Project on Defense Alternatives

Beyond bin Laden:

The Temptations of a Wider War

Project on Defense Alternatives
Carl Conetta
Briefing Memo # 22, 28 September 2001


The United States can strike hard at bin Laden both inside and outside Afghanistan without pursuing a broader war in Afghanistan or trying to topple the Taliban by force. Expanding the scope of military action beyond the al Qaeda network should be avoided for three reasons: First, it would detract from the primary objectives: to bring the perpetrators of the 11 September attack to justice and disable their organization. Second, it would undermine international cooperation against terrorism. And, third, it risks a broader calamity: the destabilization of central, south, and southwest Asia. An alternative to broader war scenarios would be a smaller-scale (but longer-term) effort against the bin-Laden network in Afghanistan -- principally involving the use of special operations units reinforced by other assets. More important for longer-term success against terrorism is improved multinational cooperation in intelligence gathering and law enforcement. A separate effort is needed to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. This should involve all the interested actors in the region and emphasize non-military measures. Reliable progress in stabilizing Afghanistan may also require some regional confidence- and security-building measures. What the region does not require under any circumstances, however, is an increase in arms transfers.

1. Introduction

It is difficult to fathom the enormity of the crime committed on 11 September 2001. Within the space of two hours more than three times as many Americans were killed as had been claimed by terrorism or war during the previous two decades. As a matter of morality and practical security the first order of business is to bring the perpetrators of the 11 September attack to justice and to disable their organization. This imperative should focus our attention on Osama bin Laden and his group, al Qaeda. There is a fairly broad international consensus for taking action against this group.

When we consider the prospect of an operation to disrupt and disable al Qaeda, the objective and the mission are clear; they would go to the heart of the crime committed 11 September, which unquestionably involves vital interests; and they would enjoy strong support, both domestic and international. Nonetheless, there is significant momentum in US policy circles to expand the scope of forceful action beyond the bin Laden network. Given the grave injury we have suffered, this is understandable -- but it is an impulse that we should resist nonetheless. Expanding the scope of military action detracts from the primary objective, weakens the basis for international cooperation against terrorism, and risks a broader calamity: the destabilization of central, south, and southwest Asia -- already a tinderbox (actually several, interlinked).

The Taliban of Afghanistan now share the cross-hairs with bin Laden and his gang. Although the administration has backed away from threatening to topple the Taliban by force, wide-ranging "punishment" strikes against the Afghan government and armed forces are likely. These together with substantial battlefield support to the Northern Alliance may put a new governing group in Kabul within weeks, although this nominal government would not exercise much control over the country. And it would involve many of those leaders whose previous, disastrous attempt at rule made the Taliban possible (and, for a time, popular). Actually ending the civil war, stabilizing the country, and rebuilding it would be an altogether more costly, difficult, and time consuming affair.

Some policy analysts and administration officials have argued that the United States should also strike at Iraq and at Hezbollah facilities in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. (The Bekaa valley borders Syria and hosts more than 20,000 Syrian troops. Both Syria and Iran support Hezbollah.) But little evidence has been presented linking either Iraq or Hezbollah to the 11 September attacks. Early assertions of an Iraq link attributed to the Israeli military intelligence organization, Aman, have been repudiated more recently by the chief of that organization, Major-General Amos Malka. 1

Regarding the Taliban: they must bear some responsibility, albeit indirect, for bin Laden's influence outside of Afghanistan. It is not sufficient that they claim to have forbidden his international involvements and tried in some ways to impede them. On the other hand, no one claims the Taliban had a hand in the 11 September attack or knew about its preparation. In general, the Taliban gain nothing from al Qaeda's activities outside Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir; they are a distraction from the Afghan civil war.

