Rememberthe post-cold war military doctrine that we had to be able to fight two and a half wars at once? Two major conflicts one in, say, the Middle East, and the other in Korea or somesuch outpost of Empire and, perhaps, a guerrilla insurgency in some obscure Third World country (Colombia, for example, or someplace in Africa). This doctrine that the US must be able to fight and win two large-scale wars unassisted by allies was adopted in the early nineties. At the time, then- Defense Secretary William Perry averred that, "Nowhere in our planning do we believe we are going to have to fight two wars at once. . . I think it is an entirely implausible scenario that we would ever have to fight two wars." Implausible in the sense that no two "rogue" states were considered a match for the resources the US could bring to bear, but who could've foreseen that we would have to fight the same enemy on two fronts right here at home as well as abroad?
When I hear people talk about "the war," I wonder which war they're referring to: the one in a far-distant country, which most Americans know or care little about, or the one right here in our own back yards or, I should say, in our own mailboxes that dominates the news.
The other day my mailman came to the door wearing blue latex gloves and sporting a sheepish smile. That same day, California Governor Gray Davis revealed that there was a "credible threat" to practically every bridge on the West Coast, and instituted a state of near-emergency: I say "near" because, although National Guardsmen were stationed by the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, all they did was chat up the cops and soak up some sun. As far as can be determined, not a single vehicle was stopped or searched. Instead of making anyone feel safer, the announcement of an imminent attack only spread panic throughout the Golden State and made us realize how helpless the government is, at every level, in the midst of our nation's greatest crisis.
Some Republicans took Davis to task for that, but at least his warning was specific: after all, the federal government had just enunciated its own red alert, declaring that they knew something perhaps far worse than September 11 was about to take place, but they didn't know what it was, where it would happen or, presumably, how to deal with it. If ever a public declaration was designed to throw the public into an absolute panic, then surely this has got to be it. Especially in the context of both the Pentagon and the FBI asking the public for its suggestions in how to fight this war, the warning hardly inspired confidence in the ability of the authorities to cope. What are we paying these guys for, anyway? Is anybody in charge in Washington?
The elevation and much-ballyhooed "branding" of former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as the chief of "Homeland Security" whose visage alone was supposed to instill in the people a sense of safety has instead led to a widespread sense of insecurity. Stumbling, bumbling, and essentially powerless against the entrenched bureaucracies of Washington, Ridge is reportedly already on the way out, to be replaced, some say, by New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. It'll never happen, of course: Rudy would no sooner get in there and he would have his own version of the Oval Office up and running before you could say "coup d'etat."
We are fighting two wars, on two fronts, and nearly 100 percent of the average American's attention is naturally fixated on the home front. Oh yes, the Northern Alliance is preparing to march on Kabul, but first they must win the battle of Mazar el-Sharif who cares when the enemy is about to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge? That's why, for most Americans, when someone asks: "Where do you stand on the war?" the question, in this context, almost answers itself. No American, with the exception of the mentally unbalanced and the Marxists (or do I repeat myself?) wants their own country to be invaded and defeated. It is a simple truism to say that everyone, even the much-demonized peace movement in this country, wants the US to win the war on the home front. Americans may differ on the merits of bombing Afghans who have, after all, been invaded and victimized by Al Qaeda but nobody wants to see the Golden Gate Bridge or the Bay Bridge blown to smithereens. Nobody is pro-anthrax except, it often seems, those neocons so eager to pin Saddam as the source.
Baffled by the anthrax attacks, the FBI is floating one theory domestic terrorism, perhaps from the far right and pursuing another, recently arresting one Middle Eastern immigrant in Trenton, New Jersey, in connection with the anthrax investigation. The discovery of alleged anthrax attacks as far away as Pakistan at the offices of the Daily Jang newspaper, a computer company, and a government office has murked up the domestic terrorism angle, and confusion reigns, with the authenticity of these attacks in doubt. Pakistan's health minister has declared he doubts the accuracy of tests so far administered, and plans to have his own agency do them over.
