Trouncing the Taliban

As I write this, the Taliban are on the run. By the time you read it, they
may be back in their caves. What's the lesson here? Already some in Washington
are pronouncing the Bush strategy for dealing with terrorism a resounding
success. A few are even suggesting that what we've accomplished in Afghanistan
should encourage us to topple Saddam Hussein and any other state that harbors or
sponsors terrorists.

Not so fast. We may have won or be close to winning the war against the
Taliban, but that's not the same as winning the war against terrorism.

Even if we topple the Taliban, we still have to install a new government in
Afghanistan that is more respectful of human rights and less sympathetic to
terrorism--a regime that has sufficient involvement of Pashtuns and Afghanistan's
northern ethnic groups to remain in power without our continuous military
support. And we've got to accomplish all this without destabilizing Pakistan and
without heightening tensions between Pakistan and India, both of which, not
incidentally, possess nuclear weapons.

Even then, we may be no closer to stopping Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Bin
Laden arrived in Afghanistan only a few years ago. He's not even an Afghan (nor,
for that matter, were any of the men who hijacked planes on September 11). Bin
Laden could shift his headquarters to Chechnya, Somalia, Libya, or any number of
places where the terrain is wild and governments are weak or tolerant of
terrorists. He may already have done so.

And even if we find bin Laden and imprison, assassinate, or otherwise
incapacitate him without turning him into a martyr, violating international law,
and unleashing decades of bloody retribution, that wouldn't necessarily end
al-Qaeda. Bin Laden is a central figure but there are others, such as Ayman
al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian-born doctor, reputed to be as powerful. Al-Qaeda itself
appears to be decentralized and loosely coordinated, with hundreds of field
agents and cells, akin to a global franchise system.

Of course, even if we quash al-Qaeda by tracking down every member and
disabling every cell, that wouldn't end global terrorism. Hence the arguments
we're now hearing for extending the military offensive beyond Afghanistan. But
how far beyond Afghanistan? The State Department lists some 30 known terrorist
networks operating in 50 countries. Not all of these countries actively "sponsor"
terrorists, but all are "harboring" them, wittingly or unwittingly. Included on
the State Department's list are Aum Shinrikyo, the group that released sarin
nerve gas in several Tokyo subway trains in 1995 and is reputed to have cells in
Australia, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and the United States.

There's also Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all of
which are said to have connections with the Japanese Red Army and other terrorist
networks. And don't forget the 17 November group, headquartered in Greece; Abu
Sayyaf and the Alex Boncayao Brigade, in the southern Philippines and Manila;
not to mention Sikh terrorist groups, the Real IRA, Israel's Kach, Basque
separatists, and guerrillas in Peru and Turkey. This list doesn't even include
the Russian Mafia and other organized-crime networks that traffic in drugs,
weapons, prostitution, and slavery--clandestine groups that are as ruthless as
any terrorists anywhere.

And even if we stamped out all global terrorist organizations without turning
the entire world into a U.S. police state, Americans still wouldn't be safe from
terrorism. With advanced technology, a lone psychopath can kill thousands. Senior
FBI agents now speculate that the anthrax-laced mail that's already caused four
deaths in this country and closed part of official Washington may be the product
of an American citizen working out of a small, well-equipped microbiology lab.

This doesn't mean that we throw up our hands in despair and conclude that
there's no way to win against terrorism. But it does suggest that we have to be
much cleverer. We're so used to fighting enemy states, hitting military targets,
and gaining geographic territory that we're in danger of losing sight of the real
goal. What's most needed in a war against terrorism is better intelligence. That
19 foreigners (no doubt aided by many accomplices) were able to hijack and pilot
four U.S. jetliners simultaneously and ram three of them into their targets
signifies an intelligence breakdown of breathtaking proportion. Gaining control
over a country run by despicable people doesn't necessarily improve our
intelligence capacity. Bombs are no substitute for agents adept in foreign
languages and cultures who can monitor and infiltrate terrorist networks.

We also need better ability to track and control chemical, biological, and
nuclear weapons, including those here in the United States. (The FBI is still
trying to discover how many laboratories in the United States have legal access
to anthrax spores.) Thousands of tons of weapons-grade uranium, plutonium,
chemicals, and pathogens are still vulnerable to terrorists at hundreds of sites
in former Soviet states. Yet the White House has decided to block new spending
aimed at dismantling these arsenals and buying off more of Russia's unemployed
former nuclear engineers. Our policy should be just the reverse.

Such efforts can reduce the odds of future terrorist attacks because they
directly target the means by which the enemy operates. Bombing nations and
toppling governments do not. The only way to win a war against terrorism is by
fighting terrorism itself.

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