PARIS -- The Bush administration still gives disturbing signs of unclear objectives in the war that it has proclaimed against terrorism and would seem about to launch in wretched Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries on earth and possibly the saddest.
This war is vast in ambition and global in scope, but unwinnable on the terms Washington has so far stated.
On Monday the United States ordered banks to freeze the accounts of certain people and institutions with ties to Egypt, Libya and Aden, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Lists supplied unofficially to Washington journalists of alleged Islamic terrorist organizations include groups in Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian refugee camps, Egypt, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Algeria, India, Pakistan, Austria, Britain, Israel, countries in Africa and the United States itself.
These are all proclaimed enemies, but not the only ones. President George W. Bush told Congress last week that while America's war on terrorism begins with Osama bin Laden's Qaida group, "it will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." A vast program.
In the realm of practical policy, Mr. Bush appears to have opted for something more reasonable. He seems to have ruled in favor of Secretary of State Colin Powell and other supporters of focused retaliation for the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. Figures in the Defense Department, others in Vice President Dick Cheney's office and mainstream neoconservative commentators have argued that the United States should settle all of its problems at a single blow by attacking the Taliban regime, Iraq ("the theater of decisive confrontation," as one writer says) and probably Iran, Libya and Syria. Mr. Bush seems to have decided otherwise. Reports of administration intentions say that bombing and ground action will initially be limited to targets in Afghanistan, with the intention of damaging, if not dislodging, the Taliban government and opening the way for special troops to seize Osama bin Laden before the deadly Afghan winter begins.
This alone seems an ambitious operation, with a large potential for going out of control because of reactions inside Pakistan and elsewhere. A French report claims that the United States has insisted on taking control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons because of fear of popular unrest and rebellion in the army. Unknown is whether Washington contemplates trying to replace the Taliban government. On Tuesday the White House said "no," but it is hard to see how it can do what it wants to do without being confronted with that outcome.
The Taliban are in power because, after the war against Russia was won, the leaders of existing opposition factions, mostly ethnic, were unable to stop fighting over the spoils of war and cooperate in rebuilding their country.
Certainly, the notion heard in some American circles that the United States should, or could, "go in and make that country a democracy" is the sheerest fantasy. Afghan specialists warn that a U.S. attack might actually lend to the Taliban a legitimacy, as defenders of national sovereignty, which they do not now possess.
As late as Monday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was unable to give the press a specific statement of goals, or a description of what would constitute "victory" in the war against terrorism.
Would Washington be satisfied by the capture or death of Osama bin Laden? Seemingly not. Or by ouster of the Taliban government? Under repeated questioning, Mr. Rumsfeld fell back on a statement that the U.S. government will consider it has won when Americans and their children will again be able to "feel safe." This is not serious. In the new conditions of international society, Americans of this generation may never again be able to feel safe from the enmity of those who believe that the United States exploits them and corrupts their society.
Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have felt safe for years. The Afghans have lived with terror since 1979, and thanks to the new war about to be visited upon them will probably go on living with terror for months or years to come. The Spanish, British and French have lived for decades with the reality or threat of terrorism by extremist Basque, Irish nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist groups. Individuals understand that the risk exists of being blown away tomorrow, but they get on with their lives. So will Americans.
What else can people do? Governments do their best to protect them from terrorism, but there is a limit to what can be done. The American response to the events of Sept. 11 has so far insisted on ignoring that limit. This curiously contrasts with the Pentagon's "Weinberger rules" for engagement, proclaimed in the 1980s, and with General Colin Powell's own "doctrines" on U.S. military interventions. Both men demanded a clear statement of attainable political objectives in any use of U.S. military force, and also of terms on which any intervention would be brought to an end. Today we have neither.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune