With their initial air strikes involving some 40 attack aircraft and 50 cruise missiles against al Qaeda and Taliban assets in Afghanistan, the United States and United Kingdom are off to a good military start in the struggle against global terrorism.
The United States and its partners ruled out a ground war against a country that has been the graveyard of invading superpowers for centuries. They decided against a broad-ranging Kosovo-style air war against a country lacking many strategic targets or the food stocks and other necessities needed for civilians in Afghanistan to survive such attacks. Instead, their attacks have been confined primarily to military and government targets, with the notable exception of questionable strikes against power plants.
They began humanitarian relief efforts from Day One of their attacks to relieve the misery of innocent Afghans and underscore the fact that this is not a war against Muslims.
Finally, the Bush administration and Blair government took almost a month to prepare the military campaign. That allowed them to coordinate efforts with the Afghan resistance, Pakistani intelligence and numerous countries prior to commencing operations. It also should have allowed commandos to be deployed. These steps should maximize the odds that Afghan resistance forces will be able to profit quickly from initial bombing attacks, going on the offensive while the Taliban is reeling from the initial attacks. If we are lucky, they may even give special forces a chance to seize bin Laden, because he may come up for air to assess damages after a few days of bombing.
But many difficult military decisions lie ahead: how to strengthen the Afghan resistance; how to support it on the battlefield; whether to broaden the military effort to target other countries that have harbored and encouraged terrorists; and whether to go after Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Although many details need to be worked out, future military strategy should include the following basic elements:
Strengthen the Afghan resistance.
The Afghan resistance must be broadened beyond the Northern Alliance to include elements from various Pashtun tribes, in order that most Afghanis and Pakistan will accept it as a legitimate alternative government. The resistance also needs more help than it has received from its Russian benefactors. At present, the resistance is outnumbered perhaps 3 to 1 by Taliban forces and controls only 5 percent to 10 percent of the country.
In addition to weapons, the Afghan resistance needs training. That means putting Americans on the ground in Afghanistan. However, an element of restraint is required as well. We should not give the resistance weapons such as Stinger antiaircraft missiles that could come back to haunt us and our allies later, possibly being used against commercial airliners or other such soft targets. Even if one were prepared to entrust the resistance with such weapons, some could fall into enemy hands.
Support the resistance with American troops.
If the United States is not going to give resistance forces all the weapons they need, it will have to provide them with air cover. We need to be prepared for months of providing battlefield air cover.
If the resistance does not quickly take Afghanistan’s capital and other major cities and transportation routes, there ultimately might be a limited role for American and British ground forces in helping to deliver a coup de grace against the Taliban. But that possibility remains months away.
Do not attack other countries supporting global terrorism.
The United States should not conduct widespread strikes against the military and strategic assets of other countries harboring terrorist organizations besides the al Qaeda network. Localized strikes against the terrorists may be acceptable. Broader strategic campaigns against Syria or Iran or other such countries would sacrifice their cooperation in the fight against al Qaeda and make other nations wonder if the United States had lost its cool. Moreover, as unacceptable as Hamas, Hezbollah and most other terrorist organizations may be, they pale in comparison with al Qaeda, which must remain the primary target of our global coalition against terrorism.
Do not attack Iraq absent strong evidence.
Saddam Hussein is a dangerous actor, not beyond giving chemical or biological weapons to al Qaeda if he thought he could get away with it. If he has in fact begun to do so, he may have to be unseated from power to limit the danger as much as possible—necessitating not just a few airstrikes but Desert Storm II (with higher casualties likely in a march on Baghdad). However, that action cannot be taken without a strong case that his support for bin Laden has been real and important. So far, there is no such case.
The administration has made good decisions to date, but what has happened so far has been the easy part.