The Libertarian Case against the War in Afghanistan

By: on June 22, 2009 |


Shortly after the U.S. government’s attack on Afghanistan in October 2001 (which, of course, followed the September 11 attacks on the United States), the Canadian government joined the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries in an occupying coalition in Afghanistan. The first major wave of Canadian troops arrived in Afghanistan in February 2002. The Canadian troops’ major mission was to keep order in the Afghan capital of Kabul. At various times through these almost-seven years, the Canadian government has stated that it would remove its troops at a time certain in the near future. Then as the target date got closer, the government kept the troops there past their previous-stated deadline. On April 15, 2004, for example, then Prime Minister Paul Martin stated that Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan would end in the summer of 2005. But in February 2005, the Liberal government announced that it would actually increase Canada’s commitment of troops by the summer of 2005 from 600 to 1,200. Indeed, the troops were moved that summer from Kabul to the much-more-dangerous region of Kandahar. In May 2006, the newly elected Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the new pull-out date would be early 2009. Then, in March 2008, as the 2009 deadline approached, Parliament voted to extend its mission to 2011.

The question arises, “Should Canada’s government remove its military presence from Afghanistan in 2011, remove it earlier, or keep it past 2011?” This question arises for other members of the occupying coalition besides Canada. To answer it, I propose that we step back and consider how good the case was for invading and occupying Afghanistan in the first place.

Thinking about Terrorism and War: A Hypothetical Case

Consider the following hypothetical case. A terrorist or group of terrorists blows up an airplane flying from country A and everyone on board is killed. A man from country B is alleged to be the head terrorist. He lives in country C. The government of country A has no extradition treaty with the government of country C. However, the government of country B, where the alleged terrorist is a citizen, does have such a treaty with country C and attempts to extradite him. Country C’s government, however, refuses to extradite him, and the alleged terrorist is free to live in country C.

Does country C’s unwillingness to extradite the alleged terrorist justify country B’s government bombing or invading country C?

I believe that it does not. Bombing or invading will threaten or even kill thousands of innocent people in an attempt to apprehend one guilty person.

Perhaps you disagree. You might think that if the Taliban refuses to give up Osama bin Laden, who allegedly has masterminded the blowing up of more than one airliner with innocent people on board, then the governments of the U.S., Canada, and other countries are justified in attacking people in Afghanistan.

Actually, though, the hypothetical case I’ve given is not about Osama bin Laden. It’s about a Cuban-born Venezuelan named Luis Posada Carriles. On October 6, 1976, Cubana Flight 455, departing from Barbados to Cuba via Trinidad, blew up. All 73 people on board were killed. The explosion was traced to two time bombs on board. Investigators from Cuba, Venezuela, and the United States all traced the bombs to Freddy Lugo and Hernán Ricardo Lozano.

Posada (the name he is identified by rather than Carriles) employed both of these men at his private- detective agency based in Venezuela, and both confessed to the crime. He was imprisoned in Venezuela but escaped to Chile, where he was held and extradited. He escaped again, this time to El Salvador. Years later, he was arrested in the United States. But on September 28, 2005, a U.S. immigration judged ruled that Posada could not be deported because he faced possible torture in Venezuela. He has yet to be tried for the bombing, even though Venezuela’s government wishes to do so.

No Longer Hypothetical: The United States and Venezuela

Now that the details are clear, consider a question, not about hypothetical countries A, B, and C, but about real countries, the United States and Venezuela. Given the U.S. government’s refusal to extradite a suspected terrorist, would the Venezuelan government be justified in bombing or invading the United States and/or attempting to dislodge the government of the United States?

You might find the question ridiculous because, of course, the U.S. military could easily shoot down Venezuelan bombers and repel a Venezuelan invasion. So let’s make it less ridiculous by hypothesizing that the United States has a weak military and that Venezuela has a strong one. Would the Venezuelan government then be justified in bombing or invading the United States?

I’m guessing that your answer, like mine, is no. So, the next question to ask yourself is why you answered no. Here’s why I say no: The damage to all the innocent people hurt is so much greater than the good that is achieved by bringing one potentially guilty man to justice. If, for example, Venezuela’s government tried to bring down the government in Florida, where Posada lives, or in Washington, D.C., whose government is protecting him, the number of innocent people killed would probably be in the thousands or tens of thousands. It’s true that failing to extradite a man who is probably guilty is a grave miscarriage of justice. But the injustice of murdering many thousands of people who are going about their lives, living peacefully with their neighbours, is much, much greater.

The Case of Afghanistan for Canada and her Allies

If it is wrong for the Venezuelan government to bomb or attack the United States simply because the U.S. government allows a likely terrorist to live here, it is also wrong for the U.S. government, or the Canadian government, or any other government to bomb Afghanistan simply because Afghanistan’s government allowed a band of terrorists under Osama bin Laden to live there.

