Alan Bock: 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. The 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. NUMEROUS NEGATIVES It 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. Red 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. Meanwhile, 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. In 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. Even 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 imperial ambitions..." The 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." ANTHRAX DEBACLE? Back 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. "In 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." The 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. Now 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. And 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 us safe. AN INCOHERENT IMPERIUM All 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, "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.'" Wilson 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." Successful 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. I 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. GOALS VS. DAMAGE Not long ago Anne Applebaum, one of our more insightful observers on international politics, did a piece for Michael Kinsley's 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.'" Ms. 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): 1. To destroy the Taliban's internal support 2. To help locate Osama bin Laden's terrorist network. 3. To make it impossible for terrorist networks to function in Afghanistan. 4. To prevent what will be a long-term terrorist war from damaging moderate Muslim states, especially Pakistan. 5. To 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. One 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. MORE INFORMATION, MORE QUESTIONS Our leaders (to give them some credit) have said that this war will be a long, drawn-out struggle. If 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. Consequently, 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. Some 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? Such questions should yield fruitful doubts and perhaps even the seeds of more sensible future policies.

Alan Bock

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