although described as one and the same by Bush administration officials, the U.S. is currently fighting two wars at the same time -- and it is doubtful that victory can be achieved in both. The first, the campaign against Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorist network, is essentially an international police campaign. To succeed, it requires painstaking investigative work by police and intelligence agencies around the world; in some cases, it may also require limited military action to capture suspects in their mountain or jungle hideouts. This war enjoys the overwhelming support of the international community.
The second war, aimed at bolstering American power in the Middle East, entails a classical military campaign against those states that have resisted U.S. dominance in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Its first target is the Taliban, but it could extend to Iraq and possibly other states as well.
At present, this war is supported only by Great Britain among our major allies. Advocates of the two-war approach, including top officials of the Bush administration, claim that victory in the second war is essential to success in the first. Only by defeating the Taliban and other regimes that harbour terrorists, it is argued, can we deprive the terrorists of their sanctuaries.
But this contradicts all that we have learned about al Qaeda. While it is true that Osama bin Laden has used Afghanistan as a training base, the fact is that the most dangerous al Qaeda operatives are deployed outside Afghanistan, in Europe, Southeast Asia and, if not already detained, in the United States itself. No amount of bombing can incapacitate these terrorists -- only determined, systematic police work can accomplish that.
Not only is there a strategic disconnect between the two wars, but we also risk failing in the first by pursuing the second. To succeed at capturing Osama bin Laden and shutting down his global terror networks, we need the active cooperation of police and intelligence officials in each of the 60-odd countries in which al Qaeda is said to operate.
Some of these countries, including those in Europe, are naturally predisposed to give us help; others, however, will only help us if they think they can avoid negative repercussions at home. In particular, states in the Muslim world -- whose help is especially crucial -- must avoid giving the impression that they are supporting a war directed primarily against Muslims or aimed at the creation of a new American empire.
This is why the second war, a conventional military assault, poses such a significant risk to the success of the anti-terrorist campaign. If, by bombing Afghanistan repeatedly, we provoke so much hostility in the Muslim world that we lose the support of countries like Egypt and Pakistan, our ability to find bin Laden and his close associates will rapidly disappear.
Similarly, if we extend the war to Iraq or other unfriendly nations, we risk losing the support of key allies in Europe and Asia. Some may argue that we should proceed with both campaigns and hope for the best. This, indeed, is the stance of the Bush administration. But this is a very dangerous -- and immoral -- approach.
We have to disavow any moves that might frustrate the global anti-terror campaign, including efforts to gain tighter control over the Persian Gulf and its abundant oil supplies.
Disengaging ourselves from the second war will not be easy. Much power and prestige has already been invested. However awkward in the short term, such a shift would best advance American strength and safety over the long run.
Michael T. Klare is a professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the author of Resource Wars: The New Landscape Of Global Conflict. Reprinted from Salon.