Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Identifying Limits on a Borderless Map

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Identifying Limits on a Borderless Map

Article excerpt

Two requirements have governed my thinking about an appropriate response to the attacks of September 11: the urgent need for action that would greatly reduce the threat of future mega-terrorist incidents, and the necessity of recognizing the appropriate legal, moral, and political limits to waging a defensive war.


In this essay, the need for action is taken for granted, given the gravity of the harm inflicted in the form of an armed attack, the persistence of the threat posed by the proclaimed intentions and apocalyptic leadership of Osama bin Laden, the demonstrated capability of al-Qaeda to carry out such missions, the dramatic failures of prior reliance on law enforcement techniques to apprehend and punish the perpetrators of major terrorist acts, and the inadequacy of intelligence warnings and preventive actions to provide societal protection. In essence, it would have been impossible for the government of the United States to retain its legitimacy if it had not responded as effectively as possible to the September 11 attacks. Indeed, to retain credibility, sovereign states must demonstrate their capacity to provide security by acting decisively in emergencies to mobilize the relevant resources at their disposal. The difficult challenge was to translate this imperative for action on behalf of security into effective policy directives, given the unprecedented nature of this enemy. It was not a state, but rather a "network" with operational nodes in sixty or more countries, including quite possibly the United States; nor was it formally or openly associated with any particular state or geographical area.

The decision by the Bush administration to launch a war against Afghanistan as the first phase of an effective response was generally convincing. There seemed to be strong evidence of the presence of bin Laden and the al-Qaeda headquarters in Afghanistan, a presence made possible by the Taliban regime. This regime was the embodiment of the most severe variant of Islam ever translated into a governing process, and this oppressive model of Islamic life evidently represented the visionary goal of the al-Qaeda terrorist activity for the entire Muslim world. The Taliban leadership was symbiotically linked to al-Qaeda and its leadership. Osama bin Laden has been quoted on several occasions as expressing his admiration for Taliban-style rule as correctly embodying and prefiguring a desired Islamic political order. There have also been several journalistic assessments, including by Ahmed Rashid, of the degree to which Mullah Mohammed Omar has accepted the visionary orientation toward the United States articulated by Osama bin Laden. (1)

As of late December 2001, the Afghanistan war had met its major early-stated objectives, seemingly reducing significantly al-Qaeda's capabilities to engage in global terrorism and seriously tarnishing its image as a credible opponent of the United States in the context of a military and civilizational encounter. Although the U.S. government did not rely on a humanitarian intervention rationale, a beneficial side effect of its military operations has been to emancipate the peoples of Afghanistan from cruel and brutal rule, with improved opportunities of rescue from the immediate threat of mass starvation and the deeper conditions of extreme poverty, worsened by twenty-five years of war.

The victory in Afghanistan has by no means extinguished the September 11 threat, but it has decisively weakened al-Qaeda's capacity for mega-terrorist activities originating in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda's presence was so manifest in Afghanistan that it seemed highly reasonable to hold this particular sovereign state sufficiently culpable to vindicate recourse to war against it: a war that aimed not only to destroy the al-Qaeda presence and to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, but also to destroy Taliban rule. …

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