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Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
War views: Finding Bin Laden is not the priority
Colonel Bob Stewart, a former Nato commander in Bosnia, says there are greater requirements of the response to the 11 September attacks than finding where Osama Bin Laden is hiding.

American intelligence sources cannot locate Osama Bin Laden. That is hardly surprising. In a country as rugged and difficult to penetrate as Afghanistan he can disappear into the thin air.

An expert terrorist like Bin Laden will have pre-planned his bolthole and he might only be found if he wants to be. The statement by President Bush that Bin Laden can run but not hide is plainly wrong. He has run and has hidden - at least for the moment.

It seems likely that Osama Bin Laden remains in Afghanistan, most probably in some highly covert hideout, known to a very small handful of his most devoted followers.

In this situation Bin Laden is neutralised

This is probably impossible to find using satellite imagery or any other marvel of modern science and Bin Laden is unlikely to be betrayed by his most trusted collaborators.

He is also aware that to use any electronic form of communication risks compromising his security and location. We will get him in the end but maybe not yet. In this situation Bin Laden is neutralised.


Yet finding Bin Laden must not be our top priority. There is a far greater requirement.

We have to locate and destroy his terrorist network. This al-Qaeda organisation has grown like a cancer in a large number of states worldwide. All nodes of it must go. Just like eliminating cancer this will be a lengthy and complex process.

Here we have a problem. Time is not with us. Those that supported the terrorist hijackers on 11 September have been largely undetected. They remain in place throughout the world. Evidence has come to light that they might be planning follow-up outrages.

We have no time to lose

Some suspects have already been caught in both the United States and Europe. Individuals among them were pilots and flight manuals were found. It seems that Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation could be ready to go again. This is very dangerous. We have no time to lose.

But there is unlikely to be a quick-fix solution. Donald Rumsfeld, the United States' Defence Secretary, has warned that the conflict against international terrorism will last years and most will be unseen. Much of it will be carried out using stealth tactics - civilian as well as military.

All instruments

In Britain the phrase 'long thin war' is gaining currency. Those that use it say it exemplifies the way forward. The 'war' against Al-Qaeda is going to take a 'long' time, using all possible instruments - political, diplomatic, social, financial as well as military.

These require a collective and sustained international effort over years. By 'thin' they mean that many actions in the 'war' might be low-key, discreet, infrequent and employ measures that have no apparent relationship to the campaign against terrorism.

All this will take a long time as well as many differing resources and approaches. Defeating international terrorism will require a multi-dimensional approach.


Donald Rumsfeld has also warned not to expect a massive and quick military strike against various targets in Afghanistan. He is right to say this now because it could decrease expectations among the American public that military retaliation in strength is imminent.

Not only are there precious few known terrorist or indeed Taleban targets of value in Afghanistan but to bomb the Afghans 'willy-nilly' would be exceptionally counterproductive. The deaths of large numbers of innocent Afghans, who already have an absolutely miserable life, might blow the slowly coalescing international alliance apart.

Here is the dichotomy. We need as much time as possible to identify the whole al-Qaeda organisation and build an international coalition against terrorism. Yet US public opinion is increasingly demanding military action and a lengthy respite before counter-attack gives the terrorists a chance to strike again.

A 'long thin war' needs to be multi-dimensional and properly planned as well as being completely briefed and co-ordinated both domestically and internationally.

The campaign against international terrorism has to be fought with patience, determination and vigour. Victory must be ours but might be a long time in coming.

This is one of a series of differing opinions on the War on Terror which we shall be publishing in the coming days. You can send your view about this or other articles by using the form below.

Your comments:

The point about a "long thin war" is well taken, however, it is impractical to limit the response to the terrorists themselves. The countries that harbour and encourage them must be brought to heel as well. Without the benign tolerance of nations, it would be far more difficult and dangerous for the Osama Bin Ladens of the world. No country or even coalition of countries can root out the terrorists from their holes. Only when no country dares to allow them shelter will they be unable to function.
Jim Bennett, US

I disagree with Bob Stewart about not making Bin Laden the primary target. This battle must be fought on two levels just like they did to go after Pablo Escobar in Columbia. You DO hunt down the culprit and kill him to prove the point that you won't get away with it. And you do continue with a long life attack on the various terrorist networks using both intelligence, police work and selective military options as needed.
Rich ONeill, US

Bob Stewart, as ever, has offered a very succint and eloquent resume of the difficulties that the West faces. It is a welcome change to have commentators injecting such realism and constructive thinking into the debate. However, while it may be the case that "US public opinion is increasingly demanding military action" it is arguable that this is much less the case among New Yorkers themselves. The US administration should perhaps be focusing on serving their needs - more than other Americans - when it formulates its response.
Will Mayor, UK

The UK and other European States need to look at the terrorist organisations, and their supporters within their own countries. It is well known that fundamentalist groups opperate out of London. These groups are of as much of a threat as Bin Laden, and should be treated as such.
Luke Ban, England

There is a possibilty that this "long thin war" may be fought indefinitely and becoming a way of life for future generations
Paul McGhee, England

Why use force and waste lives to get Bin Laden out of Afghanistan? Simply patrol the border and destroy everything that tries to get out or go in to the country. Also sequistrate the whole countries financial assests.
Steve, Wales

I live in the US and it's refreshing to hear an intelligent, well thought out opinion from someone in the military. No talk of "kicking ass" but only a realistic assessment of the situation. The average American unfortunately wants immediate force to be used and would be happy with the death of Bin Laden - without looking at the larger picture of worldwide terrorism.
Iain Miller, Scotland

Once again, it is interesting note that a military man (like Colin Powell) sounds more "Doveish" than "Hawkish". Could it be that the hawks tend to be those who have no actual military experience, and are safe in the knowledge that their belicossity will not require them to put their bodies on the line?
Steve Travis, UK

The first two comments (from Jim Bennett & Rich ONeill, US) illustrate very well one of the issues raised by Colonel Bob Stewart - namely that the demands of public opinion run counter to that which is practically achievable. Who would argue against their points that: (a) no country should be allowed to harbour terrorists, or (b) Bin Laden must be a prime target too? But what practical measures can be taken to achieve these whilst avoiding the dangers highlighted in Bob Stewart's article? I applaud this well written piece for its intelligence and rationality.
Colin McCready, UK

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