Meanwhile the really baffling development is the discovery of anthrax transmitted via US diplomatic pouch as far away as Lima, Peru, and Vilnius, Lithuania. These incidents could be traceable to the site of the original attack on the US Capitol, including the mail room of the US State Department, but now an even more ominous development has everyone's attention. A Newsweek story entitled "Who Killed Kathy Nguyen?" sums up the question that has law enforcement stumped: how did a perfectly ordinary South Vietnamese immigrant, no Tom Daschle or Brokaw but a plain ordinary person, with no known connection to the tainted mail, die of anthrax?
Without a plausible theory to support their actions, authorities have responded with a flurry of activity and mass arrests, invoking the Draconian powers granted them by the "Patriot" Act and other pseudo-totalitarian legislation, figuring that they're bound to come up with something if they simply sweep up everything in their path. The same broad brush better-"safe"-than-sorry policy is exemplified by the approach of John Ashcroft's Justice Department to the subject of how and when to warn the public of imminent danger. As a top intelligence official cited by Newsweek observed:
"The rule for Ashcroft and his White House higher-ups, he said, appears to be 'anything you hear, you put out.' He bitterly observed that the debate among Bush's top law-enforcement and intelligence deputies came down to: 'If we don't share the information and something happened and there was a catastrophe, people could say, 'Why didn't you warn us?'"
The same inevitable process of politicization is at work in the conduct of the other war, that is, the one in Afghanistan, where the Pentagon seems as clueless as the FBI in pursuit of an increasingly elusive breakthrough. At this point, just about any victory, no matter how small, would do. In wartime, even more than usual, it's the foreign press particularly the British media that Americans must turn to in order to find out what's happening in their own country. The London Telegraph gives its readers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of a Pentagon meeting in which the truth about the war was stated in totally truthful and uncompromising terms by none other than the chief hawk in Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:
"'The war isn't going well,' said the usually mild-mannered Mr. Rumsfeld, his voice rising as he complained at the lack of progress against the Taliban. 'Either we have something spectacular this weekend or heads will roll.'"
Politics, narrowly conceived, and not the national interest, or military necessity, is driving the war overseas, just as it fuels the frenzied pronouncements of government officials on the home front. Carpet-bombing the Taliban front lines has led to nothing but setbacks for the much-vaunted Northern Alliance, and the expected "split" in the Taliban appears to have backfired badly: Mullah Omar and his government are more firmly in the saddle than ever. Indeed, all the real defections appear to have been from the rebels to the Taliban. Gee, I guess that's what happens when you bomb someone's country they tend to take it personally.
A series of embarrassing hits on Red Cross facilities, at first denied, then acknowledged, plus the visual similarity between yellow cluster bombs and those yellow food packages being dropped simultaneously all this adds up to an unmitigated disaster, and if it be "defeatist," or even treason, to say so, then so be it. The Afghan campaign has so far been a military and a public relations catastrophe. Don't anybody tell me the Age of Irony is dead, not when this abject failure has led to an intensification rather than a correction of an incorrect strategy.
The Rumsfeld strategy has, so far, been to fight the "new war" with a strategy inherited from the last two Kosovo and the Gulf war. In the former we grasped a dubious instrument, the indigenous but brutal Kosovo "Liberation" Army, and gave them the air cover they needed to win. But it isn't working with the Northern Alliance: the KLA swam in a sea of popular sympathy, but Afghans remember the era of chaotic brutality brought on by these "liberators" the last time the Alliance took control of the country.
With the Kosovo strategy failing, it appears that the hawks have won the debate within the administration: we're going to keep doing what has failed so far, only more so. More weapons to the Northern Alliance, more and heavier bombing raids carried out against a diminishing list of significant military targets, more US troops on the ground. Not to mention more announcements and "spin" than a presidential campaign and just as blatantly political.
