And Now For the Hard Part

David Tucker

December 1, 2001

The suicide terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa, killing and injuring scores of people, illustrate the difficulties of the war on terrorism and why they are likely to increase. President Bush has declared that we are waging war against those terrorists with a global reach. This distinction was made to keep the Israeli-Palestinian struggle out of the way. Hamas, the group responsible for previous suicide attacks, and the self-proclaimed organizer of the most recent ones, operates only in and around Israel. It has, for example, never targeted Americans. It does not have global reach, in other words, and thus, as Secretary of State Powell reconfirmed on Sunday, is not a target of the war on terrorism, at least as the U.S. government currently defines that war. Thus, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East that support Hamas can assist in the war on terrorism because Hamas is not a target in that war.

This careful distinction that includes the Taliban in the war but excludes Hamas is entirely political. It is necessary if we are to achieve the political objective of the war, the suppression of terrorism that poses a serious threat to the United States, since success in this war requires the assistance of many countries sympathetic to Hamas. In no other way does the distinction make sense. We have declared that we are acting in self-defense following the attacks of September 11 and will not negotiate with either the Taliban or al Qa’ida, whom we hold responsible for the attacks. Yet we have sent special envoys to Israel—one was in Israel at the time of the attacks—to try to get Israel back to negotiating with the Palestinian Authority, from whose territory Hamas launches its attacks. We criticize Israel for launching military strikes that kill the men who plan the suicide bombings, but we show videotape of our own such attacks in Afghanistan. Furthermore, if Hamas as an organization is not affiliated with al Qa’ida, members of Hamas have reportedly worked with those known to be part of bin Ladin’s organization. Except for our political requirements, it is difficult to see the difference we assert between our war on terrorism and Israel’s.

Yet before we condemn the political distinction the U.S. government has made, we ought to consider its fruits. Things have been going well in our war on terrorism. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have been pushed out of all but their original and now last stronghold, Kandahar, which is on the verge of falling. They are under attack not by U.S. forces alone or even by the Northern Alliance but by their fellow Pashtun tribesmen. This shows that the Taliban are about to suffer not a military defeat only but a political defeat, the most devastating kind of defeat. Those who should be closest to them and most likely to support them have turned against them. If we can maintain and enlarge the anti-Taliban sentiment among the Pashtuns, then we will be on the way to a comprehensive defeat of the Taliban.

Around the world, the war on terrorism is also going well. According to press reports, with the help of the authorities in countries in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, hundreds of members of the al Qa’ida network have been arrested. Equally important, reports have begun to appear of newspapers in the Middle East publishing editorials and cartoons criticizing and even ridiculing Osama bin Ladin. Although much weaker than the anti-Taliban sentiment in Afghanistan, this criticism of bin Ladin suggests his political defeat might be a possibility.

We have accomplished all this because we have fought this war by and large as a political campaign, not only in our dealings with Israel and its adversaries but even in the way we have used force in Afghanistan. We have kept in mind what public opinion in Afghanistan and around the world will accept. Having done so, we have kept civilian casualties low and avoided a large U.S. troop presence, letting the Afghans do most of the fighting. In this manner, we have been able to build and keep together an international coalition to fight al Qa’ida and to build an anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan.

The war must be fought with public opinion in mind for two reasons. First, as a simple practical matter, as we noted, we need the help of other nations to carry on the war against terrorism. We need them to let us fly through their air space and use their facilities as forward staging bases. We need them to share intelligence with us and make arrests. Second, and most important, we need to conduct the war as a political campaign because our most important task is not dethroning the Taliban or capturing bin Ladin but destroying the al Qa’ida network. Destroying this network is our most important task because it is this network that threatens us. The network, and not bin Ladin or the Taliban, carried out the attacks of September 11. Dealing with this threat is not solely a military task because the terrorist network is not only a collection of bunkers or troop formations or armored vehicles. It is a collection of people in and outside Afghanistan who share an idea, and we cannot bomb an idea.

Countering that idea requires a political campaign, a steady effort to persuade people to support us. Force and violence need to be part of this campaign. Politics is never a matter of just reason. Indeed, the successful use of force in Afghanistan appears to be one reason there has been some change in public opinion and in the press coverage of bin Ladin and the Taliban in the Middle East. No one loves a loser. But the fact that the judicious use of force has increased our support does not prove that the use of greater amounts of force would win us even more support. We have succeeded to the degree we have, again, because we have restrained our use of force, keeping in mind what public opinion will bear. Part of that effort has been to restrain Israel’s use of force as well.

We should keep the political requirements of the war on terrorism in mind now, for the hardest part of the war on terrorism is before us. The destruction of the Taliban was necessary to teach governments that sponsor terrorism a lesson and to make vulnerable the elements of al Qa’ida that operate in Afghanistan. Once we have removed their protectors, we can finish off al Qa’ida in Afghanistan. In carrying out this task, we may get lucky. The remnants of the Taliban and al Qa’ida may decide to surrender, which seems most unlikely, or fight it out with us in the open. If they do, then we will be able to accommodate their wish for a martyr’s death. A more difficult situation will arise if the remnants of our enemies try to fight a guerilla war, a war in which they will avoid direct confrontation with us but hope to wear us out by waging a war of hit and run attacks in Afghanistan and more terrorist attacks here in the United States or in the capitals of those helping us.

In such a war, not military force but intelligence is the key. To be effective against al Qa’ida wherever it operates, we must first discover where its members are hiding. We will get this intelligence, if we have the support of the Afghan tribes and people and public opinion around the world. The fewer supporters that al Qa’ida and bin Ladin have in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the fewer places they will have to hide. We will get and keep support in Afghanistan only if we use force carefully and continue to limit our military presence in the country, making sure that we treat all the factions fairly. This will be an intensely and tricky political business.

Internationally, keeping our support will also be a difficult problem. As the effort in Afghanistan moves in our favor, we may well have difficulty keeping the support we have so far enjoyed from our coalition partners. With al Qa’ida on the run in Afghanistan and so many under arrest around the world, they may feel the job is done. We will have to work hard to persuade them it is not and to keep their support. Only in this way will we deprive al Qa’ida of its hiding places outside as well as inside Afghanistan. But this will be especially difficult, if we turn our attention to other state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iraq.

The Bush administration has been taking steps to maintain coalition support by encouraging a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem: hence the special envoys it has dispatched. If Israeli-Palestinian violence continues to escalate, it will be harder and harder to separate terrorism with a global reach from this particular local war. We will find it harder to persuade the Israelis to restrain their use of force. Middle Eastern countries sympathetic to the Palestinian cause will threaten to be less cooperative members of our coalition against terrorism unless we pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. We will have some leverage of our own to resist such pressure because those Arab and Muslim governments helping us are those that al Qa’ida singles out for destruction as unislamic. Still, keeping the international coalition together promises to be another intensely political and tricky task.

The difficulties we face may well persuade us to share in the prayer that President Bush offered at the end of a recent Saturday radio address: “May God grant us patience, resolve and wisdom in all that is to come.”

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University 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.