US-Led Coalition Strikes Back


The United States-led military riposte so intensively under preparation since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th is now under way. A formidable force has been assembled to attack bases in Afghanistan used by the al-Qaeda organisation and its leader, Osama bin Laden, and the political and military infrastructure supporting them. It must be assumed the air attacks under way last night are carefully aimed at such targets. It must earnestly be hoped every effort will be made to minimise civilian casualties and bring essential humanitarian aid to a desperately suffering Afghan population.

This operation has widespread international support arising from the horrendous fatalities in the attacks on September 11th, the rapid mobilisation of political and diplomatic solidarity, the affirmation by the United Nations Security Council of the US's right of self-defence and the readiness of President Bush and his colleagues to work in tandem with their friends and allies. It was illustrated yesterday by the worldwide statements of support for the operation. All concerned have said it must be targeted, proportionate and conducted with central regard for the welfare of Afghanistan's civilians.

That this level of support is essential if the international coalition is to be sustained was clearly recognised in the statements explaining why they have resorted to military action made yesterday by President Bush and his colleagues and by other political leaders. The coalition would come under great pressure if the attacks on Afghanistan were to be indiscriminate, if many civilians were to be killed or displaced without humanitarian aid, or if attacks were broadened to targets in neighbouring countries. It was striking yesterday to hear the care with which US leaders and officials stressed their commitment to provide food and medicine immediately and to emphasise that the operation is not directed against the Afghan people but rather against the terrorist groups in their midst and the repressive Taliban regime which support them. They emphasised that the US has intervened in several major conflicts before on behalf of Muslim populations and is working with the Taliban's Afghan opponents.

These political, legal and diplomatic realities will constrain the military operation. Yesterday's actions were directed against military targets such as airports, aircraft and major support infrastructure. Once they have been hit it is expected special troops will be landed to attack suspected bases of the al-Qaeda organisation, along with air and missile attacks on them. A massive operation of ground troops is unrealistic, given the terrain and the approach of winter. It must be presumed there is good intelligence available about such targets. The operation's legitimacy will depend on how effectively it is carried out.

These are testing and risky times for the international community. The events of September 11th have opened up a dangerous period in our history, which could be reinforced if further such attacks are mounted in retaliation for yesterday's military action. But they have created a remarkable international consensus that such terrorism must be tackled comprehensively and thoroughly if civilised values are to be defended. Those values must continue to inform the conduct of this military operation.