November 2001

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War Up A Blind Alley

Support weakens for the war in the US, even as the hawks bay for a ground attack


By Sanjay Suri
Courtesy: Outlook India


The calls to patience are falling weak within Washington, wearily seeing day after day that this war isn't working. Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda are still in place even if not in their old haunts, and the Taliban are ironically showing signs of growing in strength under attack. There's a losing of those hearts and minds that the air-dropping of biscuits and leaflets had hoped to win. Almost nothing is working as expected. A decisive change in direction appears imminent as Washington ponders new strategies: to ease up on the bombing ahead of Ramzan and the winter and give political initiatives a chance—or to step up the attacks. Urgent reviews of the current strategy will show in coming weeks whether Afghanistan has seen too much bombing—or seen nothing yet.

Washington is being hit daily by more of this nothing. The daily newspapers bring all sorts of stories, all short of a success story. Now in the media, in public, at political meetings, at government briefings, the question is getting louder and louder: what really are those bombs doing? After talking so much about the need for a new kind of war, America launched the old kind. US leaders have talked of patience; but a popular play doing the rounds features bin Laden hunted down by an fbi agent and taken to a public hanging. Audiences loved the hanging, and they want more.

The despair in Washington became almost official last week when the Pentagon put out a request asking for technological help in tracking bin Laden's den, or as it said, "conducting protracted operations in remote areas". The Pentagon listed 38 categories in which it sought public help. One was on methods to "detect, locate and map underground/concealed cavities that may serve as secure havens for terrorists". The idea was to tap America's creative potential outside its defence circles. After a month of what an impatient public is seeing as failure, this was hardly reassuring.

Pentagon's appeal was a sign also that the US wants to conduct this operation using technology rather than troops. Last week, the US pressed into service new reconnaissance drones that had been undergoing tests. These will be fitted with thermal cameras for winter operations to detect heat underneath rocks. The cameras can't tell who lit the fire, but the Americans are looking for one lucky hit through thousands of attacks.

Opinion polls have showed a decline in support for the bombing of Afghanistan, though the numbers backing the attacks are still in a majority. A poll in London's The Guardian showed a decline in support for the bombing from 74 per cent on October 10 to 62 per cent by October 30. A New York Times/cbs survey showed that though most said the war was going well for the US, as many as 58 per cent said it was only going somewhat well. Twenty-five per cent felt it was going very well but 13 per cent also thought it was going badly.

"We know there is an unknown number of civilian casualties," Phyllis Dennis of the Institute of Policy Analyses told Outlook. "We know there are close to two million people facing starvation more immediately than before. We know that Red Cross warehouses have been hit twice by bombs. And as far as we know, no terrorist who had anything to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and in Washington has been captured, killed or brought to justice."

The differences within Washington are beginning to fall into a narrow range of between the Far Right and the pragmatic Right, Dennis said."There's a huge right-wing trend within the current administration," she said.

The only American leader to have strongly opposed the bombing was Senator Joseph Biden, usually reputed to be a hawk rather than a liberal. But Biden was strongly attacked by leaders all round for saying that the bombing was only winning the US the anger of Islamic countries. The Republicans said Biden's speech had served only to "bring comfort to our enemies".

Countering Biden's views, military strategists and advisors, if not the political leaders, began taking the hard line last week in support of ground troops. The move has strong political support from Britain. "There are no differences between the Pentagon and the British at the military level," Col Terence Taylor from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Washington, told Outlook. "The British would like to go for a military victory," he said. "You can't fiddle around trying to please everyone inside Afghanistan." This will need ground action "but Washington is not ready for that yet", Taylor said.

A struggle between opposing strategic schools in Washington will decide what kind of war America will wage against the Taliban and other targets, even what kind of America that will go to war. This isn't about Rumsfeld versus Powell, or about hawks and doves that come and go, though all that too does come into play. It's about the soaring influence of the Far Right which has taken up commanding positions within the Pentagon and now wants to call the shots—in the air and on the ground—because it believes that bombing is not enough, that there hasn't been enough bombing. It's a group that considers the CIA too weak. It's a group now being resisted by forces positioned short of the extreme Right, like the State Department, and yes, even the CIA.

Senator John McCain gave forceful expression to the Far Right-wingers last week. "War is a miserable business," he said. "Shed a tear, and then get on with the business of killing our enemies as quickly as we can, and as ruthlessly as we must." And stop doing it from the air, he said. McCain was a Navy pilot shot down in Vietnam and made prisoner of war; what he says the Pentagon and the military take seriously.

"No mountain is big enough, no cave deep enough to hide from the full fury of American power," McCain wrote in an article. The US "must change permanently the mindset of terrorists and those parts of Islamic populations who believe the terrorist conceit that they will prevail because America has not the stomach to wage a relentless, long-term and at times ruthless war to destroy them". Taliban soldiers will not come to the American side unless "a great many of their comrades have been killed by the US armed forces".

William Kristol, an influential leader in this group, feels the US is pursuing a flawed plan. The present American plan in Afghanistan has three things going wrong, he says. No ground troops, no confrontation with Iraq, and no alarm at home. "The result is no evident progress so far," he wrote in an article. Kristol said that "wishful thinking about air power has cost us seven weeks in which significant ground troops, not just Special Forces, could have been readied for action." The present strategy has meant that "we face the threat of Taliban's continuing in power through the winter", Kristol said".It would convey an impression of American weakness."

Within government, the great champions of this line of thinking are Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz."They are the neo-Cons (neo-Conservatives)," a senior diplomat said. "It's not just a few individuals you're talking about. They are placed all over the Pentagon in very influential positions." The 'neo-Cons' are said to follow the traditions of what came to be known in the seventies as Team B, a group of hardliners who had attacked the CIA for not seeing the Soviet threat as big as they thought it was. "They want to see the US backing a coalition of India and Israel finishing everyone else in between," the diplomat said. It's hardliners from the Team B school that backed the Vietnam war and who are now asking for ground troops in Afghanistan.

Opposing the hardliners are Secretary of State Colin Powell and the State Department. "What you have here are enormous differences within a narrow group," says Dennis. "You have a group that wants what they call limited bombing of the kind we've seen, and one that says we're not bombing enough." But after Biden's speech last week there is no longer a dominant proponent in Washington of the view that the bombing should stop altogether, she said. Several leaders have expressed their doubts privately but few are now prepared to go public with their opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan.

The future of action will depend largely on what kind of intelligence the Americans get, analysts say. The lack of it has frustrated the military. Brigadier Roger Lane, commander of the Royal Marines, told the bbc he would not send his troops into Afghanistan until "suitable targets have been identified". Lane said: "We do not want to be too hasty. We need to be right." The only military operation carried out by US Special Forces so far led to a parachute drop on a deserted airfield and a return within a few hours because there was no information to go on.

"The forces were told they would be able to kidnap spiritual leader Mullah Omar," M.J. Gohel of the Asia Pacific Foundation told Outlook. "When they landed they couldn't find him. Washington is beginning to realise it made a big blunder in putting so much faith in Pakistan's isi." Another major blow was the ex-mujahid Abdul Haq's death, caught and killed in a day. "Only the CIA and the ISI knew his whereabouts," Gohel said.

It is telling that the US is not offering any details on casualties or targets hit in the continuous bombing. "A command control centre they say they've taken out usually means a hut with a phone that did not work," says Gohel. These failures are now beginning to haunt Washington. The department of defence is under strong pressure from the White House to show results.

For now, both Rumsfeld and Powell have indicated that they will not stop the bombing for the Ramzan period beginning mid-November. General Musharraf had asked for this. But the US administration is under strong pressure from hawks and the media to produce at least some successes against the Taliban before the winter sets in. Also, there seems little guarantee that the Northern Alliance will succeed.

"The US is finding itself in a situation where it has to rely solely on technological intelligence without getting anything credible from the ground," a diplomat said."In the absence of such intelligence, it will be difficult to succeed from the air and disastrous to try to succeed with ground forces." The US State Department had earlier counselled subversive and diplomatic moves to get bin Laden. That view was brushed away under the weight of the militaristic right.The Far Right now wants to see massive troops on the ground in Afghanistan. This isn't Vietnam yet, but if they have their way, the US could be headed there.
- Copyright Outlook India