The present dispute between the United States and the Taliban has to do with their refusal to hand over bin Laden and shut down his operations in Afghanistan. However, it is not clear that they can do this easily, even if they wanted to. Bin Laden's "guest" status is euphemistic. In fact, he is a free-lance warlord -- perhaps the most powerful at the Taliban's side -- in a country with weak central authority. Moreover, bin Laden's organization provides the Taliban bodyguard, among other crack troops. At any rate, the Taliban claim to be unimpressed by the evidence against bin Laden regarding the 11 September attack. Admittedly the evidence is circumstantial. But it is not insubstantial, as these things go. And he is more clearly linked to other serious acts of international terrorism. For those countries threatened and injured by the al Qaeda network, this is sufficient reason to act against bin Laden. For the Taliban, who are dependent on bin Laden, it is not. Does this add up to sufficient reason for the United States to wage war on the Taliban?

The answer to this question pivots not so much on issues of evidence as on the nature of the sanction under consideration. War is the ultimate sanction. Decisions about where, when, and against whom to employ force must weigh its likely effects in terms of security, stability, and international cooperation. Security concerns usually trump the others. But all three are best served when the use of force is reserved for self-defense against aggression. In accord with this, the link between the object of force -- the target -- and specific acts or threats of aggression should be direct. The object of force is appropriate if hitting it removes or disables an imminent threat. Bin Laden and his network unquestionably fit this bill. The Taliban does not.

In light of the horror perpetrated on 11 September it is tempting to brush aside or, at least, not concede much to concerns about international opinion, consensus, and cooperation. This would be a serious mistake. Maintaining international consensus and cooperation is key to limiting the negative repercussions of military action. Cooperation can also be essential to getting the job done, essential in terms of material and operational support. It is especially important -- critical, actually -- to the effort to stem the "new terrorism".

2. How current policy misconstrues the threat

The nature of the new terrorism and the unique importance of international cooperation in combating it has been blurred by the recent focus on targeting states who associate with terrorists. (The Bush administration estimates that there are 60 such states.) Action against states and conventional armed forces accords well with America's current military capabilities. But such action does not strike at the heart of the current threat, which is distinguished by being transnational, decentralized, and relatively independent of states. We can focus our military power on nations that, in one way or another, have been associated with terrorism -- but the new terrorism will slip the noose.

Among the most important activities for blunting terrorism are measures of protection taken at home -- for instance: much improved airline security. Internationally, what is needed most is intensive multinational cooperation in intelligence gathering and law enforcement activities that target terrorists. These activities must be coordinated globally, but rooted locally in nations all over the world. Cooperation must be seamless and enthusiastic. Especially important is the participation of nations in and around zones of instability. Only this type of effort can match the distributed character of the threat. But it will not happen without a strong foundation of consensus and trust.

Within the context of a multinational counter-terrorism program there is an important role for military operations. But these must be carefully focused and emphasize the disruption and interdiction of terrorist groups -- not large-scale attacks on nation states. War tends to overshoot the target. It cuts too broad a swath of destruction. This risks feeding the well of anti-Americanism that in turn shields and sustains terrorism. Knowing this, terrorists care little about the destruction they bring down on people around them. Terrorists -- especially the suicidal variety -- cannot be deterred or coerced by simple punishment, as Milosevic was in the Kosovo war. They can only be interdicted.

3. The requirements of cooperation

Broadening the scope of attacks makes it more difficult to build and sustain international consensus partly because it brings into play more differences of perception, interest, and risk among coalition members. Even close allies do not see or experience the world in exactly the same way. Especially in the case of war, which risks so much, differences of strategy and vulnerability come to the fore. Many observers have asserted that the 11 September attacks and America's response to them will change the world profoundly. But in what way? The answer depends partly on where in the world one sits, literally.

Concerns about regional and internal stability are especially acute for Arab countries and countries with large Islamic communities. These problems have made tenuous the coalition participation of several pivotal states -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates. For Pakistan, this is true even regarding attacks narrowly focused on bin Laden's camps inside Afghanistan. Broadening the scope of attack beyond the bin Laden organization to encompass Afghanistan and the Taliban, further complicates the coalition participation of many states. The difference between targeting bin Laden and targeting Afghanistan is a qualitative one. Bin Laden, an individual political entrepreneur, can be isolated and "disowned" more easily than can an Islamic state.

