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No surrender in just war on terrorism

By W. James Antle III
web posted November 19, 2001

After weeks of bombing without tangible results and frequent reminders from high officials that this would not be a war of instant gratification, the United States military campaign in Afghanistan has taken a fortuitous turn. It was not long ago that the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan and the Northern Alliance controlled no more than 10 per cent. As of this writing, Taliban leaders are fleeing and their troops are being bombed by the US from the air and routed by Northern Alliance fighters on the ground.

Afghan children play with toy cars in Kabul's city market on November 17
Afghan children play with toy cars in Kabul's city market on November 17

The Northern Alliance has triumphantly marched into Kabul. Afghans celebrated their liberation from the hated Taliban theocracy by playing banned music and flying kites. Men shaved their beards and women removed their veils. Of this, Christopher Caldwell wrote in The Weekly Standard, "We should rejoice with all the glee of an Afghan peasant suddenly freed of the worry that a gang of illiterate Islamogangstas with Saudi-bought Kalashnikovs who don't speak his language will stone his wife to death for sport." al-Qaida leaders are being captured and killed, including top Osama bin Laden lieutenant and probable September 11 planner Muhammad Atef, reportedly killed by US bombardment. The Taliban now exerts unsteady control over Kunduz in northern Afghanistan and Kandahar in the south, subject to heavy fighting and US air strikes. Taliban sympathizers are fleeing to Pakistan.

It would be premature to declare total victory in the war against terrorism at this point. Both bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are still free. Elite al-Qaida fighters, including elements of the Brigade 55, have escaped to the mountains where they may hide and plan chemical and biological attacks. Terrorist cells continue to have members living in Western nations, including the United States, having seeped through porous borders for years. Future military action outside of Afghanistan also remains a possibility, as officials from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to Vice President Dick Cheney begin to hint that military action does not end with the defeat of the Taliban. Depending on the specifics of such actions, it is possible the United States may venture beyond a just war in retaliation for unspeakable terrorist violence and engage in activity that might be beyond vital national interests.

Nor are recent events a conclusive vindication of the Bush administration's policies with regard to counter-terrorism. Much of the recent progress came after the United States intensified its bombing, at least partially in response to critics of tepid pin-prick attacks that characterized the earliest efforts. Both Secretary of State Colin Powell, who once spoke of including "moderates" within the Taliban in a future Afghan government in deference to Pakistani concerns, and President Bush publicly urged the Northern Alliance not to enter Kabul. Yet it is now clear that the Northern Alliance's decision to take Kabul was a major psychological victory in the Afghan campaign. Moreover, many of the domestic responses to the terrorist threat have entailed counterproductive expansions of government, such as the recent federalization of baggage screening at airports, or abridgments of constitutional liberties in Orwellian anti-terrorism legislation. Tough decisions regarding immigration policy and actions reversing the restrictions imposed by Sen. Frank Church's ilk on our intelligence resources have to date been largely foregone.

But the latest developments should at least give pause to critics of US military involvement in Afghanistan. Viewing past US involvement in the region through caricatures of "blow back" and semi-informed recollections of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, many suggested that any US retaliation for September 11 would only result in an unwinnable quagmire, another Vietnam.

Such defeatism, combined with naïve pacifism and ideological distaste for the American Republic, seems less supported by the facts now that there has been success. But even before then, the critics overlooked some important issues. Foremost, they did not supply an alternative to military action. Even if we grant, for the sake of discussion, that the United States brought this on itself by not allowing Israel to be destroyed, abandonment of US support for Israel would not immediately yield greater safety. We would still have the enemies we made during the years of our alliance with Israel and quite possibly such enemies would be emboldened to commit further terrorist acts against us in anticipation of greater concessions. What then? If we do not disarm or destroy those who seek our destruction, how will we be secure?

It is unclear how refusing to retaliate against terrorists and those who harbor them would somehow make the United States safer even if policies that could conceivably be blamed for the terrorist attacks were changed. This also assumes that it is in the best interest of the United States to change any policy it adopts that is opposed by the likes of Osama bin Laden. It is at the very least conceivable that there might be some policies not to the liking of violent fanatics that otherwise serve US interests very nicely. Is it a sound response to simply do whatever cells of bullies tell us to do and crouch in a fetal position hoping that the terrorists will go away?

Former president of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani speaks in a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul in November 17
Former president of Afghanistan Burhanuddin Rabbani speaks in a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul in November 17

We have in the past shown those who lack the power to defeat us militarily that they can exact changes in US policy by inflicting terrorist attacks, such as the attack that killed 241 Marines and prompted us to withdraw from Lebanon. While much of our international involvement is outside either the scope of our interests or the mandate of our Constitution, the terms of such involvement must be set by Americans rather than by terrorists. Those who suggest that violence merely begets further violence do not realize the consequences of capitulation in begetting further terrorism. Sometimes the use of force is all that is respected; terrorism must not pay.

The return of Burhanuddin Rabbani, still recognized by the United Nations as the Afghan president, to Kabul for the first time since his ouster by the Taliban in 1996 brings new potential problems and opportunities. Yet it also signals the possibility of US success in holding terrorist attackers accountable and dislodging regimes that support them.

Vigilance is required to insure that the war on terrorism does not become a cover for irresponsible policies at home and abroad. But actions designed to incapacitate those who wish Americans harm are too important for surrender.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at wjantle@enterstageright.com.

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