Thoughts on economics and liberty

Distinguishing clearly between three ways the state can take HUMAN LIFE: war, police action and aggression


NO USE OF FORCE by the state is valid EXCEPT clearly and precisely for the defence of our life and liberty. That, by the way, is a general principle, and the life and liberty of other humans is almost equally to be valued as the life and liberty of citizens of our own nation.

If that is settled, then the SAME concept of freedom with accountability that applies to each of us, applies also to state action.

Just like we are not free to murder someone without facing the penalty, so also the state can be empowered to kill but NOT without VERY GOOD (!) reason. Else, its actions to kill human beings being in violation of principles of liberty, it must be held to account.

The following sorts of LETHAL violence is undertaken by the state:

a) capital punishment of individuals who have committed heinous crimes;

b) defensive war against those who have attacked the nation;

c) aggressive war against those who MAY attack the nation; and

d) aggressive war for the sake of acquiring lands or slaves.

Of the above four, the first two are FULLY justified. Having said that, there must be a due process of justification.

i) In the first case (capital punishment), the state must ensure that a court has clearly determined the death penalty before it takes a citizen's life.

ii) In the second (defensive war) it can initiate retaliatory action within seconds, if need be (e.g. if Pakistan attacks India with a nuclear missile), BUT must, as soon as practicable, take authorisation from the nation's people, generally through a parliament.

A key feature of a justified war is its clear limitation on violent action. There can be no war that goes on for ever. A war must have a specific goal, defined in advance, that must relate (generally) to the decapitation of the head (boss) of an attacking nation, and to the degradation (not elimination!) of the armed force capability of the attacking force. These two goals must be specified in detail, else the executive could well take it to mean a blanket cheque for ENDLESS war. Also, the mere fact of authorisation by a parliament DOES NOT define war. War is defined by its purpose and urgency, not by any piece of paper.

It is particularly important to note that attacks are ALWAYS launched by individuals, not by nations. When Hitler attacked Poland, it was not Germany that had attacked Poland (although German soldiers were used) but Hitler. War must therefore always be directed against a SPECIFIC individual: generally the head of a nation, but in the case of Al Qaeda, against the head of the organisation.

War must have all the sense of war. It must be urgent, focused on decapitating the head of the enemy nation/organisation, strategic, sharply (and even widely) destructive, and shoot from the hip – and RAPIDLY – in order to achieve its goal.

There is no sense in war of years of time to "plan".

It is, above all, characterised by urgency to defend.

There is no lingering sense in war that this is just another job – like taking cows out to pasture and bringing them back home each night.

It has to FINISH. And quickly! it is not a life long occupation.

To the extent that any action is needed AFTER the war (e.g. "reconstruction"), it must be clearly distinguished from war, and treated entirely as police action. At that stage the state can have no authorisation to shoot from the hip. All due processes must henceforth be followed. NO LIFE MUST THEREAFTER BE TAKEN WITHOUT JUDICIAL AUTHORISATION.

(iii) The third type of killing (aggressive war against those who may attack the nation) can be justified, too, in some very exceptional cases. E.g. Hitler should have been attacked by European nations well before he became such a huge monster. That would have been fully justified. But only the removal of Hitler. NOT the occupation or acquisition of Germany. In this case the parliament must authorise. The executive cannot commence action without such authorisation! There is plenty of time to seek authorisation in such cases.

(iv) The last one (d) is NEVER justified. Period. An aggressor is the enemy of mankind – in a way – and all nations must unite in attacking the aggressor nation. Hitler should have been attacked at least the moment he launched his attack into Poland. That was IT. It was more than enough cause for ALL nations to come together to decapitate him. They did not. That was a huge blunder.


With the theory in mind, let us examine the case of US and Afghanistan.

When Osama bin Laden launched the 9/11 (or rather, 11/9/2001 in English/Indian notation) attacks, he was NOT a nation, but a generally disaffected party with capacity to organise against US. To that extent he was an aggressor. While no nation had attacked or intended to attack USA, its enemy was now clear: not the entire Al Qaeda but Osama bin Laden. Taliban were supporting Osama bin Laden, so they needed to be removed, as well.

