Distributed December 2001
Copyright ©2001 by Brent Stuart Goodwin
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 540 Words


Brent Stuart Goodwin

A successful war against terrorism cannot end with amnesty

History teaches us that extra-national terrorist organizations – pirates, terrorists, barbarians – must not be allowed to walk away from conflict once they lose the upper hand. Granting amnesty to such belligerents will only allow them to reappear and will embolden other groups which may share their ideology or methodology.


The introduction of Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) in Afghanistan represents the turning of a new page in the conflict. The Marines present a rapid, potent force for the total destruction of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda network, already political and military shadows of their former selves. Having no popular support, once the Taliban’s means of coercion was crushed, so too was their grip on power in Afghanistan. The fall of Kandahar is the last domino in Afghanistan for the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

There will be those who will argue that the situation in Afghanistan is such that the U.S. approach should be demilitarized. That argument is wrong, and its foundations are ahistorical. There can be no question that the attacks on the United States constituted an act of war. In the nearly 8,000 years of recorded history in the East, in the West and in the New World, there are countless incidents of non-state actors – terrorists, pirates, barbarians – attacking states. Always this has constituted an act of war. States have prevailed so successfully against them that there have been great periods of time when non-state actors have not been a threat. Prior to World War I, almost all U.S. expeditionary military actions were directed against non-state actors. In this regard, there is nothing new about sending Marines to Afghanistan – they have specialized in this type of war for more than 226 years. The post-Cold War looks a lot like the pre-Cold War.

Belligerents who surrender should be taken prisoner and treated in accordance with Geneva protocols, and a case can be made for military tribunals as in Nuremberg and Tokyo. On at least two recent occasions, “surrendered” or “surrendering” Taliban or Al Qaeda forces have resumed fighting or fled. In this case, amnesty for belligerents who refuse to surrender is wrong. First, it is wrong because many Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, having been trained in terrorism, have been kicked out of one or more countries. Most of them have no community to which they may productively return. With an amnesty, they will seek to continue their crusade – against the United States and other targets – elsewhere.

Second, in this case, amnesty is wrong because it sets a bad precedent. This is not just another war. There are other groups seeking to undermine established states – not just the United States, but a list of states that includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, Sri Lanka, the Philip-pines and Colombia. The Taliban/Al Qaeda methodology must be made thoroughly unattractive for these other groups; proponents of that methodology must not be allowed simply to walk away. Fascism was made unattractive when the Nazis were crushed in WWII. Communism was made unattractive when the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War. “Bin Ladenism” should meet a similar fate.

For groups seeking to engage in political violence, appeals to moral principle will prove less persuasive than lessons learned from a total defeat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The humane thing for the United States to do is to discredit this form of organization by destroying it. Any form of amnesty will merely prolong the conflict to another time and place and set a terrible example to groups whose aims are similar to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.


Brent Stuart Goodwin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Brown University and has served in the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Security and Peacekeeping. His teaching and research interests include U.S. national security policy and the interaction of technology and military strategy.

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