attention to setting standards for the conduct of war, important echoes of just war theory remain. A distinction was made at Nuremberg,5 and later embedded in articles 2 and 51 of the United Nations charter, between unacceptable aggressive war and acceptable wars of self defence. Contemporary arguments about particular wars still rely on the seven main principles of just war theory (box 1). Application of these principles to the conflict in Afghanistan does not settle the debate but it might help to structure the discussion.

Embedded Image

Hugo Grotius and his theory of the just war

The cause must be just

In modern interpretations of just war theory there are two legitimate reasons for aggressive war: self defence against an aggressor and humanitarian intervention against a sovereign state in response to acts that shock the moral conscience of mankind. A military response to the massive attack on the United States on 11 September could arguably be justified in terms of self defence. A case could convincingly be made that a malevolent global network of terror was responsible and ready to attack again. Intervention in the sovereign affairs of Afghanistan to pursue al-Qaeda could also be seen as legitimate. A counter to this position would either have to dismiss the gravity …

View Full Text

Log in

Log in through your institution


* For online subscription