With the Taliban and al Qaeda forces retreating in disarray in Afghanistan, the United States once again confronts a momentous decision: Do we pursue and ruthlessly destroy our enemy or do we yield to inevitably growing pressures to slow the military pace?
The decision of the first Bush presidency to halt our successful military offensive against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 before final victory was a costly error. But a similar decision by the second Bush presidency even to slow the offensive against the Taliban and al Qaeda would imperil our nation’s future security.
With or without our Afghan allies, we must hunt, find and kill as many al Qaeda militants and Taliban bitter-enders as possible so they cannot murder us in years to come.
As long as they survive, the al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan today represent a dire threat to the future security of the United States. These are men who individually and voluntarily went to Afghanistan to join Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda because they hated the United States and what it stands for. If al Qaeda units cohere and survive in Afghanistan, we must assume that they will resume plotting horrific terrorist plots against the United States.
Even worse is the prospect of al Qaeda militants’ exfiltrating Afghanistan and making their way to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Chechnya and the scores of other countries from where they came. We can be utterly certain that, once they’re home, many of them will regroup, start plotting vengeance against the United States and searching for weapons of mass destruction to accomplish that evil end.
As the Taliban collapses, these al Qaeda fighters will be effectively indistinguishable from those Afghani Taliban fighters who choose to continue fighting alongside al Qaeda rather than to accept defeat, escape death and return home. They too by definition will represent a dire threat to U.S. interests so long as they survive.
So the United States has no real choice. With as much help as we can get from our Northern Alliance allies, the United States must try to annihilate/destroy al Qaeda and any Taliban forces that continue to actively support them.
In coming days, we must first encourage and support mopping up operations by the Northern Alliance in the northern half of Afghanistan. Employing the proven combination of Northern Alliance ground action and U.S. bombing, both assisted by U.S. special forces personnel, we can annihilate thousands of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters now trapped in isolated pockets before they slip away.
But the main battle is now in the south in Kandahar and in the mountainous terrain that stretches from there northeast to the environs of Kabul. We must make it brutally clear that we view all armed Taliban and al Qaeda units in this region as the enemy. The only flexibility we should show is toward those Pathan/Pushtun warlords who opportunistically supported the Taliban in years past but maintained their own armed units. With the victories scored against the Taliban and al Qaeda in recent days, U.S. military and intelligence agents will have more success than they did in the opening weeks of the war convincing these warlords to defect to our side.
Otherwise, we must ignore or deflect the inevitable attempts in coming days by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and others to pull the United States into negotiations for a cease-fire or even a surrender. Instead, we must mercilessly pursue and destroy al Qaeda units and their Taliban supporters inside Afghanistan, fully recognizing that it will probably take months to succeed.
Such ruthless brutality flies in the face of both American tradition and American instincts. American magnanimity at times of victory has not been just a noble national characteristic. It has also served our interests well, whether in how we arranged the dignified surrender of Confederate forces at the end of our Civil War or how we refused to punish the enlisted soldiers of Germany and Japan following the Second World War.
But this war, as has been said so often, is like no other we have fought.
Afghanistan marks the first time that low-ranking combatants will represent a dire threat to U.S. national security if they survive. There is little doubt that a substantial portion of retreating al Qaeda fighters who eventually succeed in slipping into Pakistan will find a support network that will shelter them and eventually spirit them out of the country so that can attack America another day. The realities of modern-day terrorism are that al Qaeda survivors will have not only the motive but probably also the means and the opportunity to strike the United States in coming years. The same could not have been said in 1945 about even the most unrepentant of German Nazis.
In coming days, the United States must act swiftly and boldly to eliminate or at least minimize the number of al Qaeda survivors. In the southern Taliban and al Qaeda strongholds, almost exclusively peopled by the Pathans, we cannot and should not depend on the Northern Alliance, which is dominated by non-Pathan Taijiks, Uzbeks and other non-Pathan ethnic groups. Nor can we wait until our efforts to win over Pathan warlords succeed. We must seize the moment militarily, not only by escalating the air war but also by acting boldly on the ground.
One attractive but risky option is to establish a base at Kandahar airport so that we can launch rapid air strikes against the enemy rather than depend entirely on our carrier-based aircraft an hour or more away in the Arabian Sea.
A bold move such as this would also demonstrate to both our enemies and our hesitant allies that the United States is committed to achieving total victory.
Ross H. Munro, Asian studies director at the Center for Security Studies, covered the Afghan war in the 1980s for Time magazine.