As the air war in Afghanistan unfolded, questions arose about its purpose, intensity and scope. Why are we bombing the targets we are bombing? Are we hitting them hard enough and often enough? Everyone, from the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to the editors of prestigious conservative opinion journals in Washington, criticized the administration for not doing more. Why, one commentator wondered, is Secretary of State Colin Powell, who famously said of the Iraqi Army that we would cut it off and then kill it, presiding over a campaign in which we seem to be using less than the overwhelming force that he always called on us to use when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? As is now traditional in such controversies, some said that the politicians were tying the hands of the military just as they did in Vietnam. “To restrain our military in order to placate the diplomats,” Charles Krauthammer wrote, “is a tragic reprise of Vietnam.”
As Krauthammer’s remark suggested, the critics believed we were using only half measures in Afghanistan because we were paying too much attention to the wishes of our coalition partners, and, even worse in their eyes, to the fabled “Arab Street”—public opinion in the Arab world. This concern for what others think not only makes futile our efforts in Afghanistan, the critics insist, but threatens the effectiveness of the entire war on terrorism that President Bush declared in the aftermath of the September 11 bombings. For example, the critics argue we should be fighting Saddam Hussein and Iraq now, because he supports terrorism and has weapons of mass destruction; that we are not shows we fear that our coalition partners and the Arab Street will not support us.
This criticism appears to be having some effect. At least it appears to have gotten the attention of the highest officials running the war. First, Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, told reporters that “we’re not holding back at all.” Then, more recently, in an unscripted exchange with reporters, President Bush insisted “this is war, not a political campaign.” Perhaps sensing that the critics were having some effect, a “military expert” was quoted as telling reporters “we are accepting the fact that you have to win this militarily and deal with the political mess afterwards.”
If we are accepting this “fact,” it is unfortunate, because the critics are wrong. Coalition warfare is not the problem. On the contrary, it is the best way to fight the war. This is a critical point to understand, not just for Afghanistan but for the whole course of the war on terrorism.
The critics appear to have forgotten what is most urgent and important in the war and thus misjudge the importance of the coalition. The most urgent task right now is neither destroying the Taliban nor catching Osama bin Laden. It is suppressing the operational capability of the network of extremist terrorists that we call al Qa’ida. Destroying the Taliban is a necessary but secondary objective. We need to destroy them because we warned them repeatedly that we would hold them accountable for bin Laden’s actions. We must now make them pay to instill fear into those who might in the future be tempted to follow a similar course of action. This is a secondary objective, however, because it is al Qa’ida that continues to pose an immediate and quite serious threat to our well being. Without the Taliban, without bin Laden, al Qa’ida can still operate. Indeed, investigators believe that the group that carried out the September 11 attacks was not under bin Laden’s direct control. The attack probably received his blessing and financial support, but such support can come from others besides bin Laden in the future. Our immediate security, then, requires suppressing the network of terrorists.
The two critical facts about this network are that it extends beyond Afghanistan and that it cannot be bombed out of existence, no matter how unrestrained our attacks. If the Taliban does not present our military “targets of high value,” this is even more true of the terrorist network. What bombing tactics or even ground troops could have stopped the attacks on the World Trade Center? The terrorist network can only be defeated with relentless and strong-minded intelligence and police work. That work is essentially coalition work, because al Qa’ida operates internationally. We cannot effectively counter this network without the cooperation of many countries. Getting this cooperation and keeping it is the most urgent and important task before us, since without it we cannot accomplish the most urgent and important task of the terrorist war.
Those whose help we need have reason to give it. Al Qa’ida targets not only the United States and European governments but even Muslim governments that do not follow its peculiar form of Islam. Attacks on all these governments are likely to follow those made on the United States, as al Qa’ida works to expand by gaining members in countries around the world. The serious threat of attack with biological, chemical or even nuclear weapons that we face, they face as well.
Yet, unlike us, many of those whose help we need can try to deny the threat. It is less imminent for them, so they may hope that it will go away if they ignore it. Or they may hope that they can buy off an attack by compromising with the extremists or pretending not to notice when their citizens give them support. They are encouraged in such ultimately self-defeating attitudes when they weigh the merely possible danger of terrorist attack in the future against the certain danger from political agitation by those sympathetic to the terrorists that they face now.
In order to accomplish the most urgent and important task of the war, therefore, we must do everything we can to see to it that those whose support we need are willing to give it and to give it without reservation. Constant and careful diplomacy that lays out the costs of failing to join us in this fight is essential in winning the support we need. As important, however, is that we do everything we can within reason to make it easier for people to support us. It means that we must even manage the war in Afghanistan so that it does as little damage as possible to the coalition we need to fight the extremists. network. Political, even diplomatic, requirements should guide the use of military force. Coalition warfare—and we are unavoidably engaged in coalition warfare—is, at the highest level, a political campaign. We have to win that campaign or we will not win the war.
Some critics of coalition warfare have suggested that the best way to get people on our side is to show that we are powerful and resolute. Scare the hell out of people, Krauthammer argued, echoing Machiavelli’s advice that it is better to be feared than to be loved. Get them to fear us and they will turn on the Taliban and join us. Since Krauthammer focused on Afghanistan, let us consider the fear-inducing way he proposed to fight there. He suggested that we give everyone in Afghanistan’s cities 48 hours notice to evacuate and then bomb away. This, he assured us, would get the Taliban. But with such notice, why would the Taliban have stayed conveniently in the cities? They would have gone into the countryside with the rest of the population and hid. How would we have found the Taliban then?
The best way to find the Taliban and the only way to defeat them comprehensively is to build a coalition of ethnic groups in Afghanistan, including the most important ethnic group, the Pashtuns, from which the Taliban originated. This has been our strategy from the beginning. If we can get the non-Taliban Pashtuns to end their support of the Taliban and join with the other ethnic groups, then we will have isolated the Taliban. They will have no place to hide. We will have cut them off, so to speak, and will be able to kill them much more easily and effectively than if the Pashtuns continue to support the Taliban. In Afghanistan, coalition warfare is not an impediment to success but a requirement for it.
Beyond Afghanistan, at the level of our most urgent and important task in the war on terrorism, we will accomplish the most comprehensive defeat of our current enemies if we can encourage a process by which extremist violence has no more influence and legitimacy in Islam than it does in Christianity. This does not mean that such violence will have come to an end. The extreme Christian right in the United States has committed or inspired horrible acts of violence and has even dabbled with mass casualty weapons. But such extremists cannot hide in the larger Christian community because that community spurns them. They have no significant influence and exert no political power. We should strive to encourage such a development in Islam. If we succeed, then we will have cut off the extremists and they will meet the fate they deserve. Again, to do this will require coalition building with the vast majority of Muslims who do not accept terrorism. In truth, it will require coalition building on a truly historic scale.
No matter at what level we consider the war on terrorism, it must be fought by coalitions: by multiple, simultaneous coalitions as the multi-faceted war expands; by successive coalitions as the geographic focus changes. As we engage in this complex work, we should keep in mind a point implicit in much of what the critics have argued. When building coalitions, it is important that the coalition not become an end in itself. If this happens, then the objective for which the coalition was built is forgotten and never achieved. Therefore, we should not make pleasing our coalition partners an end in itself. But if making ourselves loved can be self-defeating, so can making ourselves feared, as we have noted. Indeed, if we are to succeed in the coalition war on terrorism, we will have to learn the higher truth of Machiavelli’s teaching: not to be the most feared or the most loved, but to be the most cunning.
David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.