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Thoughts on the News - 12/1/2001


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With the sudden fall of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul within one week in early November, Americans quickly shifted their attitudes about the war in Afghanistan.  Previous public sentiment, as reported through the media, was impatience with the progress of Operation Enduring Freedom.  After all, two months since September 11 we still didn't have Osama Bin Laden.

More accurately, the American military was seen as without a significant victory against the rudimentary fighting forces of the Taliban and al Qaeda.  This attitude proved to be incorrect and ignorant of what we have already been warned - this fight against terrorism will not be measured by a lightning victory.  This is instead a strategic struggle spanning conventional warfighting, bioterrorism, money laundering, and other threats.  

So we should be mindful of our initial thoughts on September 11.  To help Americans understand these terrorist attacks, they have been likened to Pearl Harbor and, symbolically at least, the Viet Nam War's Gulf of Tonkin incident.  Both of these attacks launched the United States into war.  And with both of these events, Americans said, "Never again."  We thought that never again should we be caught in a situation where a foreign threat has such a serious advantage over us.

In my opinion, the comparison with Pearl Harbor is warranted, and older friends of mine who remember December 7, 1941 have told me that their memories of that event are similar.  Just days after September 11 my mind drifted to another earth-shattering event when the world said, "Never again."  

After the terrorist attack against Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, a failed rescue attempt resulted in the deaths of all remaining hostages and terrorists.  Stunned European nations looked at their own vulnerabilities and all independently declared, "Never again."  

The world changed after Munich in similar ways that people are asking how will the world change now.  Governments around the world established anti-terrorist forces and began to fight the war on terrorism.  Throughout the 70s, the free world fought against more hijackings, bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations.  And while there were many losses, there were also many astonishing successes. 

Israel in particular demonstrated what it takes to fight and win against terrorism - patience and will.  In response to the Munich massacre, Israel secretly and methodically located, tracked, and finally brought to justice every terrorist behind Munich.  In this case, justice meant covert assassination. 

Around the same time, on July 4, 1976, Israeli commandos landed on an enemy airfield to rescue over one hundred hostages.  The hostages were part of Air France flight 139, which had been hijacked by Palestinian and European terrorists.  The rescue operation was a bold success.  Furthermore, it united bitter political rivals in Israel with the iron will of moral and physical courage required against terrorism. 

In the 1980s, the free world saw more successes, many of them secret.  Patience and will continued to be demonstrated, but unfortunately also by terrorists.  When Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1983, it was revenge over the American bombing of Lybia in 1981. 

Terrorists are patient.  It is now obvious that the September 11 attacks took years to plan and execute.  The recruiting, financing, and training for this mission required an exceptional amount of resolve.  And if Iraq directly supported these attacks - as many believe because of Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers, and his suspected relation with an Iraqi intelligence official prior to September 11 - it is obviously a response to the 1991 Gulf War. 

We on the other side of terrorism must remember the terrorists' resolve and patience because the same will be needed by any country fighting terrorism.  Whether President Bush serves one term or two, this fight will outlast his presidency.  It inevitably will demand changes not only to our terrorist fighting units - just as after Munich - but to intelligence gathering, foreign relations with large and small countries, emergency reaction, airport security, and much more.


Closer to the present conflict are other lessons from history, the most obvious of which is the former Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.  Their failure and eventual withdrawal is typically know as the Soviet's Viet Nam experience.  It is the fear of repeating the political nightmare of Viet Nam that compels our present caution in Afghanistan.  

It should also be reassuring to note that the failure of the Viet Nam War has guided American policy in places such as El Salvador, Panama, and Iraq.  Despite our controversial involvement in these countries and their conflicts, we knew not to escalate our commitment beyond the salvageable.

Finally there are frustrating lessons from recent American manhunts.  The search for Manuel Noriega in Panama resulted in a worlwide embarrassment even if in the end we did get our man.  While this frustrating lesson was still fresh, the U.S. decided not to repeat the situation with Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1991.  Unfortunately we disregarded our better judgment in Somalia in 1993.

Now the U.S. has wisely weighed the cost of capturing Osama bin Laden and decided to proceed "as long as it takes."  We at least benefit from knowing the difficulty of the situation before anyone foolishly establishes an arbitrary end date.  

No, this war will not be over by this Christmas, or July 4, or September 11, 2002.  Let the holidays come and go before believing that the end of the war is near.  Remember, patience and will. 

Additional reading and sources:

Two of the best books on modern war are The Battle for the Falklands by Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins, and Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War by Rick Atkinson.  

These include extensive coverage of special forces, air warfare, and the international politics behind the conflicts.  Both are available in retail bookstores.

Another look at America at war, specifically the Rangers and Delta Force, is the fine book Black Hawk Down.

The details of Israel's Entebbe rescue mission comes from Chaim Herzog's The Arab-Israeli Wars.


Posted Saturday December 1, 2001.