Yes, we need to get Osama bin Laden. Yes, we need to bring down the terrorist networks. But the overriding aim of the war on terrorism is changing regimes. And it starts with the Taliban.
Searching Afghan caves for bin Laden is precisely the trap he would wish us to fall into. Terrorists cannot operate without the succor and protection of governments. The planet is divided into countries. Unless terrorists want to camp in Antarctica, they must live in sovereign states. The objective of this war must be to make it impossible or intolerable for any state to harbor, protect or aid and abet terrorists. The point is not to swat every mosquito but to drain the swamp.
The war begins in Afghanistan. The first objective must be to destroy the Taliban regime. Indeed, to make an example of the Taliban, to show the world -- and especially regimes engaged in terrorism -- that President Bush was serious when he told the nation that we make no distinction between the terrorists and the governments that harbor them. The take-home lesson must be: Harbor terrorists -- and your regime dies.
Remember the context. Radical Islam is riding a wave of victories: The bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983 that drove the United States out of Lebanon; the killing of 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993 that drove the United States out of Somalia; and, in between, the war that drove the other superpower, the Soviet Union, out of Afghanistan.
And now Sept. 11, which sent America into shock and leaves it deep in fear. Victory breeds victory. The terrorists feel invincible, and those sitting on the fence in the region are waiting to see whether they really are. Overthrowing the Taliban would reverse the historical tide and profoundly affect the psychological balance of power.
This step is so obvious and necessary that it is deeply troubling to see the secretary of state begin to wobble. If the Taliban give up bin Laden and al Qaeda (his terrorist network), said Powell on Tuesday, "we wouldn't be worrying about whether they are the regime in power or not." He then offered carrots ("significant benefits . . . a better relationship with the West") and even hinted at American aid.
Carrots? Aid? After Sept. 11? The Taliban share responsibility for the worst mass murder in American history. For that they must be made to pay, or what meaning is there to the president's pledge that "justice will be done"?
If the administration goes wobbly on the Taliban, it might as well give up the war on terrorism before it starts. The Taliban are dripping blood. They are totally isolated. They are militarily vulnerable. On the ground they face a fierce armed opposition, the Northern Alliance, that is ready and eager to take Kabul. With our support, it could.
It may not be easy and it may not be quick. But such a signal victory is essential.
The campaign, however, cannot stop there. Nor with bin Laden. (Although when the Taliban government falls, finding bin Laden and his associates will be that much easier.) Afghanistan is just stage one.
A logical stage two is Syria. It harbors a myriad of terrorist groups, but the regime is as rational as it is cynical. Syria has no ideological or religious affinity with the terrorists it supports. It uses them to advance geopolitical aims. It can therefore be persuaded to abandon them.
We know this. For years, Damascus harbored Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK (Kurdish Workers' Party), which was fighting the government in Turkey. Turkey repeatedly demanded that Syria turn him over. Syria refused. Until October 1998, when Turkey massed troops on its Syrian border, threatening military action. Ocalan was shortly expelled from Damascus. He now sits in a Turkish jail.
Syria is terrorist. But Syria is pliable. It is a low-hanging fruit. After Afghanistan, we turn to Damascus. What then?
Stage three is Iraq and Iran, obviously the most difficult and dangerous. Which is why it would be foolish to take them on right away. Changing regimes in Kabul and changing policy in Damascus, however, would already have radically changed the regional dynamic by demonstrating American power in a region where power, above all, commands respect.
In Iran, where the conservative clerics are unpopular and a large Westernized middle class is already straining for a free society, change might come from within. In Iraq, although Saddam is detested, internal revolt is less likely. Saddam will make his stand and we will have to confront the most dangerous terrorist regime in the world. The war on terrorism will conclude in Baghdad. How? No one knows. All we do know is that history, cunning and cruel, will demand that if this president wants victory in the war he has declared, he will have to achieve it on the very spot where his own father, 10 years ago, let victory slip away.