Global Ethics Corner: Who Dies in Afghanistan: Soldiers, Civilians, or the Mission?

Jul 16, 2010

How do you choose missions to fight a war effectively, while minimizing civilian deaths and meeting the obligation to your soldiers?

When states or movements go to war, people die.

There is no bigger ethical choice than choosing to risk lives. There should be a moral purpose behind a decision to fight. In Afghanistan in 2003, with the Taliban sheltering al Qaeda and September 11th a recent memory, the moral purpose was clear. In the 2010 policy debate, for many that certainty is harder to find.

Perhaps more important, however, are the choices involved while fighting. Three competing demands must be balanced. These are amplified in a non-conventional war like Afghanistan, where a counter-insurgency strategy places them in sharp contrast.

First, young combatants are conscripted or volunteer to fight, and perhaps die. There is an ethical requirement to provide them with their best chance to survive.

Next, non-combatants rightly expect not to be targets, but separating civilians from combatants in Afghanistan is difficult. Nevertheless, there is an ethical requirement to keep them safe.

Finally, battles must be fought, and when choosing missions there is usually a tension between implementing the strategy and risking soldiers or civilians.

Balancing these three competing demands can be a vicious circle. Emphasizing mission puts winning first. But in Afghanistan, killing civilians jeopardizes the mission. Rules of engagement for soldiers that try to limit civilian deaths increase soldiers' risks.

What would you do? How do you choose missions to fight a war effectively, while minimizing civilian deaths and meeting the obligation to your soldiers?

By William Vocke

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Andrya Hill/ US Army
Mark O'Donald/ US Army
Rick Scavetta/ US Army
Paz Quillé, Canadian Forces Combat Camera
Craig Fiander, JTF
Rahmudeen Nangarhari
Jennifer Cohen
Robin Mugridge

You may also like

APR 27, 2021 Podcast

Global Ethics Review: The Model International Mobility Convention 2.0, with Michael Doyle

How can we make migration more ethical? Columbia University's Professor Michael Doyle, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council, discusses the Model International Mobility Convention (...

PPE & COVID-19 testing kits arrive in the Philippines from China, March 2020. <br>CREDIT: <a href=>Philippines Presidential Communications Operations Office/Wikimedia (CC)</a>.

JUL 28, 2020 Article

Ethical Dilemmas in Ensuring Human Security

In this blog post, Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev reflects on his recent "Human Security is National Security in a Time of Pandemic" webinar ...

Donald Trump & Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. CREDIT: <a href=",_16_July_2018_(7).jpg"> (CC)</a>.

MAY 12, 2020 Podcast

Great Power Populism, COVID-19, & Missing Leadership, with Damjan Krnjević Mišković & Nikolas Gvosdev

What is "great power populism" and what does it mean during the pandemic? Are we heading towards another global conflict? And are there any leaders ...