Open-Ended War

Thus far the U.S. war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban has followed the carefully scripted plan devised by the White House and the Pentagon over the past few weeks: first, air and missile strikes against the few visible expressions of Taliban military power, to be followed by commando-type raids on suspected terrorist hideouts. What is unknown, however, are the steps that will follow. While most Americans will support a relatively short war to crush the Taliban and capture Bin Laden, there are signs that President Bush and associates favor a much longer and more elaborate conflict–one that shows every risk of turning into a Vietnam-like quagmire.

The likelihood that we face a long, drawn-out conflict was raised by the president himself in his television address announcing the first U.S. strikes on Sunday [October 7]. “Today we focus on Afghanistan,” he told the nation. “But the battle is broader.” Any other nation that aids or supports terrorism, he suggested, will also come under attack from the United States.

The concept of an ongoing war against terrorist groups and the states that support terrorism has been a consistent theme in White House rhetoric. “This war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion,” Bush told a joint session of Congress on September 20. “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any we have ever seen.”

What, exactly, might such a conflict entail? On this point, we have heard little but hints and allusions from the Department of Defense. From what is publicly known of U.S. troop movements, it appears that the Pentagon is preparing for an extended campaign in Afghanistan aimed at the complete overthrow of the Taliban regime and attacks on every cave and hiding place that might be used by Bin Laden and his associates. This, in turn, is likely to involve close collaboration with the anti-Taliban forces of the Northern Alliance plus the deployment, for some time, of U.S. ground troops in areas once occupied by Bin Laden’s forces.

But if Bush’s statements are to be taken at face value, this is only stage one of the war against terrorism. The next steps, in all likelihood, will include raids on terrorist camps in other countries, along with air strikes against states that are said to aid the terrorists.

It is impossible, at this point, to predict which terrorist groups Washington will go after. Likely candidates include Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Jihad in Egypt, and Abu Sayyef in the Philippines. It is also likely that Washington will step up its indirect war against the guerrilla groups in Colombia.

In some cases, these operations may be relatively modest, involving cooperation with local government forces in short-term commando raids. But others could evolve into much larger campaigns, entailing multiple air strikes and the extended deployment of ground troops. Given that these organizations typically operate in remote, inhospitable areas, and have resisted repeated attacks by local government forces, there is a very real danger that American forces could get drawn into costly and protracted conflicts like those once encountered in Southeast Asia.

President Bush has also spoken of the need to punish governments that harbor or support terrorists, aside from the Taliban. Although Bush has consistently declined to name the specific governments he has in mind, there is no mystery about the favored target for U.S. attack: the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Ever since the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, members of the president’s inner circle have hinted at their desire to go after Hussein and finish the job that, it is said, was left unfinished after the Gulf War of 1991.

A new round of attacks on the Iraqi regime would probably entail air and missile strikes on Hussein’s numerous palaces and residences, along with key government buildings in Baghdad. Much of this would resemble the early days of Operation Desert Storm, but would probably entail a larger number of attacks on facilities directly tied to the Iraqi leader and his inner circle. Presumably, the strikes would continue until Hussein was killed or overthrown.

It is possible, of course, that Hussein would perish in the opening days of the campaign, leading to a quick and decisive victory. But it is just as likely that Hussein would survive such attacks, and launch other forms of attack on American forces and installations. This, in turn, could prompt the administration to order a U.S. ground campaign against Iraq.

Either of these scenarios–raids on terrorist camps outside Afghanistan or a full-scale attack on Iraq–will no doubt produce numerous civilian casualties and provoke a new wave of anti-American protests in the Islamic world, possibly accompanied by further outbreaks of terrorism.

At this point, it is impossible to predict which of these outcomes is likely to materialize. But one thing is clear: President Bush has not placed any limits on the scope or duration of U.S. military operations. For now, the president is acting with the support of the American people. But he stands to lose that support if he embarks on an open-ended campaign against unnamed enemies. With all the lives at stake, he owes it to the American people to spell out his intentions and invite public debate on the most desirable U.S. strategy.