Halt Afghan Bombing

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In
the Green Berets with John Wayne, the Duke leads an elite strike
force far behind enemy lines to seize an enemy general and bring
him back for interrogation. That was fiction, but in the early days
of the "war on terrorism" with all the emphasis on Special
Forces and covert operations, the White House led us to believe
that something very similar was in the making. Special Forces would
swoop in, capture Bin Laden and bring him back to the US for trial.
Justice would be quick, there would be not a single civilian casualty
and the US military would be the envy of the world.

Meanwhile
US diplomacy would help put together a grand coalition of anti-government
Afghan rebels, led by the deposed King Zahir Shah that would force
the Taliban to share power and ensure that terrorists could not
openly operate from Afghan soil.

That
was the military and diplomatic "best case" that many
of us hoped the White House was working to implement in the few
weeks following September 11.

Unfortunately,
it is not turning out like that at all. The US doesn't have a clue
where Bin Laden is hiding, so the US military has begun and continues
a bombing campaign which looks to continue until winter sets in.
As for civilian casualties, we have no idea how many direct casualties
have resulted from American bombs, but humanitarian groups working
in Afghanistan say the war has resulted in as many as 2 million
additional refugees, as Afghans flee the cities. Unless food and
other aid can be rushed into Afghanistan, it is expected that tens
of thousands of innocent civilians will die of exposure and malnutrition
this winter.

President
Bush has often pointed out that the Afghan people are not the enemy,
but it is Afghans civilians who are suffering the brunt of the War
in Afghanistan, and their deaths will result indirectly from a failed
US military policy, which seems to be "just keep bombing until
they cry uncle."

Unfortunately
for the United States (and as the Soviets learned the hard way)
Afghans are some of the toughest opponents on earth and they are
unlikely to cry uncle from US bombing.

The
US right now seems to be following the same strategy is pursued
against Serbia: bomb, bomb, bomb. In the war against Serbia, too,
the US refused to commit attack helicopters because they might have
been vulnerable to ground fire. Instead the US opted to bomb from
high altitude. So high in fact that pilots often did not know what
they were really shooting at. American pilots in Serbia on more
than one occasion attacked civilians thinking they were military.

During
the Kosovo war the Pentagon believed it had destroyed hundreds of
armored vehicles, but after the war it was discovered that the air
strikes had taken out only a handful. The Serbian tanks were hidden
and cardboard and plywood targets were set out for the US to bomb,
and expend millions of dollars of ordinance to destroy a cardboard
box.

It's
beginning to look as though the Afghan policy will be exactly the
same, do not send in ground forces or even attack helicopters which
could actually attack battlefield positions, because the US might
lose a helicopter or some soldiers. Just keep bombing from high
altitude until they give in.

Even
if that strategy worked with Serbia (which is far from clear), it
certainly won't work with Afghanistan. Serbia was a relatively well
developed country with factories and well developed infrastructure
that was vulnerable to attack. In contrast Afghanistan has no factories,
no bridges, very little of what could be called infrastructure.
It is pretty much true that the US can't bomb Afghanistan back to
the stone age because they are already there. So what is this constant
US bombing really going to accomplish?

If
you have attack helicopters and attack aircraft like the low flying
A-10 it is fairly easy to take out an enemy's armored vehicles when
they are on the move. It is much harder to take out individual soldiers
scattered around in bunkers and foxholes. In Kuwait the US bombed
Iraqi positions for a month, and while most of their armor was destroyed
there were relatively light casualties among infantry units. They
simply went into underground bunkers and waited out the attack.

That
is not a new phenomenon in war. At the Battle of the Somme in World
War I, the British brought in millions of artillery shells and kept
up a constant bombardment of the German lines for weeks. The Brits
thought there would be nothing left of the Germans but the huge
barrage resulted in relatively few casualties, because the Germans
just went underground and waited for the artillery to end and the
ground attack to begin.

So
the US may be able to destroy the Taliban's meager air force and
armor, but they have almost nothing in that regard anyway. The primary
strength of the Afghan army is the infantry, and dispersed infantry
has never been particularly vulnerable to air or artillery. When
American aircraft come overhead infantry will just go into bunkers
and come out once the bombing ends. Hence the bombing campaign is
unlikely to accomplish much of anything in terms of real military
objectives.

At
the beginning of the war Bush was widely praised for saying that
the US was not going to be using million dollar ordinance to blow
up a camel (the way the Clinton administration did). Yet as the
war progresses and fewer and fewer targets are left, the military
seems to be bombing empty "training camps" and such.

So
if bombing is ineffective or even counter-productive (because it
is costing civilian lives) what can the US do? It can do what it
did successfully against the Soviets, support the resistance. So
far, the US seems to have been unsure if it even wanted to directly
support the Northern Alliance. That is because Pakistan is not friendly
with them, but the US has got to find a alliance of resistance fighters
and support them, if it there is any chance of getting rid of the
Taliban regime. Air strikes are not going to topple them, and even
if the US had the will to commit a large contingent of ground forces,
the US military could take the cities, but would be tied down just
like the Soviets were with Afghan guerrillas controlling the countryside.

Unless
the US can pinpoint Bin Laden or his top lieutenants and sweep in
John Wayne style, the US should avoid any ground troops at all.
That would only make the situation worse. But a commitment to arming
the resistance (perhaps backed by close air support) could eventually
make a difference. It won't be quick. Even after the Soviet withdrawal
it took the Afghans more than 2 years to finally get rid of the
Communist regime.

Finally,
the US has got to be willing to negotiate with the Taliban. Afghans
are not known for their willingness to compromise, but the American
"surrender or else" ultimatums are not conducive to achieving
anything diplomatically. With enough pressure and a face saving
way out, the Taliban might be willing to compromise, but they certainly
will not respond to the type of unconditional surrender ultimatums
they have been given thus far.

October
20, 2001

Paul
Clark (send him mail)
is Director of Coalition for Local Sovereignty (www.localsov.com),
a veteran of the Gulf War and also worked with the mujahadin in
Afghanistan.

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