November 5, 2001 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

Maxims for Conducting War on Terrorism

1. Don't let political objectives confuse or constrain the military campaign.

  • The main military objective in Afghanistan is to destroy the capability of terrorists and their supporters operating inside Afghanistan from attacking Americans. Our larger, strategic goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used now and in the future as a haven for terrorists to attack Americans and U.S. interests.
  • This strategic goal implies the removal of the Taliban regime from power, but it leaves open the question of who will rule Afghanistan once the Taliban is gone. While we want to see a stable government emerge after the Taliban is removed from power, we must be careful not to let our perceived long-term political strategies constrain our military strategy of achieving victory. In short, we should be willing to support any rebel group in the field that can help us overthrow the Taliban or destroy Bin Laden's network.
  • We should work behind the scenes to help create a post-Taliban settlement (and let each faction know that post-war U.S. support will depend on their cooperation in ousting the Taliban), but we will not be able to sort out all the political problems of creating a new regime until after the Taliban is defeated. If we publicly play favorites now in the creation of a new regime, we will not only undermine the legitimacy of indigenous efforts to create a new government, we may also undermine the war effort to achieve the victory that is the very prerequisite for a political settlement.
  • Therefore, our operative guideline should be that we will make a pledge of humanitarian aid and other material and diplomatic support to any regime in Afghanistan that forswears terrorism, respects the human rights of its people, and agrees to live in peace with its neighbors.

2. Don't let the coalition drive the military strategy.
Coalition partners should add to the war effort, not subtract from it. While their political demands are a diplomatic reality, they have no right to constrain us in such a way as to guarantee military defeat. No coalition members should be permitted to dictate the terms, conditions, or nature of our military response; or who should be part of the coalition; or what kind of foreign policies America should pursue. Our coalitions should be revolving, depending on the goals and circumstances of the operation, and the coalition strategy should be sequential in targeting other terrorist-supporting states after Afghanistan.

3. Make the U.S. response to terrorism as broad as the threat itself.
Since the threat is global, the response must be global as well. We must go where the threat is. That is why, as President Bush has repeatedly said, we must hold all states that harbor terrorists accountable. The strategy must be as deep as it is broad; deep in the sense of focusing on intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland defense; but broad as well as in the sense of focusing at some point on all the countries that harbor terrorists. We must, therefore, at some point come to terms with Iraq, Iran, Syria and other terrorist-supporting states.

4. Maximum military pressure and success against terrorism in the short run will produce maximum political benefits and success in the long run.
The best way to stop Iran, Syria and other states from supporting terrorism is to be successful in Afghanistan and Iraq. This means changing the regimes in those countries. All the countries in the region-including terrorist-supporting ones like Iran and Syria-are watching and waiting to see if the U.S. war on terrorism will be successful. The more successful we are against Taliban, al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, the less likely states like Iran and Syria will believe that terrorism has a future as an instrument of revolutionary political change. We need to create the impression that our victory over terrorism is certain and inevitable. Moreover, we should not be making diplomatic statements that imply that these countries are part of our anti-terrorism coalition.

5. Don't give into the self-defeating double standards created by our enemies or by reluctant allies.
The Taliban and the Northern Alliance have not and will not stop their military operations during Ramadan, so why should we? The history of warfare in the Middle East, Gulf and Central Asia is replete with instances where Islamic armies fought through Ramadan. It would be militarily self-defeating for us to stop or slow military operations during Ramadan. Moreover, no military force on earth has the will or technology to keep civilian casualties as low as ours; we should not allow other countries, some of which have terrible human rights records, hold us up to a mythical high standard of zero casualties that exists for no other military force.

6. Terrorists will attack us wherever we are vulnerable and in ways that will take maximum advantage of any asymmetries that exist between their capabilities and our vulnerability.
The attacks of September 11 show that the terrorists are aiming for mass casualties against soft targets. They struck where we were completely vulnerable and with means that were a total surprise. There is a lesson here: We should expect this pattern to be repeated in the future with ballistic and cruise missiles. These weapons can inflict mass casualties with little or no warning, and we are totally vulnerable to them. We should expect that terrorist networks and terrorist-supporting states would resort to acquiring missiles first as a deterrent against retaliation. They could then use missiles in classic asymmetrical mode of attack that will inflict mass casualties quickly and with near certainty. Also they may attack in ways that will reduce our capability and willingness to retaliate against them-namely, from sea, in a suicide-mission, or from the territory of a state that itself possesses nuclear retaliatory capability. That is why active defenses are imperative.

Kim Holmes, Ph.D. is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy