What Bin Laden Wants
The September 11 terrorist attacks were part of an ambitious attempt by Osama bin Laden to foster Islamic revolution throughout the Sunni Muslim world. As US troops begin to deploy in Central Asia, the ultimate success of Washington's anti-terrorism campaign may depend on the ability of American strategists to understand what motivates bin Laden.
On October 4, the US officials announced the deployment of the10th Mountain Division to Uzbekistan, bringing the United States a step closer to launching military strikes against Afghanistan, where bin Laden's loyalists operate training and logistics bases.
Bin Laden has stated that his goal is to drive the United States completely out of the Muslim world. What is more, he thinks that he really can accomplish this. How is that?
First, bin Laden believes Islamic holy warriors, known as mujaheddin, were primarily responsible for driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. The Soviet empire crumbled quickly thereafter. As he indicated in his 1998 interview with ABC News, bin Laden thinks history can repeat itself: his loyalists can do to American forces what the mujaheddin did to Soviet troops in the 1980s. He himself predicted then that this struggle between America and Islam will result in the "end of the United States as the United States."
Second, he seems to believe that the American public, which he sees as soft and decadent, is unwilling to accept heavy casualties, and is therefore unwilling to wage a prolonged struggle. In offering evidence to support his beliefs, he has cited the American withdrawals from Lebanon in the early 1980s and Somalia in the early 1990s. He also asserts that Washington prevailed in its conflict with Iraq in 1991 because Saddam Hussein's troops were unwilling to stand and fight long enough to inflict heavy casualties on the Americans. Bin Laden, by contrast, obviously has no shortage of warriors willing to sacrifice their lives.
Third, while he did not approve of Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of neighboring Arab Muslim Kuwait, bin Ladenalong with millions of other Muslims in the Middle East and elsewheresided with Saddam as soon as it became clear that the United States would oppose him with force. If millions of Muslims supported even an unjust Muslim ruler (which Islamists such as bin Laden consider the secular Arab nationalist Saddam Hussein to be) against the non-Muslim United States, then tens or even hundreds of millions of Muslims, bin Laden reasons, would support support his "just" struggle.
Bin Laden is clearly wrong on the first two points. On the first: The Afghan Mujaheddin were an important component, but were by no means the principal cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was the bankruptcy of the Soviet economic and political systems, as well as its growing ethnic conflicts and other factors, that caused the union to implode.
Second, bin Laden underestimates US resolve. Americans will fight long and hard if US territory is directly attacked, or if the cause is deemed just by a convincing majority of the public. This is underscored by the US response after Pearl Harbor, and the willingness of the American people to persevere during the Cold War. The present situation bears little resemblance to conditions that existed in the United States during Vietnam, Lebanon, or Somalia. Bin Laden will soon discover the distinction in our response.
But whereas bin Laden has miscalculated on these first two points, his assessment of the third may be all too accurate. Although many Muslims have expressed sympathy for victims of the September 11 attacks, a growing number are opposing American military retaliation against bin Laden's forces, much less the Taliban regime which provides him with sanctuary.
An American military response to the September 11 attacks that public opinion in the Islamic world considers to be unfair could easily inflame tens or even hundreds of millions of Muslimsincluding those serving in the armed forces of pro-Western Muslim governments.
American retaliation against bin Laden and Afghanistan could easily serve as the catalyst for uprisings against many pro-Western Muslim governments. If the armed forces in these countries do not defend their respective governmentsdue to their joining the opposition, or out of sheer paralysis in the face of a revolutionary situationthen these pro-Western regimes are doomed. Others may cease cooperating with us in order to avoid this fate.
What American strategists may be facing, then, is not merely anti-American terrorism conducted by a small albeit well-organized and funded group. What they may be facing is the threat of a contagion of Islamic revolution spreading throughout much of the Sunni Muslim world. This is something that may occur, ironically enough, even if US troops manage to "get" bin Laden.
Bin Laden, then, may be wrong in his assessments about both his ability to destroy the United States and Americans' determination to fight him. But how the United States fights him could easily add fuel to the fire of Islamic revolution which he is trying to ignite. US planners should make it clear that the United States is going to war with bin Laden and his ilknot with the entire Muslim world. For if the latter is what occurs, then bin Laden will have won.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University. His article, "Saudi-Russian Relations in the Putin Era," will appear in the upcoming issue of The Middle East Journal.