Should immediate US military action also encompass Iraq and Hezbollah, the repercussions for Pakistan and other Islamic and Arab states is incalculable. Such a broad range of attacks will appear to much of the Arab and Islamic world to be precisely what the Bush administration says it is not: the beginning of a campaign against all Arab and Islamic actors who stand outside the US sphere. And this initial perception could tar all subsequent components of the prospective campaign against terrorism, including non-military ones.

4. War and inadvertent consequences

Although war is an intentional goal-driven act, chaos is its constant companion. In war, unintended consequences abound. These subtract from (and can overwhelm) what is gained through war. As the scope of military action broadens, the inadvertent repercussions of that action also grow in magnitude, extent, and unpredictability.

A recurrent example of inadvertent effects is the accidental killing of non-combatants. Although unintended, collateral casualties are an entirely predictable outcome of military action -- especially when that action involves the aerial bombardment of political, infrastructure, military-industrial, and other "dual use" targets. In the Kosovo war, the unintended killing of civilians in NATO air raids ate at the legitimacy of NATO's mission, which had been justified on humanitarian grounds. A similar dynamic could ensue in Afghanistan should there be an extensive campaign of aerial bombardment targeting cities and other civilian areas. Already, the threat of military action against Afghanistan has prompted a humanitarian disaster with 20,000 civilians pushed up against closed borders and hundreds of thousands more on the move, according to Oxfam and other humanitarian assistance organizations. The United Nations estimates that the war-related refugee flow could reach 1.5 million. With winter coming this implies a fair amount of death and starvation.

A broad or intense war could put more than the legitimacy of the anti-terrorist effort at risk. The collateral damage, civilian death, and general misery produced by a broad attack will stir-up anti-Western sentiment, which is the sea in which terrorists swim. And it will produce conditions of disorder and lawlessness that facilitate terrorists' freedom of movement. To view this dynamic historically: Osama bin Laden and his network are the products of similar conditions. They are the effluent of the brutal anti-Soviet war of the 1980s and the civil wars that followed.

War also generates unintended consequences at the international level. It rattles the international system. As it unfolds and expands, war causes alliances to shift, governments to change, new conflicts to erupt, and players to enter or leave the fray unexpectedly. Efforts to limit the extent and duration of war, to focus it precisely on essential goals, are motivated partly by a desire to limit the occurrence of strategic surprise. And there is considerable potential for surprise in Afghanistan's neighborhood.

The fate of the Taliban and Afghanistan will reverberate throughout the web of interstate competitions that beset central, south, and southwest Asia. In some respects, the Afghan civil war is a "regionalized" conflict. A dozen states see themselves as stake-holders and many actively support different factions. The Taliban figure in different ways in the security calculations of Pakistan, Russia, China, and the central Asia republics. They figure in relations between Pakistan and India, Pakistan and Iran, the Gulf states and Iran, and Iraq and Iran. They and their fate are also crucial factors in the internal politics of Pakistan and the Gulf States.

Without question, a major US attack on the Taliban and Afghanistan spells turmoil for Pakistan -- perhaps civil war -- and unrest for some Gulf states. As far as the Gulf states are concerned, the Taliban are their answer to the militant Shiite fundamentalism of Iran, which Afghanistan borders. Should the Taliban fall, regional stakeholders will turn anxiously to the next questions: who will rule Afghanistan and who decides?

In preparation for operations in Afghanistan the United States has patched together a thread-bare and uneven consensus among the region's states. It certainly is not the kind of arrangement that might help these states peacefully work through their concerns and differences in the aftermath of a significant change in Afghanistan. In several cases consensus was forged through "arm twisting" and promises of renewed access to military goods and assistance.2 These measures have won acquiescence to US military operations, but they will not contribute to stability in the aftermath.

Finally, the expansion of war aims can adversely affect the achievement of those goals that are most essential. Trying to achieve more, we can actually end up accomplishing less. Our capacity to adapt and respond effectively to unforeseen developments both during and after a campaign diminishes as the scope of that campaign is expanded. This is partly because expansion taxes our capabilities -- it draws down our reserves -- and partly because expansion exacerbates the fog and friction of war.

