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After the horrors in New York and Washington, three things have become clear. All the suspected terrorists on the doomed airliners have Arabic names. The safety catch is off in the United States. And a lot more people are going to die.
For the past ten years—ever since a mere 19 fatal casualties in the Somalia intervention forced an immediate withdrawal of all US troops—American military planners and commanders have operated under the assumption that public opinion will not support any overseas operation that involves serious casualties. They even erected it into a semi-official doctrine called the “Mogadishu line”: thou shalt not undertake any foreign military enterprise that might get more than 19 US soldiers killed.
This was a ludicrous constraint given that there are over a million Americans in the armed forces, but it was so powerful that US strategy in the Kosovo war two years ago was entirely shaped by the need to avoid any American casualties. That’s why it was all done from the air.
But this was all in the context of overseas interventions that were undertaken for humanitarian or other optional reasons. Self-defence is another matter entirely. US public opinion has evolved very rapidly since the attacks, and the view that America is under attack and already at war is now setting in cement. In wars of self-defence, even if waged far from the United States, quite different rules apply, and casualties on a scale that would have been unthinkable yesterday become acceptable.
It’s not certain that public outrage over the terrorist atrocities on US soil would be enough to sustain popular support for a foreign war that lasted a long time with heavy casualties, but it’s certainly enough to get the US committed to such a war and through the first few thousand casualties. Given the ability of American firepower to minimise human losses on the American side, that could be a very big war indeed. So throw out your old assumptions: the safety catch is well and truly off.
Does this necessarily mean a war? Not if the group that organised the attacks was acting independently, without the backing of any state. The major terrorist groups talk to one another, they sometimes co-operate—and money would not have been a major constraint, since the whole operation could have been mounted for under $5 million.
But even terrorists have to live somewhere, and under the new rules of engagement laid down by President George W. Bush, the host nation could still become a target. Assuming that the people responsible for the atrocities were all Islamic militants of Arab origin, the likeliest countries by far, either as passive hosts of the guilty group or active sponsors of its crimes, are Iraq or Afghanistan.
Neither of these countries would willingly surrender suspects to the United States, so this is where the decisions get tough. What kind of war would the Unites States be willing to fight to “root out terrorism” in Iraq or Afghanistan?
In the case of Iraq, it would be the war it walked away from in 1991: a full-scale invasion to occupy the country and kill or capture Saddam Hussein. Only this time it would have to be done from the other end of Iraq, using Turkey as the main invasion base, since Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, much as they hate and fear Saddam, probably would not dare to stir up the local fundamentalists once again by turning their countries into bases for large infidel armies.
In the event that it really was Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, the task becomes even harder. Unlike Saddam’s regime in Iraq, the Afghans have little by way of modern heavy weapons —but also unlike Saddam, they do have a large number of fanatical supporters who really would fight to the death against a invading army.
Afghanistan is a hard place to get to—the only access is through Pakistan, whose dictator, Pervez Musharraf, is terrified of the Islamic militants in his own country—and it has long been the graveyard of foreign invaders. The Afghans defeated both the British empire at its height in the 19th century, and the Soviet empire at its zenith in the 20th, and those dry hills are still able to swallow entire armies.
It would be a big, long, ugly war, with lots of casualties on both sides—not impossible for the US to win, but only at a cost that would never have been paid before last Tuesday’s events. Now the American public may be ready to pay such a price, and this sudden readiness of Americans to accept major military losses overseas is already changing calculations in Washington and elsewhere.
Leaders and media are both realising that a slower, tougher, more effective response is now possible, and the pressure for a ’90s-style, quick-fix, “bomb somebody” response, using cruise missiles to avoid American casualties, is actually dwindling. What we are probably in for instead is a much slower pace of events as the perpetrators are identified, traced and interrogated, in parallel with a coalition-building exercise similar to the one that preceded the Gulf War.
Meanwhile, ground and air forces would begin deploying to the region. NATO has already recognised that this attack on the United States requires a military response by all the allies under the treaty, and its armies would have bit parts in this build-up, but the bulk of the forces would undoubtedly be American. And then, the attack will begin.
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