THE magnitude of the initial U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan raises legal, moral and practical questions.
The use of military force for self-defense is legitimate under international law. Military retaliation is not.
The use of heavy bombers against a country with few hard targets belies the Bush administration's claim that the attacks are not against the people of Afghanistan.
The airstrikes are punishing the wrong people -- the Afghan population. They have already suffered through a 23-year nightmare: communist dictatorship, foreign invasion, civil war, competing warlords and fundamentalist rule.
The Afghan people are the first and primary victims of the Taliban, perhaps the most totalitarian regime on Earth.
It is tragic that the United States is victimizing them further through a large-scale military operation that will almost certainly lead to widespread civilian casualties.
The strikes will also do little to root out terrorism.
The Taliban leaders may escape harm in their bunkers or in remote mountain outposts. And the strikes may gain some sympathy for the regime and even Osama bin Laden himself, as people under attack tend to rally around their leaders.
The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has given bin Laden and his supporters sanctuary, but this is not a typical case of state-backed terrorism. As a result of bin Laden's personal fortune and elaborate international network, he does not need (and apparently has not received) direct financial or logistical support from the Afghan government. Destroying the limited government resources in Afghanistan, therefore, may not cripple bin Laden and his cohorts.
Al-Qaida is a decentralized network of underground terrorist cells operating throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. It does not have much in the way of tangible targets that can be struck as if the United States were at war with a government. To target Afghanistan seems to be more an act of catharsis than a rational strategy to enhance U.S. security.
If there is any logic to bin Laden's madness, it is his hope that the United States will overreact militarily, creating an anti-American backlash in the region, which would play right into his hands. This may very well happen.
In order to break up these terrorist cells and bring the terrorists to justice, the United States needs the cooperation of intelligence services and police agencies in a number of Muslim countries. If the ongoing attacks are seen to be excessive and innocent lives are lost, it will be politically difficult for these regimes to provide the United States with the level of cooperation needed.
To win the war against terrorism, we need to re-evaluate our definition of security. The more the United States militarizes the Middle East, the less secure we become. All the sophisticated weaponry, all the brave fighting men and women and all the talented military leadership will not stop terrorism as long as our policies cause millions of people to hate us.
President Bush is wrong when he claims we are targeted because we are a ``beacon for freedom.'' We are targeted because the support of freedom is not part of our policy in the Middle East, which has instead been based upon alliances with repressive governments and support for military occupation. If the United States supported a policy based more on human rights, international law and sustainable development and less on arms transfers, airstrikes and punitive sanctions, we would be a lot safer.
America's greatest strength is not its far-flung military might but the fortitude and compassion of its people and the democratic values they uphold.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.
© 2001 The Mercury News