So far so good.

Now, it turned out that removing Taliban was very easy, but getting Osama was particularly hard. That created a problem. We had "reconstruction" going on ALONG with the war – against Osama. To the extent there was any reconstruction underway, that needed to comply with all standard limitations on taking human life. It was police action, and there was no basis to kill people without judicial authorisation.

To the extent that Osama bin Laden had not yet been killed, it was valid to say that war was still underway. So we had a situation where both police action and war were underway. That's possible. So long as we know what is what.

Now, when Osama was killed, the LAST PRETEXT OF WAR came to an end. That day, regardless of any US parliamentary authorisation, war was OVER.

All further action was police action.

Any action to take HUMAN LIFE after Osama was killed (as with – as should already have been the case – any action against non-Al Qaeda combatants during the reconstruction period) needed judicial authorisation.

It was almost certainly wrong for America to press a button somewhere in USA and kill people on the ground in Afghanistan/Pakistan (the exceptions are discussed below), but now, after Osama has been killed, it is ENTIRELY wrong to kill people in Afghanistan/Pakistan without due judicial authorisation.

Therefore, it is sufficiently clear that today, US action in Afghanistan has morphed from justified DEFENSIVE war into AGGRESSION.


I've already explained these concepts at length earlier, but I think these need to be repeated again and again (I'm going to take some of this material into DOF, for future ready reference).

No analysis of drone attacks can be made without reference to a VALID theory of state violence.

Accordingly, in some cases a drone attack is EMINENTLY JUSTIFIED. Consider a drone attack that ends the life of Hitler BEFORE he attacks any nation. That would have been a swell idea. I would have applauded. The world would have been saved mindless destruction of tens of millions of lives. (Of course, the Keynesians would have been unhappy, for to them it is war that makes the world go round).

Even in defensive war, a drone attack against Osama bin Laden is perfectly justified. It can even be justified against key Al Qaeda leaders.

But once these top few commanders are killed, then further justification becomes very weak indeed. The war must END.

After Osama bin Laden has LONG been killed, and top Al Qaeda leaders captured or killed, then any use of force against every tom dick harry soldier is an ABUSE OF POWER. These poor Taliban fools think they are fighting an enemy who has encroached their land. They see themselves as freedom fighters. And who is to say that they are wrong. Americans would do the same if Chinese soldiers, armed to the teeth, were hanging around in their backyards.

In general, hanging around with arms in someone else's house is not very friendly.

Taking the life of someone is not something anyone should do unnecessarily. USA is taking many lives UNNECESSARILY now. That's something it should not do. It must leave Afghanistan at once!

Don't give me nonsense about "strategic geopolitical interests". The world is not taken in by nonsense. There is no case for war. Just leave. This idea of hanging around in someone else's land LONG AFTER ALL REASONS for war are over, is a very bad precedent.

It doesn't matter whether Taliban are bad to Afghan women or not. That is a civil matter that people can deal with through other means. Just go!!

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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20 thoughts on “Distinguishing clearly between three ways the state can take HUMAN LIFE: war, police action and aggression
  1. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    A few comments from another post: Being transferred here since this is the relevant place.



    I am not entirely sure what is the issue – I believe that the first order functions of a nation state is to protect its citizens from attacks by other nation states or its citizens and by extension, stateless people, as well.

    So, General principles –

    1. Protect your citizen from external attack

    2. This may be achieved through robust defence of borders

    3. Pre-emptive attacks may be launched against probable attackers, if the evidence is extremely robust

    4. If attacked, defend yourself to the utmost of your abilities (ie you are free to use a sledgehammer, even if a baseball bat would do), and reduce if not completely eradicate the ability of the enemy to attack you again.

    Trust you get my point now.


    Good that you are now back to basics. I think you’ve missed the basic points I had raised clearly here:

    Please continue this discussion there.

    Let me state that your points 1 to 3 sound fine, but you haven’t started with the basic point: defence of liberty. Therefore your last point has gone entirely awry.

    Please let’s get back to basics.

    If your argument is followed, then USA must nuke EVERYONE in the world. That’s the only possible implication.

    Let’s start with the BASIC human rights to liberty. EVERYONE’s rights.

    There is NO right, even in war, to kill innocents.

    Let’s get this right.

    It would be best if you discuss further on the other blog post

    You are like a teen with chewing gum – stretch, stretch, and then stretch some more.

    Where I have ever said or wrote that war on innocents is Okay, or justified in some larger cause? Where?

    And, how do you get from my position on point no 4 to implying that, based on that, the US would be okay to nuke everyone?

    I will move over to the other blog post, but I could not just let you get away with these random, bland assertions – and, you were picking points with me on making assertions, not arguments!

    Just so you know: “you are free to use a sledgehammer”. That’s the statement that deserved a prompt rebuttal.

    Please elaborate on the other post. Much appreciated. Let me copy these last few comments there, as well.

  2. Supratim

    You say “There can be no war that goes on for ever. A war must have a specific goal, defined in advance, that must relate (generally) to the decapitation of the head (boss) of an attacking nation, and to the degradation (not elimination!) of the armed force capability of the attacking force. ”

    Excellent – I agree, in toto. With the addendum that in the current world that we live in, we also have to consider the concept of a nation of stateless people, which attacks other nation-states.

    The objectives for the War in Afghanistan (AF) have not yet been fully achieved – because a major portion of the Hydra-headed Taliban escaped to Pakistan during the US ground assault on their forces.

    I think our key difference lies in where we draw the line – you think killing OBL did it. Whereas I think until the Taliban (both the Haqqani network and the Pakistani one) have been equally beheaded, the objectives have not been achieved.

    The rest is detailing.

    “Consider a drone attack that ends the life of Hitler BEFORE he attacks any nation. That would have been a swell idea. I would have applauded. The world would have been saved mindless destruction of tens of millions of lives. ”

    Really – poor example. On a priori basis, what is the difference between Hitler and Bismarck? Or for that matter between Hitler and King Phillip of Spain? Or King George VI? Or our own King Ashoka?

    We learned of most of the evil, outside of waging war, that Hitler did only on a post-facto basis.


  3. Supratim

    I stand by the sledgehammer comment – although, I was not referring to nukes, you drew that conclusion (maybe, inevitably).

    I meant using a sledgehammer against enemy combatants, and not the civilian population among whom they may be operating. I would strongly oppose any such action against civilians or innocents – that is repugnant to me.

    And, the US, to its credit, has tried to limit civilian casualties in AF to the best it can – there has been no indiscriminate killing. And, it is also here where the drones score – lessening deaths of innocents.

  4. Supratim

    An aside, but an important one – about individuals and groups on causing war –

    The conclusion that most people draw erroneously about Hitler – that we would not have had WWII if Hitler was assassinated before he invaded Poland. IMO, WWII would still have happened because Hitler was supported by a group of Prussian Generals, who both detested him and used him as a mascot – the killing Hitler would have been taken as just another insult by the Generals, and maybe Rommel or one of the other Generals would have taken over.

    And, without Hitler’s erratic decision making (read Rise and Fall of The Third Reich), who knows history may have been very different – Germany may have won the war in Europe.

    The point being it was not sufficient to just take out Hitler, but it would have been necessary to take out virtually the entire top layer of the Prussian corps to prevent war.

  5. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Let me ask you a few basic questions:

    1) I begin with the foundational issue: we empower a state with arms to protect OUR LIFE AND LIBERTY, and to also protect that of others in this world. That has been affirmed not just once but by Obama himself, the UN declaration, etc.

    To me Taliban have an equal right to life and liberty as any American does. This assertion is critical.

    Do you agree?