Despite the depredations of the Taliban, we would not want to lose sight of bin Laden and his lieutenants in the chaos of a big war. Nor would we want the price of bringing him to justice to be a significant destabilization of central, south, and southwest Asia. Such an outcome would be a Pyrrhic victory: it would hand bin Laden one of his principal objectives.

5. Where have you gone, Casper Weinberger?

The stability concerns outlined above all attest to the difficulty of harnessing war as a reliable instrument of policy. These concerns have inspired a variety of war-limiting principles, such as those proposed by Casper Weinberger in 1984.3 Weinberger's rules emphasized the need to intervene for vital interests, to have clear objectives, to have the will and aim of winning, and to have public support. We might further specify and expand on these in several ways:

  • War should be an act of last resort
  • The goals of war should be well-defined and achievable; we should have a clear picture of the desired end-state;
  • The war strategy and plan should be clear and realistic; we should specify how fighting will achieve our goals;
  • The ends and means of war should be in accord -- that is: we should fully resource any war effort and not undertake efforts that exceed our will or resources; and
  • The potential costs of a war and its after effects should be closely related to the stakes -- in other words: victory must be worth the effort.

During the 1990s, the decade of peace operations, other problems of operational planning gained attention, for instance: the problem of "mission creep" -- the inadvertent or unnecessary expansion of goals -- and the need to develop "exit strategies". Operation Allied Force pointed to the need to make some provision for the failure of key planning assumptions; the need to have a "Plan B" at the ready.

These guidelines evolved as the results of painful experience. Yet there has been scant public discussion of them during the ramp-up to the coming war. Remarkably, on the eve of war there is still some lack of clarity about war objectives. This suggests that action has gotten ahead of planning, which attests to the depth of the national trauma that we suffered on 11 September.

6. Targeting al Qaeda, not Afghanistan

We can strike hard at bin Laden both inside and outside Afghanistan without waging war on the country or trying to topple the Taliban. Nor is it necessary to launch a devastating air war. Of course, the Taliban and the continuing turmoil in Afghanistan pose a broader problem for the region and for the Afghan people. But this problem is separate and separable from bin Laden and his gang.

Al Qaeda arose from brigades of Islamic volunteers who traveled to Afghanistan to fight Soviet occupation during the 1980s; they are not themselves Afghani. The group presently supports the Taliban in the Afghan civil war -- but is not itself the Taliban, either. Indeed, the Taliban are more dependent on bin Laden and his local troops than bin Laden is dependent on the Taliban.

The estimated strength of al Qaeda is 3,000-5,000 fighters. Most of these operate inside Afghanistan in conventional military roles -- infantry, mostly. They constitute between five and ten percent of the troops at the Taliban's disposal and are renowned as being among the best fighters. Apart from bin Laden and his high command, however, the most threatening components of this group to the United States are those outside Afghanistan. Al Qaeda members outside of Afghanistan certainly number less than a thousand, but they try to recruit the Islamic veterans of the Afghan wars, who are much more numerous. (By various estimates between 35,000 and 50,000 foreign Islamic volunteers have fought in Afghanistan, although most of these have been Pakistani; only 8,000-12,000 of these foreign volunteers are presently in Afghanistan.) Al Qaeda members also tend to integrate and amplify local groups. Al Qaeda is estimated to have affiliations or operational cells in more than 40 countries.4

Outside of Afghanistan al Qaeda has more the character of a network than an organization. The sinews that hold this network together internationally are not typical military command, control, and logistical arrangements. This is a network of influence, contacts, and comrades. Common training, shared wartime experience, and adherence to bin Laden's perverse distortion of Islam are the pivotal integrative elements. Some operatives, resources, and general directions flow from the center, but initiative is highly decentralized and much of the network's support is procured locally. In a sense, the existence of the network itself -- the web of worldwide contacts that it embodies -- is the most important support that its individual cells receive.

