Letter From Ground Zero: November 1, 2001

Letter From Ground Zero: November 1, 2001

Letter From Ground Zero: November 1, 2001

Politics govern the increasingly difficult war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.


Hawk and dove agree: The war in Afghanistan is not going well. Hawks point to the resilience of the Taliban, which has "surprised" Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem by not collapsing yet. Doves point to the suffering of the civilian population, who face American bombing, Taliban repression and the prospect of mass starvation all at the same time. The problem goes deeper, however, than the unexpected toughness of the foe and stray bombs. It lies in an underlying contradiction in US policy. In a word, the Administration's military policy is at odds with its political policy. And in a war on terrorism–as distinct from a war on a state–it is politics, not military force, that will probably decide the outcome. For it is politics that will determine the size of the terrorist groups' most important asset, namely their pool of available recruits; it is politics that will decide how many countries will actively participate in the international police effort that must be the backbone of any global antiterrorism campaign; and it is politics that will decide how long support for the war will last in public opinion, including opinion on the home fronts.

To understand what is going wrong and why, we must look back at the origins of the war and its declared objectives. They were to uproot the networks of terrorists that sponsored the September 11 attacks, and, more particularly, to capture the alleged leader of those networks, Osama bin Laden. In the weeks leading up to the bombing, let us recall, a debate on strategy was conducted within the Administration and in the press. At issue was the scope of the war. Should it be extended beyond Afghanistan–perhaps to Iraq? The decision was to restrict it to Afghanistan, at least for the time being. Was it necessary to overthrow the Taliban regime–could the terrorist networks be attacked with the Taliban in place? This question was perhaps more extensively debated than any other. One problem was that terrorist groups were located in as many as fifty countries, not in Afghanistan alone. Another problem was that if you overthrew the Taliban, you would have to install another government–an undertaking that would constitute nation-building, which Bush had promised to avoid. Nor had the issue been publicly resolved when the bombing began. As noted in an earlier week on this page, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's articulation of American goals–to "create conditions for sustained antiterrorist action and humanitarian relief"–was surprisingly unambitious. There was no mention of overthrowing the Taliban, not to speak of any vow to create a substitute regime.

And yet as the bombing proceeded, it gradually became clear that overthrowing the Taliban was, after all, a goal of policy. Rumsfeld went as far as to remark that it might not be possible for the United States to capture bin Laden at all. On the other hand, he noted, overthrowing the Taliban was something that was within our power. The United States at that moment seemed to have abandoned what it wanted to do in favor of what it could do. A twofold strategy emerged. Its first goal was to support the Taliban's enemies, the Northern Alliance. Unfortunately, the Alliance members, most of whom belong to Uzbek and Tajik ethnic minorities, had misgoverned the country in the early 1990s. Accordingly, it was thought necessary to foster resistance to the Taliban among the dominant, Pashtun ethnic group in the south. The hope was that the Pashtun southerners–among whom the repressive Taliban were widely unpopular–would seize the opportunity of the US bombing to rebel. Then a coalition of anti-Taliban northerners and anti-Taliban southerners would ally to create a government friendly to the United States, whose military efforts could then cease.

This hope has been dashed by events. The bombing, far from prompting an anti-Taliban rebellion has, according to all reports, rallied popular support to the previously hated regime. Rarely has the destruction of political opportunity by military action been more clearly displayed. The extent of the reversal was revealed when Pakistan, under US direction, organized a meeting of anti-Taliban Afghan leaders. They promptly issued a call for a halt in the bombing–not, we must suppose, the reaction the United States was looking for. The change in political climate was further illustrated by the case of the Pashtun leader Abdul Haq, who entered the country from Pakistan to launch a rebellion but instead was captured and executed by the Taliban. There had in any case been something unreal about the expectation that the Taliban–more a social movement than a government–would collapse. "What is a government?" The Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Abdul Sattar, shrewdly inquired. "It has organs, it introduces a certain discipline in a country. But the government has simply ceased to exist in Afghanistan…. so it's not a matter of supplanting a state; it's a matter of rebuilding one from scratch." The Taliban was not, he said, "something that can be destroyed right away, because the government doesn't exist, in a way."

In response to these disappointments, many commentators have suggested, in effect, that a political strategy should be dispensed with altogether. Military victory alone will do. In the words of Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, the goal of US policy now should be solely "destroying Al Qaeda and the Taliban" with military force. What comes after, he writes, is "an interesting problem. But it comes after." Senator John McCain called for heavier bombing and the introduction of ground troops.

These recommendations have the virtue of being practicable. The United States can unquestionably defeat the Taliban in a ground war and occupy Afghanistan. But politics will not disappear because it has been ignored. The state that is already missing in Afghanistan will still be missing. The Taliban and Al Qaeda will certainly remain as an underground force, exacting a steady price from the occupying armies. The English governed Northern Ireland for a quarter-century without being able to stop the terrorism there. And yet the cost of ending an occupation without creating a new government would be equally high, for there is no reason to suppose that Afghanistan, embittered by military defeat and foreign occupation, would not, once free of the occupier, return to its old ways of tolerating and supporting terrorism. Meanwhile, occupation of a Muslim country by US forces would be an outrage to Muslim opinion and a recruiting poster for terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East, which would almost certainly gain in strength. The United States can win the war in Afghanistan, but only at the cost of losing its war on terrorism.

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