WASHINGTON — This is one war all of us will follow with unusual care. Feeling vulnerable, we interpret every development for its potential to raise or lower our sense of personal danger. The trouble is, we are on completely unfamiliar ground. The air strikes, coalition diplomacy, statements from the Pentagon, the plight of refugees all seem like things we've seen before. But this time, everything is different, and not just because US military action started in faraway Afghanistan. This is a new kind of war against a new kind of opponent.
What might we expect as this war on terrorism rolls forward? The goal is clear: The United States is leading an international campaign both to root out terrorist networks and to cut off their sources of support. We have started by attacking training camps in Afghanistan and hunting for the ringleaders who planned the suicide attacks on New York and Washington. What is next?
No longer armchair strategists watching combat on TV, we all live on the front lines. Here is a preliminary checklist of some of the things we look for as we track the developments of this world war over the months and years ahead:
A high-speed war of images. Did you notice how rapidly a videotape from Osama bin Laden appeared, once we started our attacks against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Above all, this is a war of information and perception. All of the combatants, including Mr. bin Laden and his cronies, are media savvy. Watch to see whose messages are taking hold among which target audiences. Watch, too, for disinformation. Ground truth will sometimes be hard to come by.
Sporadic, indecisive events. On former battlefields, generals maneuvered their armies toward a decisive engagement. In this war, not much on the ground will happen quickly. The various terrorist groups live scattered in a fluid, informal web. Rarely can they be crushed at a blow. Prepare to be patient.
Global cross-connections. We are accustomed to wars fought over fixed terrain between sworn enemies. This conflict has a different geography. Expect action in widely separated places. The terrorists' networks span the globe; so do the interests of those countries signed up for the coalition. Look for alliances that link around the planet. Don't write the antiterrorist-coalition roster in ink. Alliances will change constantly as interests and sensitivities vary.
Military not the main event. Expect the spotlight to shift away from military action fairly soon. Like going after the Mafia or a drug gang, breaking up terrorist rings hinges more on patient police work than on military muscle. Once the international policing and money-tracing operations fall into place, watch for the action to shift again, to preventing terrorism through economic and political development.
What about the home front, where we are all braced for the next attack? Here are two of the indicators that our domestic defenses are improving:
Trust. The terrorists' biggest success is the fear they have brought to a country where people generally felt safe from foreign attack. As we become more skilled at judging public protections, we will start to understand that there is no perfect safety. There are few defenses against a biological attack, and one can imagine exploding trucks or human bombers at every turn. After we find a sustainable level of physical security, what then? We still have to solve this problem of moving our minds from fear to wary trust.
Engaged youth. On the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington had been bracing for a different assault, one by tens of thousands of young people gathering to protest the inequities of globalization. Difficult as it may be for some in the establishment to accept, these young activist idealists are clamoring for the correction of precisely the problems of poverty and injustice that the terrorists are exploiting. These youth are part of the solution, not part of the problem. The global war against terrorism is going to last a long time, long enough for this young generation to begin emerging into national and international leadership. Let's see if we are deft enough to gain them as allies.
There is one general precaution we citizen-strategists can add to our watch list. New wars or old wars, it always applies: Expect more surprises. Pakistan is under great strain, the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation is supersensitive, and bin Laden seems bent on overthrowing the Saudi government. Something could erupt in those countries or several others while we're focused on Afghanistan.
And finally, we should check that we keep learning and adapting. Our global assault on terrorism is carrying us into a wholly new world, into terrain that we do not yet fully understand. We propose to eradicate a savvy, flexible enemy; we'll need to be exceptionally innovative as we march forward.
Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, is the founding chairman of The Strategy Group, a global action network of professional peacebuilders.