Assessing the War

I‘m not sure I was quite prepared for the question from Leslie Dutton, host of a Los Angeles-area public-affairs program called “Full Disclosure” that taped last week. (The program, which is independently produced on a shoestring and distributed to cable networks on public access, just won a Local Emmy for Informational/Public Affairs Series for a series of conversation with former LA Police Chief Bernard Parks and others on the local aspects of the war on terror, in competition with all the big commercial and PBS stations – a real Cinderella story. But I digress.)

“How is the war going from your perspective as a skeptic?” she asked. I hemmed and hawed and talked about the difficulty of defining objectives when the rhetoric is so broad. When she pressed me, I gave it a “3” on a scale of 1 through 10, but I’m not sure I would defend that assessment without qualifications.

The problem is that our leaders really haven’t been terribly specific when it comes to U.S. objectives in the glorious war on terrorism. I’m almost afraid to believe that President Bush thought he was being specific and realistic when he said the goal was to wipe out international terrorism (and sometimes hinted that this was an even more ambitious mission to eradicate evil). And to be fair, he warned early on that this was likely to be a long mission in which not all the battles would be seen on television. But such broad statements don’t give the would-be analyst or assessor much help.


The war on terrorism doesn’t even offer much insight into what the United States’ overarching foreign policy goals are in this post-Soviet era. When George W. came to office, it is likely that he had no particular foreign policy in mind to replace the sometimes drifting, sometimes focused (on nation-building and punishing agreed-upon bad guys like Slobodan Milosevic) policy that characterized the Clinton era.

Insofar as he was pressed, he rejected nation-building as something of a fool’s errand (read the recent Cato Institute book by that name to have the notion validated). During the first months of his presidency he exhibited a strong reluctance to become closely involved in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, having seen President Clinton get burned during his frenetic search for a legacy. If there was any policy there, it seemed roughly one of encouraging international trade and talking vaguely about the importance of keeping the United States strong and focused. Sort of an Empire Lite.

Now, of course, he has fashioned his own blueprint for the Middle East and doesn’t demur when State Department spokespeople rush to reassure various interested parties that we are in for the long haul, we really are this time, in Afghanistan. The U.S. always commits less in the way of foreign aid, troops, “peacekeepers” and the like than the more enthusiastic members of the “international community” say we should, but this reluctance doesn’t seem to be based on any firm principle or policy.


Lacking a real sense of policy, we are left to judge by the actions the United States has undertaken in pursuit of at least reducing the terrorist threat, and to some extent inferring the policies behind the actions from the not always entirely coherent statements of policymakers.

Thus the attack on the Taliban regime, from the presumed perspective of U.S. policymakers, has to be judged a military success to some extent, with the political outcome still very much in question. One can question whether it was really necessary to engage in a full-scale military war aimed at ousting the Taliban regime. However odious the regime, there was little hard evidence that it had been actively or knowingly involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11 – although there seems to be little question that it aided and abetted Osama bin Laden’s organization with at least a general idea that the organization’s purpose was to carry out terrorist activities aimed at the West and especially at the United States.

Given the assumption that going after al Qaida effectively required displacing the Taliban regime, however, the United States accomplished that in less time than most experts would have predicted. To be sure, it did so mainly by making an alliance of convenience with the pre-existing Northern Alliance, a decision that has had and will continue to have political repercussions, not all of them pleasant. But from a strictly military standpoint, the aid to the Northern Alliance fighters seems to have been delivered fairly effectively. Whether the attacks actually weakened the Taliban military capability or simply exposed the Taliban as something of a toothless tiger will be a matter for military historians to determine – or perhaps simply to debate.


The political aftermath of the military victory, however, has been mixed in character – although it is prudent to note that many of the implications will not be clear for years. Hamid Karzai, who emerged as a temporary leader and is now Afghanistan’s president for the near future, is an attractive figure with some potential. But he has not been able to unite all factions or cool down regional fighting among contending warlords. It is still generally accepted that the authority of the central government thins considerably once you get to the outskirts of Kabul.

The response of the “international community” has been in part to promise to build the power of a central Afghan army and in general to establish the kind of powerful centralized state most Europeans have come to believe is virtually the only way a government can be organized. But there’s little question that this would require a years-long commitment in both military and foreign aid – and the outcome is uncertain.

Thus the initial promise from President Bush and other administration leaders that we wouldn’t be indulging in “nation-building” in Afghanistan has gone by the boards. The full extent of the American commitment is still to be determined, but it is likely to continue at some level of expenditure in both blood and treasure for years to come. Insofar as aid and support from the U.S. and other countries provides a cushion that gives Afghans “permission” to take full responsibility for solving their own problems – as happens almost everywhere there is concerted aid – the effort might actually delay the development of an indigenous government with some degree of stability.


Meantime, the major goal of the Afghan campaign, capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, is still on the “to do” list. I’m not qualified to judge the ins and outs of the tactics employed – whether it would have been better to use massive numbers of U.S. troops during the Tora Bora campaign rather than relying on surrogate Afghan fighters, for instance. Perhaps a quieter campaign using special forces rather than massive bombing – which has led to civilian casualties, most recently this week, and growing ambivalence among Afghans – would have gotten Osama. Perhaps not.

