The American and British strikes that began yesterday against targets in Afghanistan came after the failure of the Taliban to evade three truths. First, in spite of their earlier denials, the Taliban now acknowledge they are in contact with terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Second, the Taliban’s rejection of President Bush’s ultimatum, and their refusal to cooperate with Pakistan — which backed their rise to power — shows they do not believe they can survive without the armed support of bin Laden’s followers. Third, the evidence of bin Laden’s involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks has been verified by Pakistan and NATO.
This evidence, which was presented by Prime Minister Blair on Oct. 4, should be read carefully. It details the responsibility of bin Laden’s network for terrorist attacks, beginning in 1993, on American armed forces and civilians. It notes bin Laden has proclaimed that terrorizing Americans is “a religious and logical obligation.” And it makes the vital point that “The [Sept. 11] attack could not have occurred without the alliance between the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, which allowed bin Laden to operate freely in Afghanistan, promoting, planning and executing terrorist activity.”
It is true that the Taliban can be understood in many contexts: the Soviet invasion; the appeal of intolerant fundamentalism in countries that are neither democratic nor prosperous; and the broader politics of Middle Eastern oil, to name only a few. But the Taliban claim to govern Afghanistan. They must thus accept responsibility for what goes on within their borders — and this includes any planning of terrorist attacks on other nations. The Taliban have tried to have it both ways: they have sought to benefit from bin Laden’s presence but to avoid being held liable for his actions. When Pakistan’s diplomacy failed to end this charade, a military response was unavoidable.
No one can say what the results of this response will be. It is unlikely that U.S. troops will be deployed to Afghanistan in large numbers. That would only repeat the mistakes of the Soviets, whose tanks could not prevent their enemies from melting into the mountains. More likely are a series of air strikes, followed by support for the Taliban’s internal enemy, the Northern Alliance. Against forces weakened by such strikes and by defections — the Taliban are not monolithic — the Alliance stands a chance of prevailing.
But this will and must not be the end of the war. Even if the Alliance is victorious, and if members of bin Laden’s inner circle are captured or killed, there are terrorists and potential recruits around the world who will seek to take revenge for his death. There is thus a need for multilateral action by the police, bankers, aid workers, and diplomats. And there are other countries — such as Iraq, with its chemical arsenal — that are more dangerous and almost as guilty as the Taliban. To destroy bases in Afghanistan while ignoring the threats from other regimes is to court a second, and worse, Sept 11.
In the weeks to come, there will be more terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies. It will be easy then to blame the U.S. response: we are already hearing claims that it is only the innocent in Afghanistan who are suffering. But the burden of proof rests on the critics. Given the evidence that bin Laden and the Taliban bear responsibility for the attacks in September, bin Laden’s earlier statements that his war against America would continue, and the failure of Pakistani mediation, the American and British strikes, though not an end in themselves, are justified and right.
Ted Bromund is Associate Director of International Security Studies.