“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
So declared Winston Churchill after an early allied victory in World War II. It was a reminder to his nation that the war would require many more years and a much harder struggle, that they were to expect still more “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
These are the words we need to hear from our leaders today, as the Taliban collapses and a sort of victory seems imminent in Afghanistan. It is easy to be swept away by the pleasant images now being reported from Kabul: men getting their hair cut and their beards shaved, women daring to show their faces in public, music blaring in the streets for the first time in five years, TVs being rescued from their hiding places, and worn copies of “Titanic” being slipped into previously illicit VCRs. These images of the liberation of Kabul have been accompanied by images of our Vice President discretely gloating over the triumph and scolding the administration’s critics.
But this is no time to be smugly satisfied. We have achieved the current victory in spite of ourselves. When we bombed Serbia in 1999, American pilots flew 500 sorties per day; in Afghanistan, the number of sorties in the first three weeks averaged 63 per day, partly because we refused to demand the full use of air bases from our recalcitrant allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. And consider the most substantial victory so far, the fall of Kabul — a powerful symbolic moment that caused the Taliban to lose support among many southern tribes. Yet, the Bush administration had ordered the Northern Alliance not to take Kabul.
I will admit to being surprised that the Taliban has collapsed under our relatively brief, small-scale bombardment. What does not surprise me is what this demonstrates about the Taliban’s weakness. Defeatist press reports had told us that these are tough survivors and war-hardened supermen. In fact, they are primitive, ignorant, poorly armed Third World villagers.
But now that we are destroying the Taliban, we dare not merely declare victory and go home. The nation now needs to face a crucial issue that the administration has evaded. We must recognize that Afghanistan is merely the first step in this war.
Afghanistan was never significant because it was some kind of superpower capable of pouring its wealth and expertise into support for terrorist attacks. The country acquired significance merely as a zone of anarchy that allowed terrorists to operate — and as a kind of sinister showcase for totalitarian Islamic fundamentalism. But Afghanistan was never the sole or the most dangerous source of Islamic terrorism.
The biggest Islamic power in the region, the leading state sponsor of terrorism — the country whose religious leaders have led weekly chants of “Death to America” for 22 years — is Iran. Documents discovered in Kabul indicate that the Taliban and al Qaeda were actively working to obtain chemical and nuclear weapons, but it is also clear that they lacked the resources to do so. Iran has the resources and has been actively working with China and North Korea to obtain more powerful weapons.
Iraq also has the resources, and it has succeeded in manufacturing chemical and biological weapons. Yet, the only attempt we have made to stop this is the program of weapons inspections imposed by the elder Bush in 1991 as a substitute for victory — a program dropped by Bill Clinton.
And what about our betrayal over the past two months by our alleged “ally,” Saudi Arabia, which has refused us full use of our Arabian military bases? The history of bin Laden and the Taliban makes it clear that the Saudis’ Wahhabi brand of fundamentalism, fueled by oil money, is a crucial source of Middle Eastern terrorism — neither we nor they are doing anything to curtail that source. In other cases, we are doing worse than nothing — as evidenced by Syria, another key sponsor of terrorism that has been elevated after September 11 to a seat on the UN’s Security Council.
All of these threats are the next items on the agenda of any real war against terrorism. Unfortunately, the war is being run by the same Bush-Cheney-Powell team that declared an easy victory and went home without finishing the job in 1991 — guaranteeing a decade of increasing threats from the Middle East. We must not let them lead us into the same mistake again.