America's identity crisis

Waging war projects American might in Central Asia -- but only makes it harder to catch bin Laden. That's why we should stop the bombing and intensify the international police hunt.

Published November 3, 2001 3:49PM (EST)

The United States is fighting two wars at the present time: a small war aimed at the capture of Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants; and a large war aimed at the consolidation of American power in the Middle East.

Although described as one and the same by Bush administration officials, these two wars are very different in both their methodology and their intended outcome. And while the two are being pursued with equal vigor, it is doubtful that victory can be achieved in both.

The first war, the campaign against Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida terrorist network, is essentially an international police campaign. Its aim is to identify, locate and apprehend all of the individuals involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States and similar acts of violence elsewhere. To succeed, it requires painstaking investigative work by police and intelligence agencies around the world; in some cases, it may also require limited military action to capture suspected terrorists in their mountain or jungle hideouts. This war enjoys the overwhelming support of the international community.

The second war, aimed at bolstering American power, entails a classical military campaign against those states that have resisted U.S. dominance in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Its first target is the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but it could extend to Iraq and possibly other states as well. To succeed, this campaign will require the overpowering concentration of military force. At present, this war is supported only by Great Britain among our major allies. Advocates of the two-war approach, including top officials of the Bush administration, claim that victory in the second war is essential to success in the first. Only by defeating the Taliban and other regimes that harbor terrorists, it is argued, can we deprive the terrorists of the sanctuaries from which they carry out their operations. A strong U.S. military presence in these areas is needed, moreover, to prevent further acts of terrorism. But this contradicts all that we have learned about al-Qaida since Sept. 11: While it is true that Osama bin Laden has used Afghanistan as a training base and a refuge, the fact is that the most dangerous al-Qaida operatives are deployed outside Afghanistan, in Europe, Southeast Asia and, if not already detained, in the United States itself. No amount of bombing can incapacitate these terrorists -- only determined, systematic police work can accomplish that.

Not only is there a strategic disconnect between the two wars, but we also risk failing in the first by pursuing the second. To succeed at capturing Osama bin Laden and shutting down his global terror networks, we need the active cooperation of police and intelligence officials in each of the 60-odd countries in which al-Qaida is said to operate. Some of these countries, including those in Europe, are naturally predisposed to give us all the help they can; others, however, will only help us if they think they can avoid negative repercussions at home. In particular, states in the Muslim world -- whose help is especially crucial -- must avoid giving the impression that they are supporting a war directed primarily against Muslims or aimed at the creation of a new American empire.

This is why the second war, a conventional military assault, poses such a significant risk to the success of the anti-terrorist campaign. If, by bombing Afghanistan repeatedly, we provoke so much hostility in the Muslim world that we lose the support of countries like Egypt and Pakistan, our ability to find bin Laden and his close associates will rapidly disappear.

Similarly, if we extend the war to Iraq or other unfriendly nations, we risk losing the support of key allies in Europe and Asia. Some may argue that we should proceed with both campaigns and hope for the best. This, indeed, is the stance of the Bush administration. But this is a very dangerous -- and immoral -- approach. Our overarching priority must be to capture and punish those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and to round up anyone else who may be planning similar acts of violence.

This means disavowing any moves that might frustrate the global anti-terror campaign, including efforts to gain tighter control over the Persian Gulf and its abundant oil supplies.

Disengaging ourselves from the second war will not be easy. Much power and prestige has already been invested in this effort. But the president would gain the full support of the American people -- and the world at large -- if he called for the concentration of all U.S. resources on the campaign to eradicate Osama bin Laden's global terror network. The Muslim holy period of Ramadan, beginning in mid-November, provides the ideal occasion to commence such a move. However awkward in the short term, such a shift would best advance American strength and safety over the long run.

) COPYRIGHT 2000 Pacific News Service

By Michael T. Klare

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Afghanistan National Security Osama Bin Laden Taliban Terrorism