The War We Should Fight

Let there be no doubt that America is justified in
going to war against what President Bush describes as terrorism of "global
reach." After September 11, we have to assume that any group willing to kill
thousands of people in the World Trade Center's twin towers would be willing to
use weapons of mass destruction. We have every right to defend ourselves by
pursuing such terrorists not only in the United States and nations that ally
themselves with us, but also in the countries that provide havens for them.

Yet while a war is justified, it is not at all clear what kind of war
it should be. There are both practical and moral risks of overextending American
power and generating new troubles for ourselves and our friends in the Islamic
world. Even the administration, which seems agreed on short-term objectives, is
divided between those who favor an escalating war against an array of states
(notably including Iraq) and those who favor a delimited war in Afghanistan.
Amid the spectrum of possibilities, consider these:

  • 1. A war consisting of special operations targeted against
    terrorist forces and training camps in Afghanistan.

  • 2. A broader military campaign to oust the Taliban and put the Afghan
    opposition in power.

  • 3. A general war against states that continue to harbor or support
    terrorists of global reach.

    Both the international community and the American public are fully prepared to
    support the first of these options. No one has suggested any plausibly effective
    response to al-Qaeda that does not involve strikes within Afghanistan. But what
    about escalating the conflict to the second level?

    It seems unlikely that we can stop Afghanistan from serving as a haven for
    terrorists without ousting the Taliban government. The history of failed British
    and Soviet attempts to dominate the country, however, stands as a grim warning to
    any country contemplating an invasion; the terrain is a dream for guerrillas and
    a nightmare for conventional forces.

    At this point, it is impossible to say what the scope of our objectives in
    Afghanistan should be. But daunting though it may be, we should not rule out a
    war aimed at changing the government, which has been a scourge to its own people
    as well as a threat to others. To leave the Taliban in control might well be to
    repeat the mistake we made of leaving Saddam Hussein in power at the end of the
    Gulf War. Much will depend on the breadth of the coalition that the United States
    can assemble outside and inside Afghanistan. The Russians failed in large part
    because we armed and trained the Taliban; the situation will be different if the
    major powers are united against the Taliban and no contiguous state offers them
    assistance. The task will also be more feasible to the extent that the organized
    Afghan resistance can take primary responsibility for toppling the Taliban; we
    may not need to undertake a full-scale deployment of our forces.

    Escalating the war to the second level undoubtedly risks the lives of innocent
    people. But the Taliban have brought misery, denying women all rights and
    imposing an absolute tyranny over thought; so a wider war within Afghanistan may
    also save lives and restore liberties. If our forces become engaged in such a
    war, it will be for the sake of our own self-defense, but it is not irrelevant
    that we might do some good in Afghanistan itself.

    Escalating the war beyond Afghanistan is a different matter
    entirely. If we appear to be waging a general war, we will fall into the trap the
    terrorists have set for us. Radical Islamic forces would like nothing better than
    to use the nationalist reaction we could arouse as the fuel for their struggle to
    dominate the Arab world.

    Moreover, the United States cannot hope to maintain international
    support if it appears to undertake a limitless conflict. Before this crisis, the
    administration did not show a great deal of solicitude for the views of the
    Russians or even our European allies. But in a campaign against terrorism, their
    full cooperation is not just desirable; it is essential. No cooperation, no
    victory.

    Surely members of the administration understand the need to work more closely
    with other countries. But instead of trying to establish an international
    framework for action--for example, through the United Nations Security
    Council--the administration has made decisions unilaterally and demanded that
    other nations follow along.

    Unfortunately, the president's rhetoric has also raised expectations of a
    struggle of epic dimensions that has all the makings of another Cold War. His
    reference to the anti-terrorist campaign as a "crusade" and his invocation of God
    at the end of his speech to Congress suggest a kind of fervor that ought best to
    be left to the other side.

    For now, President Bush has the overwhelming majority of Americans behind him,
    and deservedly so. Democrats in Washington and elsewhere have put partisan
    differences aside. But no one should mistake this support for a blank check:
    There is much in the president's response to this crisis to admire, but also much
    to worry about. We are embarked upon a war that has no clear limits and may
    require deep engagement in a region of the world that is strange and hostile to
    us. Our involvement there could backfire. The war might spread to neighboring
    countries. To avert these risks, we ought to keep the grander visions of the
    conflict in check. We must not compound the tragedy of September 11 by
    undertaking a jihad of our own.

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