Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Lessons From Afghanistan

Mar. 16, 2002

Lessons From Afghanistan

by Joseph S. Nye
March 16, 2002
Reprinted from the Boston Globe

The battle in East Afghanistan is winding down, and President Bush has
offered to train other governments for the second stage in the War on
Terrorism. Though the American military officials assure us that much
remains to be done in Afghanistan, the lessons of the campaign are
already being drawn. And, before they become engraved in conventional
wisdom, we should distinguish the accurate lessons from the misleading
ones. Most important, in an age of globalization, the United States cannot
ignore problems in distant regions. During the Cold War, we thought
Afghanistan important enough to support its struggle against the Soviet
invasion. During the 1990s, to the extent that we noticed the
deteriorating conditions, we felt it was not our affair. Yet we learned on
Sept. 11 that events in poor countries half way around the world can do
us great harm.

Our military success in Afghanistan has shown clearly to any state ready
to support terrorism that this is no longer a safe option.

Terrorism is to this century what piracy was to an earlier era when some
governments gave pirates and privateers safe harbor to earn revenues or
harass their enemies. In this era, some states have harbored terrorists in
order to attack their enemies or because they were too weak to control
powerful fanatical groups.

For too long our country simply looked the other way on the mistaken
assumption that such alliances would have little world consequence. The
United States and its allies must consistently condemn state support for
terrorism and use the stick of the Afghanistan campaign to demonstrate
the consequences that can befall these states.

The success to date in Afghanistan also shows that force can be used
effectively and with discrimination even in difficult settings. Although
there were civilian casualties, the combination of US Special Forces on
the ground and precision air power proved to be a powerful one.

On the other hand, we would be mistaken if we concluded that the
formula can fit all sizes and situations. The Northern Alliance provided
important Afghanistan proxy forces already on the scene, and without
them, air power would not have been sufficient.

Indeed, some military critics believe that the United States failure to
insert more of its own ground forces led to the failure to capture Al Qaeda
fighters in the battle of the Tora Bora caves. We also have to realize that
the last act in Afghanistan is far from over, and more outside forces will
be needed to keep the peace if our success is not to erode.

Perhaps the most dangerous lesson learned is by those in the
administration and outside commentators who believe that Afghanistan
shows that unilateralism works.

It is true that the United States accomplished the military tasks with little
help from allies except Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Britain. But the lesson is
misleading because it implies that there is a purely military solution to the
war on terrorism.

According to the CIA, while the fighting in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban
government, it killed or captured less than a quarter to a third of the Al
Qaeda network.

The military success in Afghanistan dealt with the tip of the iceberg of
terrorist threats. Al Qaeda retains cells in some 50 countries, few
susceptible to military solutions. We are not about to bomb Rome,
Hamburg, or Jakarta.

And Al Qaeda is not the only transnational terrorist organization.
Suppressing terrorism will take years of patient international civilian
cooperation involving intelligence sharing, police work, tracing financial
flows, customs and immigration. Rather than proving the unilateralists''
point, the partial success in Afghanistan illustrates the continuing need for
international cooperation.

Sept. 11 was a terrible symptom of deeper changes occurring in the
world. Technology has been diffusing power away from governments and
empowering individuals and groups. With the use of desktop computers
and the Internet, terrorist networks can now exchange high- tech secrets
and coordinate complex campaigns across continents that only
governments could conduct 20 years ago.

Privatization has been increasing, and terrorism is the privatization of war.
Nor is terrorism the only issue. Many other important problems that can
cause great harm - such as international financial instability, global
climate change, or the spread of diseases - are inherently multilateral.

The ultimate lesson of Afghanistan is that the United States is so large
that these crucial problems cannot be solved without us, but we are not
large enough to solve them alone.

Joseph S. Nye is dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
University and co-author of ''''Governance in a Globalizing World.''''

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S..“Lessons From Afghanistan.” The Boston Globe, March 16, 2002.