Indeed, there’s one sense in which the case against the U.S. or Canadian government’s attack on Afghanistan is even stronger than the case against Venezuela’s government attacking the United States. The U.S. government, in the person of a federal judge, and even after seeing strong evidence against Posada, refused to allow him to be extradited simply because of the possibility of torture.

But insofar as the Taliban is concerned, the leaders of Afghanistan on September 11, 2001, showed more cooperation with the U.S. government than the U.S. government showed with Venezuela’s government. The Taliban asked President Bush to present evidence that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks and stated that if the evidence were sufficient, it would cooperate in turning him over to the proper authorities. President Bush refused to do so. Ironically, the Taliban, a disgusting, bloodthirsty regime, agreed to play by the rules of international law, while President Bush, president of a democratic, relatively free society, refused.

Of course, the Taliban may well have acted in bad faith, never intending to turn over Osama bin Laden, no matter what the evidence. But would it have really been that difficult to give the evidence and wait a week or two for the Taliban’s response? Moreover, what if the worst case happened and the Taliban saw plausible evidence of Osama bin Laden’s role and yet still refused turn him over? Would a U.S./Canadian attack on Afghanistan then be justified? If so, it would follow that a Venezuelan attack on the United States would be justified.

There is one way in which the case against the U.S. or Canadian government attacking is weaker than the case against Venezuela’s government attacking the United States. What makes it weaker is that Venezuela’s government would attack the United States simply to get one likely criminal, whereas the U.S. and Canadian governments would attack Afghanistan to get a large number of criminals, namely Osama bin Laden and his followers. So, to make the issue symmetric, we should imagine that, say, 1,000 likely terrorists were living in the United States and that the U.S. government refused to turn them over to Venezuela’s government. Then, we need to re-ask the question: Would Venezuela’s government then be justified in bombing or attacking the United States and, in the process, killing thousands or tens of thousands of Americans? I still maintain that it would not be justified.

Some readers might disagree. Their reasoning would likely be as follows. People who live in an open, democratic society—such as the United States’—that harbors likely terrorists and who do nothing to discipline their government deserve to face the risk of being killed. I emphasize that this is not a view that I agree with, but it is a view that some readers might have. Interestingly, this view makes a stronger case for a Venezuelan attack on the United States than for a U.S. or Canadian attack on Afghanistan. Americans are freer to go after their government and demand justice than were Afghanis under the Taliban. Americans can dissent by petitioning or denouncing their government or by picketing in front of politicians’ houses, to name a few. Afghanis were free to take none of these actions against the Taliban.

Prudential Grounds: Applying Public Choice Theory to War

There are also prudential grounds for opposing the U.S./Canadian invasion of and occupation of Afghanistan. These grounds come from some of the important literature in economics of the last fifty years, particularly from the public choice school of economics.

Public choice is the application of economic thinking to actors in the political system, including voters, politicians, and bureaucrats. Public choice economists assume that individuals in all three groups are out to promote their own self-interest, and they derive various conclusions from that assumption. One relevant conclusion here is what public choice economists call “rational ignorance.”

Voters realize, if only subconsciously, that their vote has little effect on any given election, and that explains why they are so uninformed about the politicians for whom, or against whom, they vote. The vast majority of voters, therefore, are “rationally ignorant.” Couple that with the fact that in most societies, including Canada’s and the United States’, the government is the most powerful entity, and we have a recipe for grave abuse. Governments use power often and carelessly; voters have little incentive to be informed about it, and, therefore, governments can get away with large abuses of power.

That leads to the big question that James Buchanan, who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Economic Science for his contributions to public choice, has spent a large part of his career trying to answer: How do you “bell the cat”? We might all be better off in the long run with strict constraints on government power, but no one of us mice has an incentive to put our own wealth and, possibly, our own life, at stake by trying to restrain the government cat. Buchanan, by his own admission, has not come up with a satisfactory answer. He recognizes that a government that is powerful enough to do the things we want it to do will be powerful enough to do many things we don’t want it to do.

One limit on government, though, is information. If citizens can easily get information about what their governments do, they will generally become more skeptical of government action and even take action to stop the government—using protests, letters to editors, speeches, e-mails, etc. There is little doubt, for example, that the September 29, 2008 House vote against the Bush administration’s $700 billion economic bailout bill was a response to the extreme opposition to the bailout expressed by constituents in e-mails, phone calls, and faxes.

But what if the government takes its actions in another country where it is more difficult for its citizens to get information? Then, the government can get away with even more because there is less citizen oversight. That’s one reason a war can go so badly off track. Citizens of the country whose government is fighting the war in another country do not have evidence in front of them that would allow them to judge their own government’s actions.

Moreover, most of the damage that a government does when it fights a war in another country is damage to people who live there. Because people in that country don’t get to vote in the invading country’s election—and I’m not suggesting that they should—the government will not take much of this damage into account. As evidence, notice that the U.S. government keeps close tabs on the number of U.S. military personnel killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but has little idea how many Afghans and Iraqis are killed—or certainly doesn’t report that number if it does know.

