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Halt Afghan Bombing

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