U.S. Counts the Cost of Its Decision to Fight

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

October 28, 2001

Even as the military confrontation in Afghanistan intensified last week, it was becoming increasingly clear that the quick victory that some had hoped for—but few had expected to achieve—was not about to materialize.

Rather than collapsing under the weight of American bombardment, the Taliban appeared to dig in for a long fight. And the hopes that military action would quickly shake loose information about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaida lieutenants appeared to be dashed.

Meanwhile, the war against terrorism at home also entered a new, frightening phase. Two postal workers died of inhalation anthrax. The postmaster general warned Americans that he could not guarantee the safety of the mail. Most worrisome, analysis of the anthrax sent in a letter to Sen. Tom Daschle pointed to a sophisticated source.

So America now faces the prospect of a long, two-front war. How is it likely to unfold? Will the United States be able to win a military victory in Afghanistan, or are we headed for another quagmire like Vietnam? Would success in Afghanistan mark the end of our military operations—or will the goal of defeating terrorism require us to attack other countries like Iraq or Iran? And, as we face an enemy at home that uses germs rather than guns, will we have the stamina to fight a long war against terrorism?

The Afghanistan Challenge

The Bush administration has set out in Afghanistan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, destroy the Al-Qaida network there, and topple the Taliban.

The first three weeks of the campaign showed just how difficult achieving those goals could be. U.S. bombers quickly destroyed key Taliban and Al-Qaida targets, but that was not enough to force the defection of significant numbers of Taliban forces to the opposition. Despite some spectacular incursions by Army Rangers and other special forces, both bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar escaped capture.

The lack of clear progress has led Pentagon officials to tone down their optimism about achieving their short-term goals anytime soon. Administration officials remain convinced that they can remove the Taliban from power. But those officials now acknowledge that could take many months.

Does this mean we are headed for another Vietnam—with military victory out of sight and public support slowly eroding? Probably not. Here, our objectives are clear and limited, and our enemy is despised throughout much of Afghanistan. Memories of Vietnam and of the disastrous Soviet experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s also inform military planning at every step, which explains the evident refusal to send large numbers of ground forces in as an occupying army.

The great danger today comes from a different direction—the possibility that the international anti-terror coalition the administration has painstakingly assembled will crumble if the fighting drags on for months. If Pakistan or other important countries in the region turn against U.S. efforts, our ability to succeed in Afghanistan will be severely hampered.

After Afghanistan

If—or when—we succeed in crossing the minefield that is Afghanistan, we still face great challenges. Bin Laden’s network stretches across more than 60 countries and is likely to survive even if he does not. What remains of the network may even try to hijack another failed state (think of Somalia, Yemen or Sudan), using that country as a base in much the way it used Afghanistan. If such a plan were to succeed, we would confront another possibly prolonged military engagement.

Then, there is the broader question of which other state sponsors of terrorism might become a target of U.S. military might. In striking the Taliban, President Bush made clear that the United States is pursuing an “Afghanistan first” strategy, not an “Afghanistan only” strategy. So who will be next?

Topping the list of many policy-makers—including key hawks in the Bush administration—is Iraq. For them, the main task in the Middle East is the same as it was before Sept. 11: to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Baghdad continues to threaten its neighbors and to develop weapons of mass destruction. While there is no evidence linking Iraq to any of the recent terrorist incidents, it has longstanding ties to terrorists, including individuals associated with Al-Qaida. And, because it has long possessed biological weapons, the possibility remains that Baghdad might be tied to the anthrax attacks.

Moreover, removing Saddam would eliminate the need to base U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia—a key source of bin Laden’s complaint against the United States. (The troops were first deployed there after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and remain there as a deterrent against Iraq again attacking neighboring nations.)

But declaring war on Iraq would pose huge risks. Unlike the Persian Gulf War, the United States would almost certainly have to fight on its own. Although some of the gulf states might be supportive if they were convinced Washington was now willing to remove Saddam from power, many of our Arab friends warn that attacking Baghdad could appear to bolster bin Laden’s case that the United States is waging war on Islam. Similar warnings come from Moscow, America’s newfound partner in the war against terrorism, as well as from European capitals.