    2) You assert that “a major portion of the Hydra-headed Taliban escaped to Pakistan during the US ground assault on their forces”.

    Well, why do we care? Did these Taliban attack USA?

    Do you agree?

    3) A defence cannot be against random people in the mountains who carry guns. It must be against people who are consciously attacking USA.

    Do you agree?


  6. Supratim

    Similarly, let us take an example from our neighbourhood – if India were to adopt the policy of assassinating egregious heads of the ISI, do you think that would solve our problems of terror attacks?

  7. Supratim


    1. In general, yes, I agree that the Taliban have equal rights AND responsibilities. The latter is equally important to them maintaining their life and liberty.

    2. No, I do not – the Taliban have attacked the US and US assets in both AF and elsewhere – are you familiar with the USS Cole bombing?

    3. Yes, 100%. But, the US is not attacking random people, but clearly targeted heads of different factions of the Taliban.

  8. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    OK, back to further discussions on basics.

    1. In their own nation (or whatever Afghanistan is: an anarchy?) Taliban do many bad things. I dislike these bad things. However, I believe we are nobody to interfere unless they undertake mass-scale genocide. In such a case we all should get involved. Do you agree that it IN THEIR OWN NATION, it is the business of Afghans to hold each other to account?

    2. You have not provided me with ANY evidence that Taliban have directly attacked USA. USS Cole was ENTIRELY an Al Qaeda initiative. Please provide specific evidence.

    3. The US has, to date, killed 20,000 Afghans, or thereabouts. Are all these people (or most of them) guilty of attacking USA? What process is USA following to assure the world that it is not killing innocents? How confident are you (personally) that US has not killed thousands of innocents or non-combatants (those who did not attack USA and had no intention of attacking USA).


  9. Supratim

    Ok, you misunderstood:

    1. In general, yes. Although a majority of the Talibs are foreigners, and not Afghans. I did not mean their responsibilities to the Afghans – I meant their responsibility not to attack other people or their assets, whether in the US or India (Kashmir) or elsewhere. If they do, then they would be subject to punishment. Although, given the foreign origin of the Taliban, the Afghan nation also ask for help from other sovereign nations – which the elected government of Karzai has done with reference to US and ISAF.

    2. There is limited difference between the AQ, AQAP, the Taliban, the Huji, the LeT, etc – they are all part of the same poisonous tree. The AQ were hosted by the Taliban in AF, and provided direct and indirect support. At the very list, they are accessories to the crime.

    3. Please give me supporting evidence for your claim of 20K killed by US forces, and year-wise. There have been innocents killed in the war, most of them killed during the initial 2 year period when the US forces were actively fighting the Taliban on-ground. This was a tragic by-product of the AF forces having succumbed to the Taliban post the withdrawal of the Soviet troops.

    Further, by your logic, no war can ever be fought, because some innocents or non-combatants will always die.

  10. Sanjeev Sabhlok


    1. I’ll let that rest, since the point has been made. Taliban too, have the right not be killed indiscriminately – EXCEPT in response to violence directed at foreign nations. So let’s move to 2 and 3 henceforth.

    2. You have not yet provided me with any evidence that the Taliban IN AFGHANISTAN directly attacked USA. Of course Taliban were (reluctant) accessory to 9/11 by giving shelter to Osama. But they did NOT directly attack USA. Anywhere. Anytime. I trust you’ll agree with this finding. Or can you offer me any evidence where these mountaineers from remote Afghanistan have landed in Karachi, hijacked a ship, take it to New York, and started firing at the people there? I am not aware of any DIRECT attack on USA by Taliban.

    I’m aware of MANY attacks by Taliban on USA forces and assets IN AFGHANISTAN. I don’t treat these as attacks on USA since they can easily be seen as US attacks on Afghans. If someone enters your nation with arms, are you expected to sit there and give in? I do not treat ANY attack on US soldiers/assets INSIDE Afghanistan as as attack on USA, but as (potentially justifiable) defence against USA.

