David Miller: Will Bombing Solve the Problem?
Terrorism and the US: Will Bombing Solve the Problem?
It is not surprising that there have been calls for retaliation within the United States following the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington. It was inevitable that as shock gave way to anger there would be many people who wished to see justice done and those responsible for the attacks punished. However in this case it is not that simple. The US is preparing as though this was another conventional war with the largest build up of military hardware in the Middle East since the end of Desert Storm and the Bush Administration is continuing with the tough talk. However there are two questions that remain unanswered that threaten the success of any counter-strike. Who will be the target of Operation Infinite Justice? And, will any military action by the US achieve the objective of defeating terrorism in this new type of war with a missile strike?
The US media and government have constantly reiterated the claim that attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre signalled the onset of the 21st Century’s first war. There is certainly a feeling that war has been declared, however in this case, the stated enemy is the concept of International Terrorism and the network led by Osama bin Laden, rather than a particular country, such as Iraq or the former Soviet Union.
So what is ‘International Terrorism’ and how does the United States identify it as a target when it launches any retaliatory strike?
The Bush Administration claims the answer is bin Laden and Afghanistan’s ruling Taleban militia, and it appears that these will be the targets should any military action be taken. The US cannot attack those who perpetrated the attacks as they died in the explosions, so it is forced to search for those who provide the logistical support, the financing and the safe havens and once it has decided it knows who these people and networks are, then the raids will begin.
The problem with attacking the bin Laden network is that it is not confined to one country. This network is multi-national and operates as an umbrella organisation for different groups in different countries. The loose nature of the command and control structure is what gives the al-Qaeda organisation its strength.
If the US is successful in eliminating one cell or faction, it is unlikely that it will be able to eliminate them all unless there is an intelligence break through or that one of bin Laden’s men turns traitor and provides information as to the wider network.
Another problem facing the US is that a missile attack on the network has proved to be an unsuccessful tactic in the past. In 1998, the Clinton Administration ordered a military strike on bin Laden targets and these did not eliminate the threat. As with the attack of 1998, there are no guarantees that it will work this time simply because of the unknown location of bin Laden. If the United States launches a military strike, then the planners must know his exact location the second those missiles land or else they will again fail to eliminate him. If the US fails in its bid for a second time then it will prove a major propaganda victory for bin Laden and his supporters and it is unlikely that support from the international community for further attacks by the US will be forthcoming.
Another problem the US faces is what to do with the Taleban militia. Will missiles alone force the Taleban to relinquish bin Laden and his supporters and will they prove sufficient to drive them from power?
The answer is that missile and air attack are unlikely to do both. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth and in reality there is little in the way of infrastructure or economic value to destroy. The Taleban will prove even more unwilling to hand bin Laden over to the US in the advent of an attack on their country and short of deploying troops on the ground and occupying the country, there is little possibility of this happening. There is little chance of the US committing ground troops into Afghanistan, especially after the experience in Somalia. There is little political future for a President who is held responsible for committing US troops to a situation where they cannot be easily withdrawn, and certainly no future at all should those men start returning home in body bags.
The US is in an unenviable position. It must not be seen to be incapable of action in times such as this and it must demonstrate to the rest of the world that even in the 21st Century it will strike back at those who attack it. The problem in this case is that the enemy is elusive and invisible and rather than constitute a state, this enemy is the network of one man. Bombing Afghanistan may force the Taleban to re-think its position on supporting International Terrorism or it may embroil the US in a bitter and frustrating conflict that drags on for years to come. Either way the Bush Administration must ask whether its objectives will be achieved by missile strikes alone, re-think its strategy on conflict and prepare the American people for a long and destructive conflict. Whatever happens this new war will not be over soon.