This type of formation cannot be easily "decapitated" or destroyed by one devastating blow to the center. Instead, measures of detection, disruption, and interdiction must occur continuously in many localities. As noted earlier, these measures -- mostly involving intelligence gathering and law enforcement -- must be coordinated globally.

With regard to the near-term military operation against the bin Laden group in Afghanistan: this should take the form of a protracted interdiction campaign -- and not a large-scale punishment campaign or war targeting other elements of Afghan society. Initial raids might aim to render unusable bin Laden's existing base and training infrastructure, which has been abandoned in expectation of US military operations. Following this, the United States might conduct a longer-term operation against bin Laden's organization from bases in neighboring countries. This operation might last a year or longer, if need be.

The aim of these operations would be to capture al Qaeda's leaders, disrupt the organization, and destroy any new infrastructure it builds. Most of the long-term operational activity will involve searching, watching, and waiting -- before striking. The task force would involve:

  • Special Operations Forces conducting intelligence, reconnaissance, and small-unit strike missions;
  • Air assault and heliborne light infantry units in a reinforcing role; and
  • Attack helicopters, land-based aircraft, and Army and ship-borne missiles for precision strike, fire support, and close air support missions.

The rules of engagement should limit strikes to high-confidence al Qaeda targets; strikes may be infrequent, but they must be effective. The operation should take extraordinary care in avoiding collateral casualties. Air strikes should be, for the most part, directed from the ground with eyes on target. The operation must also involve extraordinary attention to force protection and base security. Overall, the deployment should comprise less than 12,000 troops, 120 helicopters, and 70 fixed-wing aircraft of all types.

Turning to the broader problems posed by the Taliban and the turmoil in Afghanistan: These require a longer-term, intensive, multinational effort emphasizing non-military measures. This effort must involve all the interested regional players and recognize that progress in Afghanistan depends on formulating some new regional confidence- and security-building measures. (A good place to start is humanitarian relief for Afghan refugees). There may be a formula for moving forward in a way that does not simply add to the chaos or exacerbate regional tensions. But any such formula is unlikely to revolve around war or arms transfers. Whatever we do regarding the Afghan civil war we should seek to limit, not add to, the suffering imposed on the principal victims of that war, who are Afghani.


1. "Israel Says No Direct Iraqi Link to U.S. Attacks, "Reuters, 23 September 2001; "Who did it? Foreign Report presents an alternative view," Jane's Foreign Report, 19 September 2001.

2. Notably, the Bush administration has lifted the sanctions on India and Pakistan that had been imposed for their nuclear developments. And the administration is seeking freedom from constraints on selling arms to some states that are marked as human rights violators or supporters of terrorism. Syria, Iran, and the central Asia republics may benefit.

3. "Excerpts from Address of Weinberger ", New York Times, 29 November, A5.

4. Anthony Davis, "Foreign fighters step up activity in Afghan civil war;" Jane's Intelligence Review (August 2001); Davis, "Afghanistan: prospects for war and peace in a shattered lan," JIR (August 2001) Rohan Gunaratna "Blowback: a special report on Al Qaeda," JIR (August 2001);
Phil Hirschkorn, "Convictions mark first step in breaking up Al Qaeda network," JIR (August 2001); Kenneth Katzman, Terrorism: Near Eastern Groups and State Sponsors, CRS Report for Congress (Washington DC: CRS, 10 September 2001); al-Qa'ida (The Base), Federation of American Scientists, Intelligence Resource Program, March 2001; available at:
Stephen Engelberg, "Holy Warriors: One Man and a Global Web of Violence," NYT, 14 January 2001; Judith Miller, "Holy Warriors: Dissecting a Terror Plot From Boston to Amman," NYT, 15 January 2001; Miller, "Holy Warriors: Killing for the Glory of God, in a Land Far from Home," NYT, 16 January 2001; Ian O. Lesser, Bruce Hoffman, John Arquilla, and et. al., Countering the New Terrorism, Santa Monica, Rand Corporation,1999.

Citation: Carl Conetta, Beyond bin Laden: The Temptations of a Wider War Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #22. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, 28 September 2001.

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