We are fighting two wars, and losing both. We are losing what is the real war, for most Americans: the war on anthrax, the war on hijackers and other madmen intent on killing us right here in America. This is the war that really matters because it is the one we have to win. What I want to know is what makes our rulers think they can conquer and hold Afghanistan, and perhaps other parts of the Middle East, if Congress has to abandon the US Capitol and the Supreme Court is sent fleeing into the night?
John Mearsheimer, writing in today's [November 4] New York Times, makes the important point that bribes rather than bombs should be our weapon of choice in Afghanistan. Since there is nothing much to bomb, and the introduction of ground troops before winter is highly problematic, we have no choice but to pursue an approach that "would emphasize ground-level diplomacy, with open wallets, among Pashtun leaders in central and southern Afghanistan," backed up by the closest cooperation with Pakistan and "selective military actions."
Mearsheimer, a West Point graduate and co-director of the Program on International Security Policy at the University of Chicago, is the veritable voice of reason compared to the editorial screamers and TV talking head warriors who dominate our national discourse. He estimates that it would take half a million American soldiers to properly pacify Afghanistan on the scale that Senator John McCain and others are now advocating. A massive ground invasion would have to mean a permanent occupation force, one that would be fighting a seasoned guerrilla army with support from all over the Islamic world. Aside from the sobering logistical and political obstacles standing in the way of such a strategy, what seems clear is that Rumsfeld and his fellow hawks are intent on using a massive sledgehammer to eradicate a cloud of poisonous mosquitoes.
Mearsheimer reminds us that "the principal target is Al Qaeda," not the conquest of Afghanistan, and underscores the reality of the "new war" where human intelligence is more important than sheer firepower. As he puts it:
"The most important ingredient in the war against Al Qaeda is good intelligence, which will allow the United States to locate the terrorists and strike at them with deadly force when the time is right and to locate, protect and reward those who come to the American side. The Bush administration should devote abundant resources to improving America's intelligence capabilities and to buying information on the terrorists from other governments."
The limits of air power have been reached: the bombing should be immediately halted, before the US damages its cause in the region irreparably and forever. The unintended consequence of the bombing is to turn ordinary Afghans against the US, and harden them in the cause of resistance to foreign aggression. With every passing day the Afghan quagmire seems deeper, and more ominous, and Mearsheimer highlights this eerily evocative aspect of the developing US strategy by reminding us that "Afghanistan is four times the size of South Vietnam, 60 times the size of Kosovo" and, unlike the other two examples, has never stayed conquered for too long.
The Rice-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz wing of this administration, having won the initial battle against the "doves" centered around Secretary of Sate Colin Powell, now face calls by ultra-hawks the Wolfowitz-McCain-Weekly Standard faction to do something spectacular. Massive infusions of ground troops, massive bombings raids, massive force applied indiscriminately, crudely, and relentlessly. The purpose is not purely military, but primarily political: to shore up morale, and increase flagging support for the war, not only in America but also in Great Britain, where a once huge pro-war majority is rapidly shrinking. The Rumsfeld crew is under pressure from the ultra-hawks, like McCain, who are even more intensely political. Together they are taking us into a massive military intervention that has all the makings of a classic quagmire. The Afghan War, if it proceeds along these lines, will go down in history as yet another unwinnable war that we were lured into by our enemies and talked into by our well-meaning "friends," both at home and abroad.
So we have two wars: one that all of us are fighting and desperately hoping for victory, and another that some loyal Americans see as a disaster in the making, albeit not one that it is too late to stop. A defined and targeted campaign to take out Al Qaeda and its Afghan supporters is both justified and necessary: the conquest of Afghanistan under cover of a "war on terrorism" is neither. Nor is it likely to succeed. As we have warned from the beginning, what should have been more of a police action directed at Bin Laden and his operatives could easily turn into a general war against the Afghan people, and that is precisely what has occurred. The extended bombing campaign has Vietnamized this campaign, and we are sliding down the slippery slope into a quagmire.
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