We must target and destroy the terrorist network. There is no room for half measures
America is indeed at war. The attacks in New York and Washington have raised the dangers posed by international terrorism to a new level. But despite the awful familiarity of the devastation, an effective US response is likely to be something unfamiliar.
For the US, the weapons of this war should be information, law enforcement and, rarely, active military force. The coalition that will form around the US and its Nato allies should agree on its intent, but not trumpet its plans. No vast military deployments should be anticipated. But urgent measures should be taken behind the scenes because the populations and economic structures of western nations will be at risk.
And the American public will have to grasp a new approach to warfare. Our objective should be neither revenge nor retaliation, though we will achieve both. Rather, we must systematically target and destroy the complex network of international terrorism. The aim should be to attack not buildings but people who have masterminded, coordinated, supported and executed these and other attacks. I can hear warnings to us to narrow our objectives because the task is so difficult, warnings there may be failures and actions that can never be acknowledged. But now all must accept at face value the terrorists’ unwavering hostility to the US and all that it stands for. There is no room for half-measures in our response.
Our methods should rely first on domestic and international law, and the support and active participation of our friends and allies. Evidence must be collected, networks uncovered and a faceless threat given identity. In some cases, astute police work will win the day, here and abroad. In others, international collaboration may be necessary. Special military forces may be called on to operate in states that are uncooperative or unable to control their own territory. In exceptional cases, targets will be developed that may be handled by conventional military strikes.
But this will be mostly arduous, detailed and often covert work to track, detain or engage and take down adversaries, rolling them up cell by cell and headquarters by headquarters. These networks may well have state sponsorship. And here, more intense, visible action, involving not only strikes but also substantial ground action, may be required to gain the surrender of hostile governments or the end of their support for terrorists. But we should not underestimate the overpowering impact of a determined America and its allies in forcing pre-emptive changes in previously uncooperative states.
Some will call for full disclosure and near-legal standards of evidence before acting. Others will arm a hair trigger, seeking to use the most readily available information, even if scant. But we must not pose legality and expediency as opposite extremes. To be expedient, we must act within the bounds of international law consistent with consensus among the emerging allied coalition. Maintaining this consensus will be one of the prime challenges we face.
A second key challenge is to recognise that we are in an action-reaction struggle with a capable and competent adversary. Almost certainly there are other gambits in preparation to be used against us. When they are unable to hide, terrorists may be even more willing to strike. More horrifying scenarios than those of this week are easily imaginable. We must strengthen our protective measures at airports, at utilities and public service facilities, such as communications networks, and prepare necessary public health and disease control capabilities for the possibility of nuclear and biological events.
And if we are successful in preventing further attacks, the other great challenge will be to maintain our resolve. If these attacks were the second Pearl Harbour, then it will take more than a second Doolittle raid [US air attack on Japan] to win this war. Months and years may be required. But we should remember that sight in downtown Manhattan, and another at the Pentagon, the morning of September 11, and resolve that it shall never, ever happen again. We should renew our resolve during every inconvenience at an airport and every impediment to our activities.
For a decade the US has periodically declared that its top priority, or one of its top priorities, is to protect its people against international terrorism. In hindsight, it is clear that a well-intentioned defence wasn’t enough. This is a problem that now requires more active measures and a commitment to eliminate terrorism as a threat. And it requires an old concept, decisive force, but defined and used in a new kind of war.