April 7, 2002
WAR ON TERROR AT DIFFICULT STAGE
Military effort hailed at 6-month mark, but what comes next?
By GEORGE E. CONDON JR. and OTTO KREISHER
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – Six months after the first American bomb lit up
the night skies over Kabul, the war in Afghanistan has become
the longest-running U.S. combat operation since Vietnam.
A generation accustomed to quick wars fought from afar with
high-tech weaponry has been introduced to cave-by-cave
fighting, pitched battles with zealous combatants who refuse to
surrender and a vague sense of what constitutes success.
President Bush launched this operation on a bright autumn day
Oct. 7 with a seven-minute address to the nation from the Treaty Room of the White House. To the military he promised that "your mission is defined, your objectives are clear, your goal is just."
Six months later, the military has achieved much of what it was
asked to do by Bush. But neither the goals nor the objectives are clear as the administration plots the next steps in a broader war against terrorism that the president has warned could take many years to complete.
And the diplomatic, political and military challenges of that next
phase have never seemed more daunting, with the growing
chaos in the Middle East complicating U.S. strategic planning.
Judging the progress thus far is difficult because neither Bush
nor his top advisers have been specific in defining U.S. goals.
In his Oct. 7 speech, Bush said the military operations were
"designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban
On that score, the battlefield successes are quite obvious, as the terrorists clearly were disrupted and the Taliban stripped of
military capability. As a bonus, those successes provided
heartwarming pictures of women shedding their hated burqas,
men giddily shaving off their beards and families retrieving
recordings of music that had been banned by the Taliban.
The failures have been less obvious, as funding avenues remain
open to finance future terrorism, fugitives elude capture and
bureaucrats squabble over air and border security measures.
The most glaring of these has been the record of capturing the
terrorist leaders. At the top of the list, of course, are Osama bin
Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and
Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, both of whom
appear nowhere to be found.
Then there's the FBI's list of 22 "most-wanted terrorists" that
Bush unveiled Oct. 10. "They must be found, they will be
stopped, and they will be punished," Bush said that day.
Today, 21 of the 22 remain free. Only Muhammad Atef, one of
bin Laden's most trusted lieutenants and a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, has been taken off the list. He was killed in a U.S. bombing strike at Kandahar.
Some key officials not on the most-wanted list also have been
apprehended. Most recently, Abu Zubaydah, the al-Qaeda field
commander, was arrested recently in Pakistan. And officials
have said worldwide anti-terrorism efforts have thwarted other
attacks on U.S. interests, but have given few details.
Baker Spring, a national security analyst at the conservative
Heritage Foundation, warned that it is difficult to assess progress off the battlefield because "the other aspects of the global operation you can't see very well."
With so much of that work being done in the shadows, the Bush
White House prefers to shine the spotlight on the
accomplishments wrought by the military, while at the same
time urging patience.
That was especially true three weeks into the operation against
the ruling Taliban, a low point when allied bungling contributed
to the killing of opposition leader Abdul Haq. The Pentagon had
to backtrack after saying the enemy had been "eviscerated," and
CBS News opened a program with the question, "Has the war in
Afghanistan bogged down?"
But less than 10 days later, the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-e
Sharif fell and the Taliban forces were on the run. San
Diego-based Marines and Navy warships – along with the San
Diego-developed Predator and Global Hawk spy planes – were
instrumental defeating the Taliban.
A confident Gen. Tommy Franks, the Army general in charge of
the Afghan operation, has refused to be pinned down on goals or exit strategies, saying simply, "I think it'll be over when it's over."
Troops will leave, he said, "when the work is done." And he
defined that as "the destruction of terrorist networks with global
reach and those nations, in this case the Taliban, who harbor
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld contends the military is
making good progress on achieving that end.
"Many of our goals with regard to Afghanistan have been
accomplished," Rumsfeld said. "With our coalition partners,
we've planned and executed a military campaign that has
disrupted the use of Afghanistan as a base of operation for
terrorists and as a haven for training and various terrorist
Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton administration national security
aide now with the centrist Brookings Institution, credited the
Pentagon with a good start.
"I think we've done a major job," Daalder said. "We've removed
the Taliban, removed any training base for al-Qaeda, the chance
for al-Qaeda to resume training there."
But Rumsfeld, to a loud chorus of assent from independent
analysts, also cautioned that much remains to be done in
Afghanistan before the initial military victory is secure. That
caution is underscored by evidence that al-Qaeda and Taliban
forces are trying to regroup and possibly wage a guerrilla war
against U.S. forces and the interim Afghan government.
Reports that many of those forces fled the eastern mountains
during the U.S.-led assault know as Operation Anaconda have
been buttressed by the recent roundup of suspected al-Qaeda
and Taliban members by Pakistani authorities, with assistance
from the FBI.
Where Rumsfeld and the outside analysts part company is on the likelihood that the United States at this point can contemplate launching a major new offensive in the war on terror, such as the frequently threatened drive to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Outside the Pentagon, a consensus has developed that a strike
against Iraq is almost impossible any time soon because of the
ongoing strife in the Middle East between the Israelis and
Palestinians, and because the United States needs to be bolder in consolidating its gains in Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan, as remarkable it was, as difficult as it was, that part was the easy part," said Andrew Krepinevich, director of the
Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment and a frequent
adviser to Pentagon officials. "But I think Phase 2 in Afghanistan has given everyone pause."
Michael McFaul, a foreign policy expert with the Hoover
Institution at Stanford University, said U.S. hesitation on this
phase has severe consequences.
"We're not giving the same attention to the construction side of
the job as we did to the destruction part of the job," he said.
Daalder also criticized the effort to stabilize Afghanistan.
"We're doing a lousy job, trying to do it on the cheap, without
U.S. forces directly involved, and barring others from doing the
mission," Daalder said, referring to the administration's refusal
to join the international stabilization, or peacekeeping, force.
"Rumsfeld's decision to not expand the stabilizing force beyond
Kabul is disastrous," he added.
The interim government this past week said it foiled a plot to
topple the government, and intelligence sources have warned
that along with competing warlords, Iran is suspected of
fomenting trouble in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld has acknowledged that the U.S. commitment to
Afghanistan is open-ended – something that critics believe
probably precludes an attack on Iraq for the time being.
That reflects more concern about the United States gaining the
needed international backing than any doubts about the
capabilities of the Pentagon.
"Militarily, I'm very confident we can do it," said Michael
O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, adding
that "politically is a different story."
Daalder said: "I don't think we can afford to go after Iraq without at least the tacit support of our friends in the region. We're not going to get that support with the situation in the Middle East."
Krepinevich suggested the next phase could be easier targets
such as Somalia or Sudan. Both are "failed states and excellent
hosts for transnational terrorism," and both have past ties to bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Another potential concern for future operations is the need to
replenish some parts of the U.S. arsenal.
Some senior military leaders, including Adm. Robert Natter,
commander of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, have stated that the air
attacks in Afghanistan made a huge dent in the relatively small
store of the best precision-guided bomb – the JDAM, or Joint
Direct Attack Munition. Production of such weapons has been
Myers, while refusing to discuss numbers, insisted that "the
inventory is not depleted."
Nor is the ability of the U.S. military to continue expanding its
fight against terrorism, in Afghanistan and other hot spots
across the globe, Rumsfeld said.
"The United States of America is capable of doing that as long as it is necessary, and let there be no doubt," the defense secretary said.