Washington Post: The Bush administration has made clear that the war it has declared on terrorism will be unlike any the country has previously fought, but it has not yet spelled out what the rules of that new war will be. Some things are fairly transparent: An ultimatum has been delivered to Afghanistan's Taliban regime, and because it is unlikely to be complied with, a military response can be expected from some of the U.S. forces now being marshaled in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Both the Taliban and the al Qaeda organization of Osama bin Laden will likely be attacked. But other questions are murky: What should be done about other governments that may harbor terrorists but are not openly hostile to the United States -- such as Syria -- or are even relatively friendly, such as Pakistan? What should the United States do about the al Qaeda cells operating on their soil or in Asian and European countries? And how can the United States wage war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban while remaining faithful to Bush's assertion that the campaign is directed against terrorists, not Afghans or Muslims?
Mistakes: Though these problems are complex, they are not entirely new. A number of countries, including Britain, Russia, Israel and Egypt, have struggled with similar issues in fighting terrorism, and there is much to be learned from their experiences -- and especially their mistakes. The United States, too, has wrestled for years to find a strategy that works against al Qaeda, veering between ineffective cruise missile strikes and awkward attempts by the FBI to mount U.S. criminal investigations in such places as Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. tactics, which also included some covert operations, yielded some results but didn't succeed in neutralizing Osama bin Laden. But more aggressive military operations, such as that of Russia in Chechnya or Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have been disasters, failing to end terrorist attacks while breeding more through human rights abuses and injury to innocent civilians.
One lesson to be drawn from this history is that military action in Afghanistan, if initiated, should avoid the bombing of civilian infrastructure and other targets that would merely increase the suffering of Afghanistan's people, who are already enduring one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. U.S. airstrikes in the recent, relatively conventional conflict of Kosovo arguably helped drive the Serbs to oust their war-making ruler, Slobodan Milosevic; but in this new kind of war, civilian casualties and suffering probably would strengthen rather than weaken al Qaeda, winning it new recruits both in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. To be effective, military strikes should be focused directly on the terrorists -- commando raids would serve better than bombs. The Bush administration could also help its cause by continuing to contribute to efforts to feed and shelter Afghan refugees and civilians outside the Taliban's control.