Nagging Questions About the War
After what is
seen in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe as the worst weekend
of the bombing campaign in Afghanistan (I'm still reluctant to call
it a war, though it is in almost every aspect except that it hasn't
been declared as such by Congress) for the American-led forces,
some preliminary questions and doubts are surfacing about the current
conflict or at least about the strategies guiding it, if any.
Most Americans still want to see some sort of retribution against
Osama bin Laden and his far-flung organization. But more are wondering
if they'll see it anytime soon.
dread word "quagmire," perhaps most notably raised by
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf but decidedly in the commentating
atmosphere elsewhere, has become part of the discourse. On Monday
morning a couple of Fox newsreaders had a short and inconclusive
discussion as to whether it was appropriate to use the word after
only four weeks of bombing. But events over the weekend made the
word seem relevant.
might be impossible to confirm all the reports, but it does seem
certain that at least some civilian casualties, including a father
and his seven children in the Char Qala area of Kabul, took place.
Abdul Haq, the exiled Afghan leader and legendary anti-Soviet guerrilla
chieftain, on whom the US and others were relying to form a non-Northern
Alliance anti-Taliban outfit or to persuade some "moderate"
Taliban leaders to defect, depending on which narrative you subscribe
to was captured south of Kabul and executed by Taliban forces.
Cross officials said the Red Cross warehouse complex in Kabul had
been hit a second time, destroying food and relief supplies. Nobody
seriously claimed the US bombers and strafers hit the building on
purpose, but the mistake raised more questions about the capacity
of the US to do genuinely pinpoint precision bombing and about
the ability of a bombing campaign by itself to achieve US objectives,
whatever they are.
as many as 5,000 militants were said to have crossed
the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan to help the Taliban,
despite effort by the Pakistani government to prevent the incursion.
Some 10,000 more would-be Taliban defenders are said to be waiting
at another checkpoint.
Pakistan, 18 Christians in a church in central Punjab were gunned
down, most likely by Islamic militants in sympathy with Osama bin
Laden, perhaps emboldened by the apparently ineffective bombing
in Afghanistan and probably trained at Pakistani government-sanctioned
Islamic schools. While the region has seen sectarian violence, nothing
like this had occurred before. Pakistan's small Christian minority
community is understandably on edge as never before.
as Japan moved to make troops available in support roles in the
war against terrorism (bending the country's constitution that prohibits
overseas military activity except in response to attack or emergency),
critics in the UK became more vocal. John Pilger, former chief foreign
correspondent for the Mirror, in a
sharply-worded essay called the war against terrorism a "fraud,"
claiming the use of antipersonnel cluster bombs is akin to a terror
attack and opining that, "The Royal Marines, who will do the
real dirty work, will be little more than mercenaries for Washington's
Drudge Report noted
that article and stories on more critics from the Financial
Times and the Independent. Even the Times weighed
in with criticism of "a 'three-week wobble' over the direction
of the conflict."
on the home front, as Washington Post media writer Howard
Kurtz noted, "After six weeks of generally sympathetic
coverage, the anthrax-obsessed press is turning on the Bush administration.
a spate of stories and segments, top officials are being depicted
as bumblers who failed to move aggressively against anthrax-tainted
mail while offering shifting explanations of the danger."
criticism may or may not be justified most people, including
officials, started from a knowledge base close to zero when it comes
to anthrax but the trend suggests some in the media, still fairly
clueless about the real impact of events overseas, are ready to
train some pent-up willingness to question government officials
on what looks like a domestic story they think they understand.
And former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, the all-too-visible
but essentially powerless homeland security czar, looks more like
a deer in the headlights every day.
that it has passed, some in the media are belatedly focusing on
some of the more obnoxious features of the "anti-terrorism"
bill loaded with snooping and surveillance goodies federal enforcers
have panted after for years but have been denied by a Congress not
rolling over in the wake of September 11.
while I am prepared to eat some of my words if something really
terrible happens, Attorney General John Ashcroft's and Governor
Ridge's proclamation of a heightened security alert combined
with the advice that Americans should go about their business
was hardly a sterling example of good PR or responsible governance.
