Afghanistan: What the Doomsayers Are Missing


By Stan Crock To hear the chattering classes tell it, the war in Afghanistan is already a disaster. Civilians have become casualties, U.S. allies in the Northern Alliance are feckless, and the operation should have been over by now, pundits gripe.

Let's all get a grip. No, it's not over yet. Sure, innocents have died -- in America and in Afghanistan. And yes, the Northern Alliance isn't a cohesive bunch (if it were, it would have captured Kabul from the Taliban long ago). But the real story is how far Washington has come in only a few weeks of wartime.

For Desert Storm 10 years ago, President George Bush labored for months to assemble the coalition that launched a massive military assault on Iraq. This time around, President George W. Bush accomplished a similar feat in a matter of weeks. Air strikes have wiped out the Taliban's military command-and-control centers as well as anti-aircraft weapons, planes, and munitions. Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network also has taken some hits.

DAZED AND CONFUSED. The latest Bush team had to start from scratch. The Pentagon had no combat-ready troops in the region. It had to develop covert-intelligence capabilities where it had virtually none. Many of the coalition partners had never worked together (though the Partnership for Peace, a NATO adjunct much maligned by Republicans, had helped forge what proved to be useful ties between the American and Uzbek militaries).

"We didn't exactly hit the ground running," says retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Andrew F. Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments. "We hit the ground dazed."

Has tentativeness creeped into the operation? Yes. The bombing has been nowhere near as intensive as it was in the Balkans. But fewer military targets are waiting to be hit. And restrictions on the use of bases for air strikes have limited what allied forces can do. The critical measure is how much the bombing has disrupted the Taliban's ability to defend itself and al Qaeda's to perform its maliciousness. We really don't know yet.

CONFIDENCE BUILDER. It will also take time to know how adept the Defense Dept. is at making adjustments when a tactic proves ineffective and how dependent the operation will be on allies, especially when it comes to capitalizing on their intelligence and military facilities. "No war plan survives contact with the enemy," Krepinevich notes wryly. But it's far too soon to label the effort a failure.

Judging from the way the Bush Administration handled its first foreign-policy crisis -- the downing of a surveillance plane in China -- there's no reason to lack confidence in this team. That incident was handled superbly. America got the flight crew and even the plane back without making any significant concessions to Beijing and without resorting to muscle-flexing.

Of course, that was largely a diplomatic effort, and the current antiterrorism campaign melds diplomacy and military action in a complex mix. Many fear that military action could undermine diplomacy by sparking a backlash on the streets of allies in the Islamic crescent. That hasn't reached critical mass, but maintaining support in the Muslim world remains a challenge.

TACTICAL ERRORS. That said, I'm skeptical that Operation Enduring Freedom will end in disaster. The doomsayers now are the same people who predicted massive U.S. casualties in the Balkans and Iraq. I would question both those who initially said it would be easy to get bin Laden and those who now say it will be a horrendous disaster.

I wish I had the same confidence in Bush's handling of foreign policy in noncrisis situations. In March, for example, he took a hard line on North Korea, undermining both Secretary of State Colin Powell and visiting South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who supported renewal of talks with Pyongyang.

Bush later backtracked, but that wasn't enough to save Kim's government from a no-confidence vote. What a way to deal with a friendly regime and ally -- invite the country's leader to the White House, then precipitate a change of government. Where's the invitation for Saddam Hussein?

LESSONS LEARNED. That was hardly Bush's only flub. The way he rejected the Kyoto global-warming accord didn't do him any good. Bush warned that embracing the accord would hurt the U.S. Instead, he should have pointed out that it was a flawed treaty and that a stronger pact is needed that includes tougher verification provisions. Similarly, Bush failed to gauge international opposition to missile defense and moved tardily to allay allies' concerns.

We've all learned some interesting lessons since September 11: Political considerations enter into noncrisis decision-making, whether the issue be the domestic budget or the Kyoto global-warming treaty. Presidents can score political points with constituencies at home by taking stands on noncrisis issues.

However, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were watershed events, precipitating a true national crisis. The result has been virtually apolitical foreign-policy formulation, probably as apolitical as as we'll see. And so far, so good. Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BW Online


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