Whether the United States employed the best of all possible strategies, the best available to it given the circumstances, or a deeply flawed strategy, however, the campaign has utterly failed in its main mission of getting Osama bin Laden. That’s a failure. Few Americans are willing to be especially public in criticizing the administration effort, but I sense (admittedly rather unscientifically) a certain amount of disillusionment and loss of interest among ordinary Americans.

We won’t know for certain for months or years, of course, but it is also possible that by attacking al Qaida outposts and camps in Afghanistan and forcing the fighters to disperse, the United States may have created a more dangerous enemy over the long run. Perhaps the campaign has broken the back of the terrorist network, at least for now. But the strength of al Qaida always lay in part in its decentralized character. If it has become even more decentralized without losing the capacity to organize acts and the motivation to continue, it could develop into a hydra-headed monster whose new character we will come to regret seriously.

Regarding the Osama bin Laden-al Qaida network, then, the campaign has been largely a failure.


It is also almost impossible for an outsider to gauge the ultimate result of the campaign to break up al Qaida’s financial tentacles. Bank accounts have been closed. Putatively charitable organizations suspected of serving as fronts for activities by al Qaida and other terrorist groups have been raided and in most cases had records seized and assets frozen.

In the process, the government has alienated some Muslim-Americans, of course, and done some damage to the civil liberties of all Americans, who have an ongoing stake in the concept of innocent-’til-proven guilty, however esoteric it may now seem to enthusiastic war-whoopers. And it is almost impossible for an American without heavy-duty inside connections to judge whether the campaign has been effective at disrupting those who are really funding terrorists.

It is possible, after all, that the investigative agencies that failed to connect the dots prior to September 11 have gone after essentially innocent organizations and missed the real key players. So the campaign to disrupt the financial and organizational underpinnings of the international terrorist network may well have been successful, but it’s much too early to start handing out medals. And the same caveat applies here that applies to the al Qaida action network. By forcing the funding efforts to become more decentralized and clandestine, the government may have inadvertently made them more effective and dangerous.


Finally (for now) one almost has to judge the determination to do something – “regime change” seems to be the mildest term – to drive Saddam Hussein out of power in Iraq has to be considered, at least at this point, a diversion and a setback in the overall effort to reduce the threat of terrorism in the world. I’ll give the neocon devils their due and entertain the possibility that over the long haul eliminating Saddam just might be the hunky-doriest step possible, the key to regional stability and the eventual neutralization of state support for terrorist activities. But up to now, the fixation on eliminating Saddam as the next essential step has been, from the standpoint of those running the war, at least a disappointment and quite likely a failure.

For starters, after all this time the intelligence services still have not established a direct link between Iraq and the events of September 11. We may or may not have that meeting in Prague between Mohammad Atta and an Iraqi spy type, but nobody has explicated, or even theorized persuasively, as to the significance of that meeting in the September 11 scheme. Unless something a lot more concrete is developed – and Lord knows a lot of people have tried without success so far – the United States is essentially left without a casus belli against Iraq, aside from the fact that Saddam is a repugnant dictator and Bush fils might feel better about redeeming the failure of Bush père to take him out when the goal seemed in reach.

I’m constantly amazed at the number of Americans, especially those who become talking heads, who consider the notion that there should be a concrete justification for attacking another country to be so odd as not to be worthy of consideration. But without a defensible reason for attacking Iraq, the effort will be weaker than it might have been, and ultimately will come to seem cynical to more Americans than are generally identified by standard polling techniques. Part of believing that your country is good and worthy of support is the idea that it defends the defenseless rather than going around attacking people for essentially imperialistic or cynical reasons. An attack on Iraq with little concrete justification will undermine America’s sense of itself as a good country – not right away, perhaps, but eventually.


The other way the fixation with Iraq has weakened the campaign against terrorism is by getting the United States more deeply involved in the tar baby of international conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab dispute. You can trace the rationale: to attack Saddam the U.S. will need Arab allies (or Arabs willing to stand by without too much criticism) and the price of Arab cooperation is movement toward a separate Palestinian state.

I have my own doubts, of course, as to whether the oligarchs of Saudi Arabia – or Jordan or Syria – really desire a democratic, effective and peaceful Palestinian state more or less right next door. But that’s what they say they want in public and the U.S. has taken them at their word. So the administration has tried to appear balanced without shifting too much from the core policy of supporting Israel. President Dubya has even outlined his very own peace plan.

Not only has all this frenetic activity diverted attention from the still-difficult task of trying to figure out where the terrorists are and where they might want to strike next, it is almost surely doomed to failure. The roots of that conflict are simply too deep to be pulled out by Colin Powell and George W. Bush. After a flurry of enthusiasm among administration supporters, the Bush plan is receiving considerable criticism. One may hope against hope that it actually does lead to negotiations and stability, but one wouldn’t want to bet a piece of swampland – let alone the farm – on it.

But the administration has essentially bet the farm on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If it fails, the rationale for increasing U.S. involvement, the effort to get an Arab ally or two in the anti-Saddam crusade – virtually collapses with it. The United States still might be able to go it alone in an attack on Iraq, but it would obviously like some local support from some country other than Israel.

On a larger scale, however, the desire to attack Iraq has not only created a dangerous diversion into Middle Eastern diplomacy, it has diverted attention away from serious intelligence and counter-terrorist activities against groups that might really pose an immediate or short-term threat. That failure leaves Americans much less safe than they might otherwise be, and represents a setback – if the real goal is to reduce terrorist activities.

Maybe a 3 is generous.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).