So in the absence of convincing evidence that Iraq was behind the Sept. 11 attacks or anthrax incidents, striking that country would most likely fracture the anti-terrorism coalition that the Bush administration needs to carry out its long-term campaign against terrorist groups elsewhere in the world.

Iran and Syria could also be considered targets in a comprehensive war on terrorism. Both countries have actively sponsored and harbored terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, which was responsible for the 1983 bombings in Beirut at the U.S. Embassy and at the Marine barracks that killed 258 Americans. While the implicit threat of force might be useful in persuading Damascus and Tehran to end their support for terrorist groups, the prospect of going to war against either country is daunting.

Consumed as it is with winning the war in Afghanistan, the White House probably has yet to decide what comes next. But when it eventually faces that question, it might confront a situation that every administration dreads. What the Bush administration wants to do, and perhaps should do, conflicts with what it can do.

In other words, the administration may well conclude that—to keep U.S. citizens safe—terrorists must be routed from all these countries. But it may not be able to find a way to do so without turning our allies against us and perhaps even strengthening our enemies.

The Battle at Home

The second front in this two-front war against terrorism—the war at home—is at once the gravest, and the one Americans are least accustomed to fighting.

The war against terrorism differs profoundly from the previous conflicts the United States waged over the past half-century. In Korea, Vietnam, Panama, the gulf and the Balkans, we took the battle to our adversary.

In Al-Qaida, we face a foe that has demonstrated the will and the ability to take the battle to America. That raises the critical question: What will bin Laden’s network do next? Sept. 11 tells us that Al-Qaida sees all Americans as legitimate targets.

Beyond that, however, uncertainty reigns. We know little about Al-Qaida’s ultimate size and strength. We do not know if there are “sleeper” cells in the United States—people living normal lives but ready to be activated for a terrorist strike at any moment. We don’t even know whether Al-Qaida is behind the anthrax attacks.

As a nation, we are like a person in a dimly lit room who knows something is there, but doesn’t know who or what. We don’t know if we are exaggerating the threat, underestimating it, or looking in the wrong place entirely.

With uncertainties of this dimension, it is not enough to tell the American people, as President Bush has repeatedly done, that we should hug our kids, go shop and otherwise get on with our lives. We need a government that comes clean with all the information at its disposal—that stands ready to help the postal worker as quickly as the politician. We need a government that is well-organized and financed to meet the threat of the 21st century at home, and that is willing to forgo future tax cuts for the few to fund current needs of the many.

Testing American Resolve

The war the United States is now fighting against terrorism will test America’s political resolve in the weeks, months and years to come.

For now, Americans are overwhelmingly behind Bush. But the White House knows that could change if military operations in Afghanistan show no signs of progress. A greater threat to public support will come if Americans believe that the administration is paralyzed by bureaucratic infighting and has no plan for fighting the war at home.

The great danger of a prolonged war is that it will conjure up the siren call of the quick fix—give bin Laden what he wants and withdraw U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia. This call has natural appeal. Riyadh helped give birth to bin Laden by encouraging anti-Americanism at home; it has funded the Taliban, and it has been spotty since Sept. 11 in supporting U.S. war efforts.

Of course, we should lessen our dependence on Persian Gulf oil, and reduce, where possible, the need for our forces to be deployed. And we must intensify our efforts to get the Middle East peace process back on track. These policies have long been in our interests, and continue to be so now.

But we must not act precipitously or abruptly change course. Withdrawing U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia will solve nothing. Bin Laden’s objectives begin with forcing the United States out of the Arabian Peninsula. They do not end there.

He has made clear that he wants to drive Israel into the sea and rid the Islamic world of all non-believers. Pulling precipitously out of Saudi Arabia would only confirm that his basic strategy is correct: Make Americans feel pain and they will run. To appease him will only increase the terrorists’ temptation to strike again.

So, we will most likely face unpleasant choices in the coming months. We must face down Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Only then can we decide whether to use military force against other state sponsors of terrorism. In the meantime, we cannot let our fear of what might go wrong at home deter us from what we must do. Although the costs of our two-front war may be substantial, the costs of abandoning it will be infinitely greater.