Gauging War on Terrorism

The Clinton administration obviously felt compelled to act when it launched missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan Aug. 20 to destroy the infrastructure of terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden. And the administration is correct in warning that this may be part of a longer war.

A war against terrorism will require accurate intelligence, a sophisticated understanding of the region and its emotions, and, as required, the willingness to take risks. The US would do well to consider the issues of effectiveness, alternatives, and consequences raised by the strikes.

Effectiveness. The most positive indication of effectiveness was a statement by Mullah Mohammad Omar, a Taliban representative, to the BBC on Aug. 22 that his government was urging Osama bin Laden to show restraint; it was Afghan territory that was violated, he said, and Afghanistan will determine the response. The statement demonstrated Kabul's possibly welcome sensitivity to Mr. bin Laden's activities, but only time will tell. Even if bin Laden's direct commands are curbed, the global terrorist threat consists of many cells capable of acting independently. Further, if, as US intelligence claimed, other attacks were imminent, presumably bombs were already being readied in target countries. These threats remain. Bin Laden, himself, is probably even more determined to hurt Americans. Raids carried out at a distance by missiles may reinforce his view that the US is not prepared to risk casualties.

Alternatives. One alternative, to find and freeze bin Laden's assets, is being pursued, but this will be complex and time consuming. A direct approach for cooperation to the Taliban regime, which may still be possible, is complicated by US attitudes toward Taliban policies, especially against women, and the lack of diplomatic recognition of the Kabul regime. So far only three countries - Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Dominican Republic - have extended recognition.

International pressures on Kabul and Sudan, whether through the UN or a coalition, would encounter delays, especially from countries in the region. The US has no dialogue with one key opponent of the Taliban, Iran. Northern neighbors, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, have supported Taliban's opponents. Russia, too, fears Taliban influence and would be of little help. Given the Kenyan and Tanzanian casualties, African support for action in the United Nations would be likely, but that, too, would take time.

Greater US pressure on Israel in the Middle East peace process might help in relations with friendly Arab countries, but would have little impact on the militant fringe. Whatever real or imagined circumstances may have caused bin Laden's revengeful anger, his objective is to eliminate US political, cultural, and security influence in the region. For him, no middle ground exists.

Consequences. The most serious consequence of the raids may be the impact on the ability of US diplomacy to gain future cooperation from Muslim states, and, particularly, Pakistan. Islamabad, indispensable to the capture of bombing suspects despite US nuclear-related embargoes, has asked that Washington launch no more raids. The future cooperation of other states in the region will be essential in any pursuit of bin Laden's assets and in whatever else the US feels compelled to do. Some observers may dismiss the anti-American rhetoric and demonstrations in Muslim countries as meaningless, but such manifestations represent deep-seated attitudes that governments ignore at their peril. The peoples of the Middle East are no more enamored of terrorism than Americans, but their politics, too, place limits on how they can act.

The US raids also represented to many in the area not only a unilateral violation of sovereignty but one more reminder of the humiliating vulnerability of the Islamic world - despite President Bill Clinton's efforts to make clear that the raids were not directed against Islam. And, in the Arab world, the president's statement that America is a target because it is acting "to advance peace, democracy, and basic human values" will sound off the mark to Palestinians and their supporters.

US ability to monitor future threats and to explain the present is further damaged by the restricted access resulting from evacuations and enhanced security and by the failure, so far, to make clear the intelligence that prompted the raids, especially in Sudan. Peoples in the region are inherently skeptical about the justifications given for US actions; in the absence of compelling evidence they will remain so.

* David D. Newsom, a former ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, is now living in Charlottesville, Va.

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