Last week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pronounced the end of the post-Cold War era. But what is emerging to take its place may be a frightening new period that looks, feels and smells surprisingly like the Cold War itself. Indeed, much of the landscape that is becoming evident in this new dawn appears remarkably like the period between 1946 and 1989.
Once again, the United States is finding new allies in a new fight, even as its old allies have become adversaries. Once again, the nation is reacting to a new threat in ways that pose risks to civil liberties. The new geopolitics is forcing the national-security establishment to prop up regimes that are critical to our foreign-policy goals, even though their forms of government are antithetical to our sensibilities. And the Pentagon and intelligence services are preparing for a major infusion of new funding.
All of this comes at the beginning of a struggle that even the most optimistic administration officials believe will grind on, like the Cold War, for many years - even, if Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is to be taken literally, for decades.
The new struggle has roots in the last major superpower conflict of the old struggle, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a decade before the Berlin Wall actually crumbled. Americans remember the Soviet advance as the cause of the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, but historians will remember it for the mobilization of a cadre of radical Islamic combatants who rushed to stave off the Soviet invaders - some of the very principals who are at the heart of the current terrorism war.
For the second time in less than a quarter-century, Afghanistan is again at the center of great-power struggles. Lord Curzon of Kedleston, who served as the British viceroy of India exactly a century ago, called Afghanistan the "cockpit of Asia."
All wars are evadable, all antagonisms avoidable, and in the next several years commentators and historians will argue that the war between the United States and the Taliban didn't have to happen. If only the United States hadn't established a permanent presence in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War; if only the United States hadn't abandoned Afghanistan in the early Clinton years; if only Pakistan had been more nimble-footed in Central Asia; if only Pakistan had been less autocratic - these are the phrases that will launch a thousand op-ed pieces, journal articles and Ph.D. dissertations.
All the if-onlys aside, radical Islam nonetheless flourished in the madrassas, or religious schools, that grew up along Pakistan's frontier with Afghanistan - melting pots of the dispossessed and anvils of alienation or, as Ahmed Rashid puts it in his remarkable volume that chronicles the history of the Taliban, "virtual universities for future Islamic radicalism."
In their effort to create a pure form of Islam, many of these graduates concluded they must extend their target to the United States, which remains on Saudi soil, supports Israel and exports a mass culture that is at odds with Islamic values. Meanwhile, in their effort to win security at home, many Americans have come to believe they have to tame, if not destroy, the radical strains of Islam.
That is a formula for a clash of civilizations even more elemental, and very possibly bloodier, than the clash between capitalism and socialism that was at the center of the great geopolitical struggle of the second half of the last century. (Irony: It is the success that Afghan irregulars enjoyed in chasing out the Soviets that gives the Taliban hope even amid the relentless attacks from the air and land, most recently launched from CH-47 Chinook helicopters and F/A-18 Hornet fighters.)
American policymakers say at every opportunity that their enemy is not Muslims but terrorists, that their assault is against Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization and its Taliban protectors, not against the Afghan people. Bin Laden and his allies are equally insistent that the battle that has broken out into the open since Sept. 11 is a struggle between Islam and its persecutors in the West.
In this struggle, it is in bin Laden's interest to let the idea - being floated in Afghan mosques right now - take hold that the current struggle is the United States against Afghanistan, not the Americans against the Taliban. It is in bin Laden's interest to make this a new Cold War - and in the West's to make sure it doesn't become just that.