The first pragmatic reason, therefore, to avoid fighting a war in Afghanistan is that we, the citizens of the country doing the fighting, simply have no good means and no strong incentive to rein in our own government. Therefore, governments can get away with doing a great deal of harm.

Couldn’t one use my same argument against even having a national defense? One could and some do. But surely, at a minimum, this argues for not getting into foreign adventures where the goals are not clear.

The Law of Unintended Consequences—and War

The other pragmatic argument against the U.S. and Canadian governments’ war on Afghanistan is the argument of unintended consequences. Economist Ludwig von Mises pointed out, over 50 years ago, that virtually every government intervention leads to unintended consequences that then lead to further interventions. So, for example, Richard Nixon’s 1973 price controls on gasoline caused a shortage that had Americans lining up for gas. That led the government to dictate the fuel economy of cars. The fuel economy laws caused auto companies to make lighter cars, causing a few extra thousand deaths a year. Unintended consequences.

In foreign policy, also, when government intervenes, it creates problems that it tries to solve by intervening further. Take Iraq.

In 1963, the CIA supported the anti-Communist Ba’ath Party in overthrowing the government of General Adbel-Karim Kassem. One of the young Ba’athists was Saddam Hussein. Five years later, the CIA backed another coup in which the Ba-athists eliminated their coalition partners. This coup made Hussein deputy to the new military ruler[1]. In 1979, Hussein took his turn as dictator.

Hussein proceeded to make a long and costly war on Iran. Although many people point to this war as evidence of Hussein’s evil, they rarely mention one highly relevant fact: The Reagan administration supported this war by giving Saddam Hussein battlefield intelligence on the movement of Iranian troops[2].

This shows how one intervention leads to another. The U.S. government supported a man who then took over Iraq’s government and who then became an enemy. The U.S. government’s interventions of the 1960s led, in steps, to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Why did the U.S. government support Saddam Hussein in his war on Iran? Because Iran had become a U.S. enemy after Khomeini took over and after the Iranians had taken Americans hostage in the U.S. embassy. One reason that many Iranians hated the U.S. government was that they resented the fact that the CIA, with Kermit Roosevelt and Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. leading the charge, had deposed the democratically elected Premier, Mohammed Mossadeq, in 1953 and re-installed the Shah of Iran[3]. The Shah created a secret terrorist police force named SAVAK, imprisoned political opponents, and poisoned water wells in rural areas to force people into the cities. Understandably, that created enemies within Iran.

Given the current issue is Afghanistan, consider that unfortunate country. Although the U.S. government now fiercely opposes the radical Muslims who, until recently, ran the Afghan government, it was the U.S. government that helped put them in that position. In a famous 1998 interview[4], Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, bragged about the fact that he persuaded Carter in 1979 to destabilize Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet government with the hope that the Soviets would invade. In December 1979, Brzezinski got his wish: the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The CIA, under the Carter administration, proceeded to fund the Afghan Mujahideen and the Saudi Arabian government matched U.S. funding. Then, under the Reagan administration, the funding increased by an order of magnitude. According to Middle Eastern scholar Marvin G. Weinbaum, in the 1980s, the U.S. government sent over $2 billion to fund the Afghan resistance. Ironically, many of these funds went to the most radical, anti-American resistance fighters[5]. One other person who helped fund these Muslims was a tall guy with a beard named Osama bin Laden[6]. Incidentally, the Bush administration tried to find a link between Osama and Saddam. Here’s the link: in the 1980s, both were allies of the U.S. government.

I do not know what unintended consequences will come from the U.S./Canadian occupation of Afghanistan. But I do know that there will be consequences of a sort. One of them could be a terrorist attack on Canada by radical Muslims who are upset about that occupation. After all, the fact that the U.S. government had bases in Saudi Arabia was one factor in Osama bin Laden’s decision to plan the 9/11 attacks. Wouldn’t it be better simply to regard the 9/11 attackers and those behind them as criminals and to mount a serious attempt to bring those criminals to justice?


[1] Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2004, p. 223.
[2] Michael Dobbs, “U.S. Had Key Role in Iraq Buildup,” Washington Post, December 30, 2002.
[3] The Secret CIA History of the Iran Coup, 1953, at, accessed on October 20, 2008.
[4] “The CIA’s Intervention in Afghanistan,” Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Le Nouvel Observateur, 15-21 January 1998, accessed on line at:, on October 20, 2008.
[5] Marvin G. Weinbaum, “The United States and Afghanistan, From Marginality to Global Concern,” in David W. Lesch, The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment, Westview Press, 2007, p. 469.
[6] See “Profile: Osama bid Laden,” Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder, September 2007, at, accessed on October 20, 2008.

About David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and a research fellow with the Hoover Institution. He was previously a senior economist with President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. A native of Canada, he is also the editor of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008).


One thought on “The Libertarian Case against the War in Afghanistan”

  1. Kris says:

    Yea I’m a Native of Canada to…1st Gulf war…Royal Canadian Regimen..Bat 3.

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