All Writings
October 23, 2001

Waging a Just War During Ramadan?

The question whether we should continue the war on terrorism during the holy month of Ramadan presents us with a critical strategic, ethical and diplomatic challenge. If we cease all hostilities in order not to offend the sensibilities of our Arab and Muslim friends, we could severely undermine our war efforts. If, however, we elect to continue with the war, we could unleash a tremendous backlash from the very nations whose support we seek.

In considering which option to choose, I suggest that we introduce the notion of a just war. There are, I believe, six principles to use in judging if a war is just. In my view, the United States has upheld each of them, whereas the terrorists and the Taliban have subverted them.

First, the principle of last resort. We have followed this principle by providing the Taliban with opportunities before and after the beginning of the war to turn in Osama bin-Laden and his lieutenants, but they have refused to comply. We have done what was possible to prevent the war. It was the Taliban who forfeited their moral responsibility to avoid war, and they are not likely to stop fighting because of Ramadan regardless of what we decide. They will permit themselves to break the ordained fast because not doing so it constitutes a "danger to their health and well being." Moreover, fanatic Muslims have historically waged war during Ramadan under the pretext of self-protection, using Koranic verses and distorting them to support their position: "Believers! Wage war against such of the Infidels as are your neighbors, and let them find you rigorous."

Second, the principle of the righteous cause. This principle was the moral impulse behind the Administration's decision to go to war against terrorism. The terrorist assault on us was unprecedented in its scope and ruthlessness; it was an attack on a civilian population that went beyond the pale of human decency. Waging war is a righteous cause because we must right this wrong; otherwise, we allow evil to reign at our peril. Islamic terrorist organizations have never concerned themselves with right and wrong. Indeed, fighting the Infidels is seen as unending and sacred duty. "Give not way therefore to the Infidels, but by means of this Koran strive against them with a mighty strife."

Third, the principle of good intentions. The United States has also met this requirement of a just war. We are not waging a war against terrorism for either material gain or strategic advantage but to rid the world of the scourge of terrorism, liberate the Afghani people and restore civility to the international community. Al Qaeda's aim is the precise opposite–to sow chaos and fear.

Fourth, the principle of proportionality. The United States carefully observed this principle. Our attacks have been proportionate in relation to the war's objective and the level of resistence. We have conducted measured attacks designed to weaken rather than destroy the Taliban forces. We are encouraging defections to reduce, not increase, the number of casualties. In contrast, Al Qaeda's mantra has been: The greater the destruction and death we inflict, the better. "Say to the Infidels: you shall be worsen, and to Hell shall you be gathered together; and wretched the couch!"

Fifth, the principle of discriminating. This cardinal rule of the war has been strictly observed by the United States to avoid any civilian casualties other than those due to inadvertent error. In fact, we have gone to great lengths to reduce the risks of collateral damage, often risking the safety of our own military personnel. Moreover, we have been providing food and medicine to prevent starvation and death. The terrorists motto is in contrast: The more indiscriminate our attacks the greater the shock and helplessness.

Sixth, the principle of legitimate authority to wage a war. The United States established this principle before the war began to ensure our action had some legal standing. On September 28, 2001, The U.N. Security Council passed resolution 1373 authorizing the United States to use force as a last resort, thereby providing the war efforts with the endorsement of the highest international authority. In contrast, Al Qaeda has embraced Koranic distortions by invoking the name of God to justify terrorism.

Based on these six principles, I believe our war has so far been just. Any decision to cease or continue warfare during Ramadan must then be considered in the context of whether more good than evil will result from our decision. Specifically, we must weigh the potential of an Arab/Muslim backlash against (1) continuing the suffering of the Afghani people as a result of a prolonged war as winter approaches and (2) leaving the Taliban and Al Qaeda time to regroup which could undermine our military and strategic planning. Second, we also need to understand that it is possible to proceed relentlessly throughout Ramadan until we topple the Taliban regime and destroy the Al Qaeda organization, regardless of the repercussions. One thing, however, must remain clear: Whatever we decide, neither the Taliban nor Osama bin Laden and his followers will lay down their weapons, stop their insidious plotting or refrain from committing new terrorist atrocities for one minute during the holy month of Ramadan.

Therefore, do we play by the same rules as the terrorists, or do we act on the basis of a different ethical standard than theirs and consider Arab/Muslim sensibilities about the sanctity of Ramadan? If the objective of this war was and remains the elimination, by any available means, of all terrorist groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we cannot afford to slow the war effort or deviate from this objective. That said, we must develop a military strategy that will keep the pressure on the terrorists during Ramadan while maintaining the cohesiveness of the fragile coalition of nations we have put together, including many Arab and Islamic states. To that end, according to several military analysts, the United States is in a position to conclude the air campaign before the beginning of Ramadan and before winter sets in. By that time the Taliban forces, they believe, will have been completely routed and much of the Al Qaeda organization's base and personnel destroyed. Our focus during the month of Ramadan will then be on performing covert and surgical operations to keep what are left of the terrorist and Taliban forces on the run. In so doing we can maintain our war objectives while substantially reducing the potential of an Arab/Muslim backlash.

The principle of attaining good consequences from the war effort must finally come into play in considering the efficacy of a just war. If the purpose of the war is merely to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda's operation but then abandon the Afghani people to languish under a ruthless regime, as we did to the Iraqis after the Gulf War, that would negate the principle of a just war. But if this war leads to the liberation of Afghanistan and the restoration of dignity to its people in addition to our ridding ourselves of terrorism, then the war will be moral and just. The holy month of Ramadan will have come and gone. What will be remembered is whether we earned the moral authority to carry the war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan and continue to enjoy global support.