The battle in east Afghanistan is winding down, and President Bush has offered to train other governments for the second stage in the war on terrorism. Though the American military officials assure us that much remains to be done in Afghanistan, the lessons of the campaign are already being drawn. And, before they become engraved in conventional wisdom, we should distinguish the accurate lessons from the misleading ones.
Most important, in an age of globalization, the United States cannot ignore problems in distant regions. During the Cold War, we thought Afghanistan important enough to support its struggle against the Soviet invasion. During the 1990s, to the extent that we noticed the deteriorating conditions, we felt it was not our affair. Yet we learned on Sept. 11 that events in poor countries half way around the world can do us great harm. Our military success in Afghanistan has shown clearly to any state ready to support terrorism that this is no longer a safe option.
Terrorism is to this century what piracy was to an earlier era when some governments gave pirates and privateers safe harbor to earn revenues or harass their enemies. In this era, some states have harbored terrorists in order to attack their enemies or because they were too weak to control powerful fanatical groups.
For too long our country simply looked the other way on the mistaken assumption that such alliances would have little world consequence. The United States and its allies must consistently condemn state support for terrorism and use the stick of the Afghanistan campaign to demonstrate the consequences that can befall these states.
The success to date in Afghanistan also shows that force can be used effectively and with discrimination even in difficult settings. Although there were civilian casualties, the combination of US Special Forces on the ground and precision air power proved to be a powerful one.
On the other hand, we would be mistaken if we concluded that the Afghanistan formula can fit all sizes and situations. The Northern Alliance provided important proxy forces already on the scene, and without them, air power would not have been sufficient.
Indeed, some military critics believe that the United States failure to insert more of its own ground forces led to the failure to capture Al Qaeda fighters in the battle of the Tora Bora caves. We also have to realize that the last act in Afghanistan is far from over, and more outside forces will be needed to keep the peace if our success is not to erode.
Perhaps the most dangerous lesson learned is by those in the administration and outside commentators who believe that Afghanistan shows that unilateralism works.
It is true that the United States accomplished the military tasks with little help from allies except Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Britain. But the lesson is misleading because it implies that there is a purely military solution to the war on terrorism.
According to the CIA, while the fighting in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban government, it killed or captured less than a quarter to a third of the Al Qaeda network.
The military success in Afghanistan dealt with the tip of the iceberg of terrorist threats. Al Qaeda retains cells in some 50 countries, few susceptible to military solutions. We are not about to bomb Rome, Hamburg, or Jakarta.
And Al Qaeda is not the only transnational terrorist organization. Suppressing terrorism will take years of patient international civilian cooperation involving intelligence sharing, police work, tracing financial flows, customs and immigration. Rather than proving the unilateralists' point, the partial success in Afghanistan illustrates the continuing need for international cooperation.
Sept. 11 was a terrible symptom of deeper changes occurring in the world. Technology has been diffusing power away from governments and empowering individuals and groups. With the use of desktop computers and the Internet, terrorist networks can now exchange high-tech secrets and coordinate complex campaigns across continents that only governments could conduct 20 years ago.
Privatization has been increasing, and terrorism is the privatization of war. Nor is terrorism the only issue. Many other important problems that can cause great harm&madash;such as international financial instability, global climate change, or the spread of diseases—are inherently multilateral.
The ultimate lesson of Afghanistan is that the United States is so large that these crucial problems cannot be solved without us, but we are not large enough to solve them alone.