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Mediterranean Quarterly 13.4 (2002) 21-37

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The War on Terror:
A Retrospective

William H. Lewis

On 11 September 2001, the United States was reminded in traumatic terms that Islamic militants had declared war on this country, its institutions, and its values. The militant declaration of evil intent came in the form of a 1998 religious fatwa issued by Osama bin Laden, head of the al Qaeda network. The fatwa called for a jihadist campaign against Washington and its Zionist ally. There was little anticipation by the U.S. government, however, of the events that would follow—the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, and the wanton attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last year.

In the days following the events of 11 September, the actions taken by the White House in response were far reaching and impressive. President George W. Bush, observing that "night had fallen on a different world," urged other governments to participate in a "global war on terrorism." The specifics would be spelled out once antiterrorist coalitions and constellations—military, political, financial, and intelligence-sharing—were organized.

Worldwide support for the United States was rapidly forthcoming and proved gratifying to a worried American public. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization evinced solidarity by invoking Article 5 of its founding charter, declaring that the attack on the United States would be regarded as an attack on all alliance members. Its invocation immediately brought into play a requirement for joint planning to counter future terrorist threats. For its part, the United Nations Security Council acted unanimously in approving [End Page 21] two resolutions urging all member states to terminate any and all ties with terror organizations and to join in common action to prevent terrorist attacks. Equally encouraging were official condemnations of the devastation wrought at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and expressions of support for the United States emanating from Russia, China, and several "rogue regimes," notably, Syria, Libya, and Sudan.

To give immediate effect to its declaration of war, the United States dispatched special forces to Afghanistan in October to apprehend Osama bin Laden, destroy al Qaeda training and logistics support facilities, and overthrow the despotic Taliban regime that had been sheltering al Qaeda. The Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Muhammed Omar, also became a target for the U.S. forces inserted into Afghanistan. With the support of Northern Alliance militia forces and several southern Pashtun clan groups, the U.S. military organized and orchestrated a brilliantly conceived campaign that routed al Qaeda and Taliban forces by February 2002. Several NATO allies provided special force units, conventional ground troops, and air and naval support. Beyond this initial effort of solidarity, however, NATO members had begun to evidence ambivalence about subsequent proposed courses of action contemplated by the United States in the "global war." As one authority on the subject observed:

As a practical matter, NATO's expression of support is. . . ambiguous. The NATO treaty itself is vague about actual obligation of NATO members. Each member has leeway to decide for itself its appropriate response, including the use of armed force. It has always been understood that different members will contribute differently to NATO operations depending on their capabilities and circumstances. 1

Little noted by most observers, the campaign on Afghanistan was not initially organized under the auspices of NATO (or with UN sanction). After its troubling experience with war management by committee in Kosovo, the United States signaled that it was unwilling to share decision-making authority with military counterparts at Mons, Belgium, during the initial [End Page 22] stages of the Afghan campaign. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld publicly expressed doubts about NATO members' capacity to project and sustain forces at distances beyond Europe, much to the distress of European allies. President Bush went further during a visit to Europe, observing that while the United States would consult with its allies, it reserved the right of "unilateral action," military and otherwise, against terrorist organizations, their state sponsors, and regimes that threaten U.S...


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