Afghan Lessons / December 19, 2001 / AWSJ Review & Outlook, Op-Ed
As Donald Rumsfeld keeps telling us, the war on terror is far from over. But
as its initial phase in Afghanistan winds down with notable success, it's a
good time to consider what we've learned and how that should inform what
As good a place as any to start is with all of the dire predictions that
were wrong. As in the Gulf War and in Kosovo, the pessimists blew it. So
only three weeks into the Afghan campaign, the New York Times dispatched one
of its esteemed correspondents to rehearse the Vietnam "quagmire." Our
friends at the Weekly Standard also predicted doom, albeit in an attempt to
be helpful, but as if they thought Bill Clinton were still President.
In their partial defense, we'd say that just about everybody was wrong about
one large war lesson -- which is that U.S. military power is now more
dominant than any the world has seen since the British Empire. As in Kosovo,
the combination of precision bombing guided by special forces on the ground
has proved to be remarkably lethal. The decision to deploy the two together,
urged on the military by Mr. Rumsfeld, was the turning point of the war.
This doesn't mean that the U.S. will never have to deploy large ground
forces again. But it does allow for the application of military power with
far fewer casualties, which gives a U.S. President many more policy options.
In Afghanistan, it allowed the U.S. to topple the Taliban in only two months
in a landlocked country half a world away, and with only a handful of U.S.
casualties so far. It's a remarkable achievement.
A second lesson is that if the U.S. leads, the rest of the world will
follow, whatever its public misgivings. The main diplomatic fact of the
Afghan campaign is that nearly every serious country decided it was in its
own interest to cooperate with the U.S. rather than resist it.
China decided not to meddle in Taiwan and helped with Pakistan. Russian
President Putin moved closer to the West. India offered the U.S. its bases,
while even Europe put aside its crocodile whine about American
"unilateralism" to join the war effort. Europe seems to understand that the
U.S. is the final guarantor of world order and so when America is committed
to pursuing a goal as a matter of its own national security, Europe has
little choice but to agree.
This has obvious implications for the war's next phase, especially action
against Iraq. Two months ago the U.S. was said to be fated to pursue any
campaign against Saddam Hussein by itself. Not anymore. Burned by the Gulf
War, the Turks were saying never again only last month. But this week their
Defense Minister told the Times that "We don't wish an operation in Iraq,
but new conditions would bring new evaluations to our agenda." The
indispensable new condition would be an American President serious about the
job. The signs of Mr. Bush's growing seriousness has even moved the Saudis
on the Iraq question; at least now they'd support a U.S.-led coup in
Baghdad, if not yet a free election.
Which brings us to the mirage of the "Arab street." Osama bin Laden's avowed
goal was to provoke a U.S. response that would in turn provoke an Arab
eruption. Nearly the opposite has happened. U.S. success has quieted public
protests and there is little talk any more of radical coups in Pakistan or
Saudi Arabia. The more likely eruption now is an anti-clerical revolt in
As Princeton's noted Mideast scholar Bernard Lewis points out, Islamic
terror is less a function of hatred for America than of lack of respect.
Where we have seen ourselves acting with restraint or compassion (ending the
Gulf War early), the bin Ladens have perceived weakness. And of course
sometimes they have been right about Western lack of resolve, as in Somalia
and the Clinton responses to terror in the 1990s. But the way to win friends
in the Mideast is not by appeasement or solving the endless riddle of
Palestine. It is by showing we have the will to wield force on behalf of our
values and interests.
None of the above means there aren't many risks to come. The al Qaeda
network has been pounded but not broken up, bin Laden remains uncaptured and
Iraq and other terror havens continue to operate undeterred. Above all, we
still read blind quotes coming from our own State Department and
intelligence agencies that Iraq can't be liberated without deploying two
Army corps, that the "coalition" will melt away or that the American people
will lose their patience -- the same conventional wisdom that was preached
about Afghanistan a few weeks ago. Mr. Bush will have to mute those voices
with his own resolve.
No doubt there will be some dark days to come. But the early success in
Afghanistan has turned a moment of tragedy into one of great political and
diplomatic promise. President Bush has a chance rare in history to bring
both new peace and stability to the Mideast and new security to the United
States. The key now is keeping up the momentum until the war is finished.
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