A vague, nonspecific threat combined with "don't worry, be
happy" hardly suggests a coherent approach or bolsters confidence
in the government's ability to muster decent intelligence or keep
this has left President Bush, who had seemed to gain in focus and
stature during the first few weeks following the terror attacks,
looking less like a leader who knows what he wants and how to get
it done. As Clyde Wilson, who teaches history at the University
of South Carolina, recently wrote for www.lewrockwell.com, "the
President himself is so incoherent that he can nasal on about enemies
that are 'cowardly,' 'faceless,' and to be understood simply and
only as 'evil' attackers of 'freedom.'"
claims that "Bush's crippled style indicates more than a problem
of articulation. It indicates a lack of thought, a lack of focus,
a disconnection between the words and the realities for which they
are counters. And that betrays an inability to encompass the big
picture, to grasp the essential elements of the situation, which
is the sine qua non of good leadership and administration."
leaders, Wilson says, achieve eloquence in crisis, "for eloquence
is simply clear thought." As the political community has been
reminded most recently by Kiron Skinner and Annaliese and Martin
Anderson's book on his self-written radio talks, Reagan,
In His Own Hand, Ronald Reagan wasn't the great communicator
simply because he was a former actor with presence and style. He
appealed to people because he had things of substance to say as
well as memorable ways of saying them.
won't go so far as to say it is obvious that the United States has
more hope than coherent strategy in the Afghan conflict. There may
be activities behind the scenes that will furnish evidence of triumphs
that reflect understanding and shrewdness. But the perception is
growing that the United States jumped into this war on terrorism
without a lot of planning, using the tactics it knows heavy-duty
bombing rather than the tactics and strategies that might have
the best chance of success.
long ago Anne Applebaum, one of our more insightful observers on
international politics, did a
piece for Michael Kinsley's Slate.com that in retrospect highlights
what seems like a lack of strategic thinking by our leaders. Noting
that Carl Bildt, former UN special envoy to the Balkans, told her
the rule in adventures like Afghanistan should be "politics
first." By that he meant, she explained, "that outsiders
intruding on the affairs of another country ought first to sort
out what political goals they want to achieve and only make use
of military force as a supplement to political dialogue. In the
Balkans [said Bildt], 'too many people made the mistake of thinking
we might achieve great things with just a few bombs.'"
Applebaum proceeded to lay out some political goals that should
be in the forefront as we watch the bombing campaign. Damage done
means almost nothing if it is not done in the service of a political
goal. Here are hers (and, perhaps, those of US leaders):
To destroy the Taliban's internal support
To help locate Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.
To make it impossible for terrorist networks to function in
To prevent what will be a long-term terrorist war from damaging
moderate Muslim states, especially Pakistan.
show the American public that their state is capable of standing
up to external enemies and to restore the economic confidence
of the United States.
may quibble, but I don't see that four weeks of bombing has accomplished
any of these goals. Indeed, a case can be made that there have been
setbacks in some of them. It's a long-term war, of course, and it
would be unwise to judge it (in sheer military-political terms,
leaving philosophical quibbles aside for the moment) this soon.
But one can see why the term "quagmire" is in the air.
INFORMATION, MORE QUESTIONS
give them some credit) have said that this war will be a long, drawn-out
one views the peace movement in similar terms, a number of developments
should give us hope. Eager to fill up the hours and moments in their
24/7 coverage and unready to give news coverage to much of anything
else, the cable news outlets and even some network coverage have
resorted to background.
Americans who have chosen to pay attention have learned more than
they ever expected to know about the history of Afghanistan, bin
Laden's network with many of its strengths, the twisted past and
mixed prospects of the Northern Alliance, the bad feelings between
our erstwhile Pakistani allies and our erstwhile Northern Alliance
allies, the importance of oil to the various "stans,"
the good and bad relations among the former Soviet republics and
Afghan factions, the ethnic makeup of Afghanistan, the ripple effects
that carry over to the Middle East, the mixed motives of various
European players and much, much more.
war proponents have an interest in having this information laid
out because they know the war will last a long time and they suppose
that support can be maintained if the American people understand
the difficulty of the task(s) ahead. But those who question the
war can also find rich material in the complex background and wheels-within-political-wheels
of the inevitably shifting alliances. Should the American government
try to control all these political/military/ethnic threads? Is there
even a chance it will be able to do so successfully? Is the impulse
to micro-manage sufficiently developed in an adolescent empire that
pays attention to the rest of the world only sporadically?
questions should yield fruitful doubts and perhaps even the seeds
of more sensible future policies.
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