PARIS - The French, who know all about fighting and losing
distant wars, now fret over their maps of Afghanistan. And the word
heard repeatedly these days is ``piege.'' That is, trap.
France, solid behind America and fed up with terrorism, is ready
to fight again. But Frenchmen have learned the hard way that when
you go to battle for a principle, it is important to win.
From here, the picture is clear. Half of Afghanistan straddles
mountains over a mile high. Winter is coming. And the allies'
quarry is an elusive shadow of a man who survived in tunnels under
the noses of elite Soviet troops.
Europeans remember Britain's Afghan humiliation last century,
well before the recent war that eroded the Soviet Union's last
underpinnings. On this side of the Atlantic, many fear that
Americans won't take history to heart.
Charles de Gaulle warned John F. Kennedy not repeat France's
mistake in Vietnam. Now President Jacques Chirac, with more
subtlety but equal vigor, has urged President Bush to reflect
carefully on his options.
Europe heard with trepidation remarks on Thursday by U.S. Army
Secretary Thomas E. White, that the Pentagon is ready to conduct
``sustained land combat operations'' as part of its promised war
Afghans themselves have already bombed their country back to the
stone age. Almost anything worth protecting is underground. The
most radical fighters have little to lose: death in noble battle,
to many, is a ride to paradise.
The down side is harrowing. If television footage shows
Americans pursuing what Bush has already termed a ``crusade'' on
Islamic ground, sympathy for the calamity of Sept. 11 could slowly
sour into something else.
Muslims today number 1 billion across the world. The
overwhelmingly majority abhors terror tactics which blackens their
image and, in the view of most, run counter to the Prophet
Muhammed's Holy Quran.
But many Muslims are not certain how to assess a fast-changing
world, with bubbling conflict in the Middle East, in South Asia, in
North Africa and in the immigrant neighborhoods surrounding large
An extremist fringe is hoping for, at the least, a humiliating
brier patch and, at worst, an ignominious retreat from an
unwinnable quagmire which could shift the real balance of global
If Washington and its allies can exact punishment on terrorist
cells, they stand a good chance of stabilizing the balance among
Muslims, Christians and everyone else in a world badly in need of
such mutual respect.
At the same time, if they kill yet more bystanders and miss
their mark, they are likely to do the opposite.
This is what Frenchmen mean by ``un piege.'' In their view,
Osama Bin Laden figured this out masterfully. His terrible blow was
designed to goad Americans into striking out blindly, compounding
damage at a fearful rate.
The daily Le Monde, on Thursday, carried a front-page essay by
Gilles Kepel, a respected Arab world specialist at the Institute
for Political Studies in Paris. It was entitled, ``Le Piege.''
Bin Laden pursues a faster track version than classic terrorism,
Kepel argues. He is skipping the long, hard work of winning popular
sympathy. Instead, he seeks the spontaneous emotional reaction of
To achieve this, Kepel notes, bin Laden needs to draw the United
States and its allies into an Afghan quagmire, with Muslim civilian
casualties steadily mounting.
``Awaiting an offensive, (Taliban) Mullah Omar is calling for
the solidarity of all Muslims, as Saddam Hussein did in 1991, and
he aims for total conflagration,'' he wrote. ``This is where the
conflict's destiny will play out.''
Islamic governments - even Iran and Sudan - have expressed a
will to isolate the Taliban, he noted, but broad populations have
yet to make up their minds. Here, he warns, is that trap.
``It remains to convince the people concerned that the
eradication of talibans and their protege is the way to a more just
and unified world,'' Kepel concluded, ``and not a clash of
civilizations on which is based on apocalyptic terrorism.''
In one way or another, this is what most European strategists
are saying, especially in France and in Britain where old war
museums burst with lessons to be learned.
Call it war if you have to, they say, although many prefer a
less emotive term. But be sure at the start you can do what you
plan. Once begun, this will not be a clash in which any side can
simply declare victory and go home.
Copyright © 2001 The Associated Press