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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clearing the Way?

Those tinted flashes of light on television screens Sunday were a familiar sight as U.S.-led forces launched an air campaign under cover of darkness in Afghanistan. But there were abundant signs that this offensive would be unlike the much-televised pounding of Yugoslavia and Iraq, or even the last cruise missile strike in Afghanistan three years ago. These missiles and bombs were merely the most visible part of what officials describe as a considerably broader assault on the terrorists based in Afghanistan and the Taliban authorities who support them. U.S. President George W. Bush said the strikes were "designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations.''

Though the risks are surely higher, so is the justification and sense of purpose with which the United States begins this Afghan campaign. It is, first of all, a legitimate act of self-defense directed against the sponsors of the bloodiest attack ever against the U.S. homeland. It is also part of an offensive against an international plague, the al-Qaida terrorist network of Osama bin Laden -- an offensive that has won the support of NATO, the United Nations and scores of governments around the world, including more than 40 that granted air transit or landing rights to U.S. aircraft. The broad support is one dividend of the Bush administration's decision to hold off on military action for almost four weeks while building a coalition and collecting and disseminating evidence of al-Qaida's involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. Another such dividend can be seen in the careful coordination of the visible parts of Sunday's operation; even as cruise missiles were knocking out the lights in Kabul and Kandahar, U.S. planes were dropping thousands of rations of food and medicine for Afghanistan's displaced and hungry population.

The importance of the humanitarian leg of the operation was underscored by the other part of Sunday's televised war, the competing addresses of Bush and bin Laden. Within hours of Bush's live appearance from the White House, al-Qaida's leader was seen delivering his own statement on the Middle East's most-watched television network, in which he claimed that the United States had launched a war against Islam that had "divided the world into two camps.'' Bush rightly took pains to refute that lie, saying that the enemy of the United States is not the Afghan people or the world's billion Muslims, but "the barbaric criminals who profane a great religion by committing murder in its name.''

The broad coalition supporting and participating in the offensive showed this is not a fight of the United States against the world, but of the world against lawlessness. Some nations may join in because they fear terrorists; some, because they want to stay on the United States' good side. But most -- the allies who can be counted on over time -- join in because they understand the importance of the values that came under attack Sept. 11.

Leading the way is Britain and its prime minister, Tony Blair, who ordered British armed forces to join in Sunday's action. In a speech last week, Blair offered a useful preview of the methods and rationale of the campaign that began Sunday. "The action we take will be proportionate, targeted,'' the prime minister said. "We will do all we humanly can to avoid civilian casualties, but we understand what we are dealing with. They [the terrorists] have no moral inhibition on the slaughter of the innocent."

In the weeks ahead, the United States may need to take further action that risks causing casualties and invites international criticism. It must not flinch from any military measure necessary to destroy the al-Qaida network and remove the Taliban authorities who have bonded with it. The administration must also act aggressively to defend the United States from further attacks and talk to Americans about the risks. But as Sunday's events made clear, the humanitarian and political elements of the campaign will be critical. The real division, as Bush said, is between civilized people and "the outlaws and killers of innocents," and it is in that choice that there is no neutral ground.

This comment first appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.