Wars Without End

Wars Without End

Now that the Taliban is on the run, the 'war on terror' broadens its scope.


With the war against the Taliban nearing conclusion, many in Washington are urging Bush to expand the current conflict into a vast, open-ended campaign against assorted terrorist groups and "rogue" states like Iraq. The President has encouraged such thinking. The current struggle in Afghanistan is "just the beginning on the war against terror," he told US soldiers the day before Thanksgiving. "There are other terrorists who threaten America and our friends, and there are other nations willing to sponsor them. We will not be secure as a nation until all of these threats are defeated."

Originally, in his address to Congress on September 20, he said the war would extend to every terrorist group that has "a global reach" and to states that knowingly aided or harbored such groups. But on November 26 he expanded the target list to include states that "terrorize" other nations by secretly pursuing the manufacture of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, a category that conceivably could include Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and North Korea.

With the door open to so many options, hawks and hard-liners of many stripes have been arguing for a wide range of punitive military strikes. At the top of the list is a campaign to kill or oust Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Other oft-mentioned targets include Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, Hamas and Hezbollah in the West Bank and Lebanon and assorted rebel groups in Somalia.

With fighting still under way in Afghanistan, the White House is reluctant to provide any specifics about the next stage of the war. But various officials have suggested that the Pentagon is already gearing up for a wider range of attacks, including a stepped-up campaign against Saddam Hussein. From all that can be discerned these plans envision far more extended and risky operations than those now under way in Afghanistan.

Many signs point to preparations for an expanded war. Most conspicuous, of course, are the threatening comments by senior Administration officials. "The objective is to dismantle the global terrorist networks and state support for terrorism," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on November 18. "There are a number of states that support terrorists. Saddam Hussein [leads] one of them." Equally suggestive is the Defense Department's continuing mobilization of forces for deployment to the Persian Gulf area even as the Taliban regime appears to be disintegrating. Several aircraft carrier battle groups have already been stationed in the area, and at least one other group is on the way. "We want to continue planning, so that we can…provide the President of the United States with credible military options," Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the US Central Command, said on November 8.

A war with Iraq would conceivably jeopardize the flow of oil from the Gulf, so it is particularly significant that George W. Bush has ordered the Energy Department to completely fill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the first time ever. The reserve is designed to provide the United States with a secure supply of oil in the event of war or a major national emergency.

Although none of this evidence can be considered definitive, it makes it increasingly apparent that the Administration plans to start a new round of attacks once the fighting in Afghanistan is over. This could entail an intensified air campaign against Iraq or commando raids on suspected terrorist camps in Somalia, the Bekaa valley of Lebanon or other sites in the greater Middle East or Asia. Stepped-up US involvement in the Philippines' counterinsurgency campaign against Muslim rebels in southwestern Mindanao is also likely. (US military advisers have already been assigned to the government forces involved in this effort.)

Whatever the immediate outcome of these engagements, the United States is likely to find itself embroiled in one bloody and uncontrollable conflagration after another. Except possibly in the Philippines, where support for the rebels is limited, US intervention will provoke a hostile reaction from at least some segments of the local population, leading to a larger conflict and/or new outbreaks of terrorism. It will also divert resources from the effort to track down surviving offshoots of Al Qaeda–groups that most directly threaten the United States. In addition, an expanded US war effort will alienate our partners in the global antiterror coalition, most of whom insist that the current campaign be confined to attacks on Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

A US attack on Iraq presumably would be justified on the grounds that Iraq is manufacturing weapons of mass destruction that threaten the world community. But there is no clear evidence of such activities. The only way to find such evidence is by sending UN arms inspectors to Iraq–a step Saddam has opposed since 1998. The best way to compel him to let inspectors in is to impose "smart" sanctions of the sort proposed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and by others who oppose the current regime of sanctions, which inflicts great suffering on ordinary Iraqis. Any US military action that pre-empted such an effort would invite worldwide condemnation.

The Bush Administration enjoys strong support from Americans and the international community for the campaign against Osama bin Laden. As Richard Falk suggests in this issue ["In Defense of 'Just War' Thinking"], a war limited to the destruction of Al Qaeda can be considered a just and proportionate response to the September 11 terror attacks. But a larger effort, aimed at any number of states and individuals with no apparent connection to September 11, must not be viewed in that light. Such a campaign should be denounced as a dangerous example of "mission creep," intended to further the ambitions of certain strategists and politicians in Washington while exposing US soldiers and the American people to additional bouts of deadly violence.

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