    3. We’ll come to this after we have agreed that Taliban were accessories to an initial attack on USA but have NEVER directly attacked USA.


  11. Supratim

    I just wrote a longish reply, and somehow lost it. So, in brief, on to point 2:

    Why do you claim that that the Taliban were not directly involved with the AQ? OBL was a respected guest in the home of the Taliban, after being chased out of Sudan. There are plenty of contemporary news accounts and meeting reports that Mullah Omar, head of the then Taliban in AF, was extremely close to OBL and other AQ operatives. There were reports of co-mingling of the AQ and Taliban funds and funding sources. Where is the data to suggest any reluctance?

    Post 9/11, the US did offer a chance to Mullah Omar and the Taliban to hand over OBL and other AQ operatives peacefully to the US – the Taliban refused.

    So, while you could make a case that the US was willing to treat the AQ and the Taliban differently at that point, and not invade AF, the Taliban essentially said that they were one and the same. And, that they support the AQ and its causes and attacks. And, all of this voluntarily. They essentially agreed that that they were equally responsible and culpable.

    Everything else follows from this action of the Taliban – the US was then right to wage war against the Taliban.

    Further, the situation has become more complex today – the Karzai government wants the help of international forces, because it fears AF will be over run by the Pak-supported Taliban forces, which it does not want. The people of AF don’t want it but they are not strong enough, yet, to prevent it. In this situation, the ISAF and the US forces are allies of the Afghan government, and still there at their request – no longer an army of occupation but an ally of the state.

    The Taliban forces by attacking these troops are waging war against the rightful (elected) state – and the state is responding back to these attacks.

    The US and the Karzai govt, together and separately, have tried a negotiated solution with the Afghani Taliban for power sharing, etc but these have all either been spurned or blocked by the Pak Talibani forces, who want to reassert control once the US forces leave.

  12. Sanjeev Sabhlok


    You are rehashing common public statements and asserting that Taliban attacked USA.

    As an objective observer, not interested in the mental states of people who have NEVER been tried in court, or assertions of the sort you make proven, all I know are the following facts:

    a) Taliban hosted Al Qaeda. Osama was a rich man. He funded them. So.
    b) Taliban had NO grievance against USA. Osama did.
    c) Taliban had been in place for years, and had not once made any attempt to attack USA. Al Qaeda had made many attempts.
    d) When US asked Taliban to hand over Osama, he refused. After all, in Muslim culture (and also in Indian culture), a guest is an honoured man.

    From this we can objectively deduce that Taliban were guilty either of disliking USA (not an act of war) or otherwise sheltering Osama bin Laden (not a direct act of war). Taliban could have had a tribal (honor) reason to shelter Osama, but that is irrlevant.

    At best Taliban were accessories to Al Qaeda by letting Osama live and train there.

    But USA is itself an accessory to many wars across the world. Its armed companies supply arms REGARDLESS of who is fighting whom. It funds and donates massive arms to Pakistan in a very big way and these weapons are then used to kill Indians.

    According to your new theory of war, are you saying that if someone fires a gun, it is not the person who PRESSES THE TRIGGER that is committing an act of war, but ALSO the person who gives shelter to the person who presses the trigger?

    If so, are you equally clear that US has attacked India? (through Pakistan)


  13. Supratim


    Then we are at an impasse – when you say:

    “When US asked Taliban to hand over Osama, he refused. After all, in Muslim culture (and also in Indian culture), a guest is an honoured man. ”

    It is also part of the (islamic) culture of some peoples and nations to wage war indefinitely against the non-believers, whether in their own societies or elsewhere, make slaves of them and levy additional taxes on them in lieu of protection – as defenders of universal liberty, are we expected to also accept this, too?

    If I remember correctly, you were in support of external forces for the Libyan rebels – because that advanced liberty, in general, for the Libyans.

    Is this not just the reverse of the above – The Taliban were thwarting proper judgement and punishment of OBL, and such made themselves willful accessories to the crimes of OBL.

