The military campaign in Afghanistan is only a week old and already I hear the critics saying that it has achieved little. Others claim that, because of civilian casualties, protests in certain Muslim countries and some deft public-relations work by Osama bin Laden, al-Qa'ida is somehow winning the propaganda war. This defeatism reflects both a misunderstanding of military realities and the Muslim world.
There is no quick fix. The Bin Laden terrorist network and its Taliban sponsors cannot be eradicated in a magical hi-tech display of air power, and it is a travesty to suggest that the US and Britain ever thought it could. The initial air strikes can only destroy terrorist bases that have been largely evacuated and weaken the Taliban's military. The rest has to be accomplished on the ground, with US and European special forces as well as covert support of groups opposed to the Taliban. In the coming weeks, the "real" war will begin as ground operations are coordinated with continued air strikes.
However long it takes, there can be no compromise on the goals of this operation. First, the al-Qa'ida network is determined to commit mass murder of civilians, whether or not we strike back. You can't negotiate with that kind of evil, so the network must be utterly destroyed. Second, the Taliban were one of the world's most odious regimes prior to 11 September. Now that they have shown a willingness to collaborate with those responsible for mass terror, they must be ejected from power. This is critical. Never again can Afghanistan be used as a safe haven for global terrorists, and other state sponsors of such organisations must understand that they will pay the ultimate price if any group under their control tries such attacks again.
But achieving these objectives will take time – and there will be a high cost in civilian lives. That is why it is so important to provide humanitarian relief to innocent Afghans. By helping to feed the hungry, and to provide shelter to the needy and medicine to the sick, we can show that our cause is just. That means providing protection for humanitarian convoys in Afghanistan if necessary.
The US has demonstrated its willingness to stay the course in Afghanistan after military action ceases. By committing itself to work with the United Nations to establish a broad-based government in Afghanistan and to help rebuild that country, the West has signalled that is not going to allow Afghanistan to revert to chaos after our military objectives have been achieved.
The only real solution to those who have criticised this operation, especially in the Muslim world, is success. That was true of the Nato intervention in Kosovo and it is true this time. When Afghanistan is rid of al-Qa'ida and the Taliban, has a functioning government, and its people are better fed and freer than they were prior to 11 September, resentments over the West attacking Muslims will evaporate. Yes, in the Palestinian territories, Oman, Pakistan and Indonesia, there are demonstrations. But so far they are much, much smaller than many predicted.
Achieving peace in the Middle East, a resolution of the problem of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the lack of political culture and democracy in the Arab world, will take years. Now we have to focus the propaganda war on Bin Laden himself. We must send a clear and simple message to the Muslim world. If Osama bin Laden's vision were achieved, all of the Islamic world would look like Afghanistan under the Taliban. Do you really want to live in Bin Laden Land, a Stone Age Islamic caliphate with no rights, no economy and no future? I am confident the answer will be no.
James Rubin was assistant US secretary of state in the Clinton administrationReuse content