A slow, steady campaign against the evil of terrorism
Sept. 19, 2001
President Bush and his administration rightly have been preparing Americans for a long struggle against terrorism, one that will include diplomatic and economic measures as well as military operations, and probably take years. There is widespread support for such a campaign, but Mr. Bush's task as a leader is nonetheless complex.
He must cobble together as strong an alliance as possible without allowing other countries to dictate a lowest-common-denominator solution. He must establish public confidence that the United States has evidence and reason for the targets it eventually chooses, without telegraphing useful information to adversaries. And he must channel Americans' anger and help maintain their resolve without succumbing to pressure for premature action.
This last may be most difficult. Bodies are still being recovered from the rubble, Americans are enraged, and polls show that high majorities support military action soon. And there are good reasons to show resolve soon, for example by deploying forces to places in the world where they may be useful. But Mr. Bush should avoid striking in haste.
Military force must certainly play a role in the coming campaign, and Afghanistan now looks like one place where it may be needed. The United States can no longer allow Osama bin Laden to operate there much less his training camps for aspiring terrorists. The Taliban government appears likely to reject the latest demand for cooperation delivered by Pakistan, just as it has resisted previous demands and sanctions by the United Nations. If the Taliban is defiant, some kind of military pressure should be brought against it.
A quick offensive of missile or air strikes in the coming days, however, could do more harm than good. Both Mr. bin Laden's organization and the Taliban leadership reportedly have dispersed or gone into hiding. There is little infrastructure left to destroy in the Afghan capital, Kabul or other cities. There are, however, hundreds of thousands of miserable Afghan civilians, already starved for food and shelter, who could be further harmed by indiscriminate bombing. Potential U.S. allies in the long-term struggle particularly in the Arab world could quickly shy away from cooperation if the United States is seen to launch another unilateral air campaign against a Muslim country.
Effective military action in Afghanistan, if that proves necessary, will almost certainly require ground operations, either by the United States and its allies or by surrogates. That, in turn, will require extensive preparations, good intelligence and an element of surprise none of which will be available in the coming days. Operations may have to be sustained for some time to yield success.
The Bush administration seems to be laying the groundwork for such a larger, slower and surer campaign. But there are some signs it may be considering early air action as well something analogous to the Doolittle raid over Tokyo early in World War II, which drew blood and raised morale while the United States prepared for larger offensives.
That mission worked, but Afghanistan already has been bled nearly dry, and the world has grown skeptical of hasty resort to airstrikes following previous incidents of terrorism. President Bush should not rush.