    Further, you say

    “a) Taliban hosted Al Qaeda. Osama was a rich man. He funded them. So.
    b) Taliban had NO grievance against USA. ”

    Point A – you can not know who was funding whom. What we do know is that finances were shared and fund raising activities were shared.

    Point B – pls read published interviews of Mullah Omar, the leader of AF and Taliban.

    I am neither reading minds nor attributing motives. I am using Bayesian Logic or inductive logic, yes, based on the facts before me.

    As an aside, If you want me/us/others to fully analyse, based on complete and hard data, whether the US was right or wrong in waging war against the Taliban, you should be a supporter of Wikileaks releasing more of these documents relating to the Af-Pak war!

    That Pakistan was continuously back-stabbing the US, released in some of the Wikileaks docs, held up the US Generals and strategists to public ridicule in the US. It may also have contributed to the Obama decision to pull out US troops by 2014, irrespective of the requests from the AF govt.

  14. Supratim

    I missed this one:

    “Taliban had been in place for years, and had not once made any attempt to attack USA. Al Qaeda had made many attempts.”

    The Taliban secured power in AF in 1996 – they captured Kabul and nearly complete control over the northern and southern provinces.

    Bin Laden left Sudan and reached AF in May 1996 – he was expelled from Sudan, under pressure from the US, Saudi Arabia, Eqypt.

    The first major murders/massacres carried out by OBL and AQ happened in Luxor in 1997.

    The US Embassy bombings in 1998.

    The USS Cole bombing happened in 2000.

    And, then the 9/11 attack in 2001.

    Prior to being expelled from Sudan, show me one noteworthy attack of the AQ – in hindsight, the US should have kept him in Sudan, where they had him under constant surveillance, but that is another story.

    Therefore, it is fair to conclude that the Taliban offered adequate space, training, support and fighters to make the AQ a far more capable force than they were in Sudan.

    This is just logical derivation from the actual facts.

    You may choose to disagree, of course.

  15. Sanjeev Sabhlok


    The trigger was pulled by Al Qaeda. When US supplies subsidised or free arms to Pakistan, and helps train their soldiers on these arms, the trigger is pulled by Pakistan. India can’t go and attack USA. By your logic India should be waging war against US as we speak. So just providing a home to terrorist is NOT cause to kill thousands of people in “self-defence”.

    The US was perfectly right in bombing Tora Bora which and other training sites. It was also right in driving out Taliban. That’s OK since you were degrading the capability of the enemy

    At that stage either it should have left or brought in an international POLICE force. War ended when individual hunts for terrorists began. That is a PURE police action. And such action must be circumscribed by judicial oversight.

    My point is about the meaning of war. And in my meaning of war, the Afghan war came to an end by about early 2002 or thereabouts.

    This is a matter of first principles analysis of war and the legitimate empowerment of the state to take human life.

    You are justifying endless killings by the state. I am suggesting that such endless killings are inconsistent with the concept of liberty.


  16. Supratim


    Like I said, we are at an impasse – the analogy with US supplying arms to Pak is not correct – because the Taliban was not just supplying arms to AQ.

    “It was also right in driving out Taliban. That’s OK since you were degrading the capability of the enemy”

    You seemed to have moved your position to include the Taliban in the list of combatants – that is good. However, just driving them out proved to be inadequate in degrading the capability of the enemy.

    And, you are ignoring the other part of my argument – that the US troops are allies of the Karzai govt and they are being attacked by the Taliban.

    I am not going to argue further, unless you have something new to say, as we are just restating our points.


  17. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Re: “You seemed to have moved your position to include the Taliban in the list of combatants”.

    That’s incorrect. I have NO evidence that ANY Taliban attacked USA.

    On a broader note, I don’t sense from you any arguments based on liberty. The idea of freedom with accountability needs to be explored carefully in each case. Your theory of liberty and state and war and justice must all add up. Let me separately clarify a theory of war.

    Without a theory of war, we will merely end up in contradictory positions.