The War We Should Fight

By Paul Starr
The American Prospect, October 22, 2001

Let there be no doubt that America is justified in going to war against what President Bush describes as terrorism of "global reach." After September 11, we have to assume that any group willing to kill thousands of people in the World Trade Center's twin towers would be willing to use weapons of mass destruction. We have every right to defend ourselves by pursuing such terrorists not only in the United States and nations that ally themselves with us, but also in the countries that provide havens for them.

Yet while a war is justified, it is not at all clear what kind of war it should be. There are both practical and moral risks of overextending American power and generating new troubles for ourselves and our friends in the Islamic world. Even the administration, which seems agreed on short-term objectives, is divided between those who favor an escalating war against an array of states (notably including Iraq) and those who favor a delimited war in Afghanistan. Amid the spectrum of possibilities, consider these:

  • 1. A war consisting of special operations targeted against terrorist forces and training camps in Afghanistan.

  • 2. A broader military campaign to oust the Taliban and put the Afghan opposition in power.

  • 3. A general war against states that continue to harbor or support terrorists of global reach.

    Both the international community and the American public are fully prepared to support the first of these options. No one has suggested any plausibly effective response to al-Qaeda that does not involve strikes within Afghanistan. But what about escalating the conflict to the second level?

    It seems unlikely that we can stop Afghanistan from serving as a haven for terrorists without ousting the Taliban government. The history of failed British and Soviet attempts to dominate the country, however, stands as a grim warning to any country contemplating an invasion; the terrain is a dream for guerrillas and a nightmare for conventional forces.

    At this point, it is impossible to say what the scope of our objectives in Afghanistan should be. But daunting though it may be, we should not rule out a war aimed at changing the government, which has been a scourge to its own people as well as a threat to others. To leave the Taliban in control might well be to repeat the mistake we made of leaving Saddam Hussein in power at the end of the Gulf War. Much will depend on the breadth of the coalition that the United States can assemble outside and inside Afghanistan. The Russians failed in large part because we armed and trained the Taliban; the situation will be different if the major powers are united against the Taliban and no contiguous state offers them assistance. The task will also be more feasible to the extent that the organized Afghan resistance can take primary responsibility for toppling the Taliban; we may not need to undertake a full-scale deployment of our forces.

    Escalating the war to the second level undoubtedly risks the lives of innocent people. But the Taliban have brought misery, denying women all rights and imposing an absolute tyranny over thought; so a wider war within Afghanistan may also save lives and restore liberties. If our forces become engaged in such a war, it will be for the sake of our own self-defense, but it is not irrelevant that we might do some good in Afghanistan itself.

    Escalating the war beyond Afghanistan is a different matter entirely. If we appear to be waging a general war, we will fall into the trap the terrorists have set for us. Radical Islamic forces would like nothing better than to use the nationalist reaction we could arouse as the fuel for their struggle to dominate the Arab world.

    Moreover, the United States cannot hope to maintain international support if it appears to undertake a limitless conflict. Before this crisis, the administration did not show a great deal of solicitude for the views of the Russians or even our European allies. But in a campaign against terrorism, their full cooperation is not just desirable; it is essential. No cooperation, no victory.

    Surely members of the administration understand the need to work more closely with other countries. But instead of trying to establish an international framework for action--for example, through the United Nations Security Council--the administration has made decisions unilaterally and demanded that other nations follow along.

    Unfortunately, the president's rhetoric has also raised expectations of a struggle of epic dimensions that has all the makings of another Cold War. His reference to the anti-terrorist campaign as a "crusade" and his invocation of God at the end of his speech to Congress suggest a kind of fervor that ought best to be left to the other side.

    For now, President Bush has the overwhelming majority of Americans behind him, and deservedly so. Democrats in Washington and elsewhere have put partisan differences aside. But no one should mistake this support for a blank check: There is much in the president's response to this crisis to admire, but also much to worry about. We are embarked upon a war that has no clear limits and may require deep engagement in a region of the world that is strange and hostile to us. Our involvement there could backfire. The war might spread to neighboring countries. To avert these risks, we ought to keep the grander visions of the conflict in check. We must not compound the tragedy of September 11 by undertaking a jihad of our own.

    Copyright 2001 by Paul Starr Preferred Citation: Paul Starr, "The War We Should Fight," The American Prospect, Oct 21, 2001. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to