The attacks on Afghanistan seek to serve two primary goals. First, they serve to remind the American people, as well as the rest of the world, that attacks such as those on Sept. 11 will not be tolerated; the United States is, and will remain, the leading power in the world. Second, they aim to initiate (at least publicly) the struggle against bin Laden, the Taliban and terrorism.
Today’s attacks have been well-timed to achieve the first goal. By initiating them on a Sunday, the administration has maximized the number of Americans able to view the retaliatory strikes. This may help to relieve some anger and fear among the American people. At the same time, the United States carefully avoided bombing on a Friday, the Islamic holy day, and therefore has minimized popular hostility in the Islamic world. Finally, coupled with the airdrops of staple goods as well as carefully worded statements distinguishing between the Afghan people and their Taliban government, the United States has sought to demonstrate not only that it is the leader of the world militarily, but also that it plays a leading role in promoting human rights.
The second goal, however, may not be as easily met. Although the airstrikes mounted today have undoubtedly weakened some of the infrastructure of the Taliban regime, they are unlikely to “smoke the terrorists out of their holes.” Given the already limited condition of Afghanistan’s military and infrastructure, it is unlikely that the bombings will paralyze the regime by hitting military targets and public installations. Given the already miserable conditions of the Afghan people, it is also unlikely that the bombings will weaken public support critical to the Taliban regime. Rather, it seems that while today’s events may be an impressive sight for American television audiences, it is not likely that they represent a major step toward winning the struggle against terrorism.
The struggle against terrorism, as we have been warned, is likely to be a long one. Two things will remain important during this war. First, the United States should not give bin Laden, and others like him, opportunities to exploit U.S. actions in mobilizing a war of Islam against the “infidels.” In this, the United States must not lose sight of the importance of such seemingly small details as avoiding major strikes on holy days, avoiding the use of words with religious connotations, and avoiding attacks on holy sites. Second, the United States must continue to distinguish between the people and their regimes, both those of its enemies as well as its allies. It must continue to separate in its mind the Afghan people, the Taliban regime and the bin Laden network. Yet, it must also be careful to distinguish, for instance, between the Pakistani regime and the Pakistani people. We cannot afford to assume that the support of regimes in Arab and Islamic states represents the support of their people. Indeed, maintaining cooperation with our allies without allowing this alliance to undermine the strength of their regimes is one of the major challenges of this long war.
So far, the United States’ relatively low-key diplomacy has helped in this effort. Let us hope that as the bombings start, the United States continues to be as successful.
Ellen Lust-Okar is an assistant professor in political science and expert on the Middle East.