WASHINGTON - President George W Bush's six-week-old "war" against terrorism, launched hurriedly after the September 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, appears to be foundering on multiple fronts.
CNN still carries the slogan "America Strikes Back" on its Headline News Channel but Washington now seems much more preoccupied with biological warfare - in the form of letter-borne anthrax spores - at home than it is with the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The war there is not going particularly well, according to virtually all accounts. While the head of the US armed forces bragged 10 days ago that a week of bombing had "eviscerated" the combat capacity of the Taliban, his operations director admitted this week that the military was "surprised" at their tenacity.
Others, including Afghanistan experts and leaders of the Northern Alliance, which is allied with Washington in its campaign, say that if anything, the regime probably has gained confidence since US warplanes launched their campaign three weeks ago. Even before the bombing began, senior US officials predicted that Taliban commanders would defect once they were exposed to Washington's military might as well as US intelligence agents bearing promises of power and money. This was to have led to the regime's collapse, if not by the end of October, then by the onset of Ramadan in mid-November. There have been no defections over the past three weeks. This is a major reason why the Northern Alliance has not been able to capture Mazar-i-Sharif, the strategic northern city that US war planners had thought would fall in the operation's early days.
"The more these attacks continue, the more you'll find people siding with the Taliban to defend the country," said Barnet Rubin, an Afghanistan scholar at New York University.
Most analysts here now believe that the Taliban will be able to hang on at least until the month-long Ramadan holidays. At that point, bombing should cease lest it feed growing outrage and destabilize friendly governments, say leaders of Muslim states allied with Washington - among them Presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.
The US effort already seems to be losing the battle for hearts and minds as more bombs go astray, hitting residential areas or Red Cross warehouses, despite initial denials and belated expressions of "regrets" by Pentagon spokespersons. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on Friday that at least 23 civilians, most of them young children, were killed when US bombs hit the village of Thori, near a Taliban military base. Amnesty International called on Washington to stop using cluster bombs.
As a result of US bombing, the searing images of the destruction of the World Trade Center, in which some 5,000 people died September 11, rapidly are giving way to new pictures of daily bombing runs, devastated villages, and grieving parents. These scenes make it much harder for Bush to persuade Muslims in particular that this war is being waged against a small group of terrorists, rather than Islam and its believers.
"How much longer does the bombing continue?" Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden asked this week. "Because we're going to pay every single hour, every single day it continues. We're going to pay an escalating price in the Muslim world."
Three weeks into the military campaign, it is clear that this war is not going like those in Panama, Iraq, and Serbia/Kosovo over the past 12 years that helped Washington forget its humiliation in Vietnam a generation ago. That dreaded memory has not yet forced its way into general public debate, but in some ways this war is beginning to resemble Vietnam. Like Afghanistan, Vietnam was primarily agrarian, dirt-poor, highly decentralized, and anything but a "target-rich environment", in the Pentagon's felicitous jargon.
There are major differences between the two situations: Washington has yet to introduce ground troops in Afghanistan and will almost certainly avoid any long-term deployment of ground forces. Nor has Washington yet brought anything like the full weight of its airborne military power to bear on Taliban troops. Nevertheless, as right-wing politicians already have begun complaining, the situation is like Vietnam in that the military is constrained by a political strategy: first constructing a broad-based post-Taliban coalition capable of restoring stability.
This strategy precisely prevents the military from using its full power to annihilate Taliban forces in a way that permits the Northern Alliance, which represents the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara ethnic minorities in Afghanistan, to roll into Kabul and set up a new government at the expense of the much larger Pashtun population.
"Ultimately, the first priority is getting rid of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, so you can't let your fastidiousness over what the next government in Kabul is going to be overwhelm your first priorities," complained Gary Schmitt, director of the right-wing Project for a New American Century, many of whose founders now occupy top posts in the Pentagon and National Security Council.
Like Vietnam-era hawks, people like Schmitt - both inside the administration and out - argue for a much more aggressive campaign aimed at achieving Washington's military aims as quickly as possible, regardless of diplomatic considerations such as reconciling the competing and often contradictory interests of nearby countries like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and India, not to mention Afghanistan's internal factions.
While hawks fret about political and diplomatic constraints on the military, doves also are taking flight. Biden's remarks last week were particularly significant both because of his position as Foreign Relations Committee chairman and because he generally has been seen as a foreign policy hawk. If Washington continues bombing much longer, said Biden, it risks being perceived in the region and the world as "this high-tech bully that thinks from the air we can do whatever we want to do", a warning which, in an echo of the harsh debates over Vietnam, spurred charges from Republicans that he was "bring[ing] comfort to our enemies".
An even more damaging factor that carries a whiff of old battles is the speed with which a "credibility gap" also is growing up around this war. The early assertions about credible threats to Air Force One; the unprecedented secrecy surrounding military deployments, let alone operations; the initial denials of civilian deaths; conflicting official statements about the anthrax scare; the abrupt disappearance of government websites without notice or explanation; and the contrast between the early confidence and the lack of any tangible progress all recall an earlier time when the public's trust in the competence and honesty of the government eroded steadily.
Copyright 2001 - IPS - Inter Press Service