Heightened Contradictions

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Oct. 16 2001 3:00 AM

Heightened Contradictions

As Week 2 of the war in Afghanistan unfolds, the contradictions within President Bush's policy have attained an unsettling clarity. On the one hand, to maintain the support of Muslim states, and to keep anti-American animus in those states from overflowing, the administration needs to end the war quickly. But the Muslim state at the center of its alliance—Pakistan—doesn't want America to do the thing that could end the war most quickly: help the Northern Alliance take Kabul.   

Pakistan's lobbying isn't the only reason American planes have avoided bombing Taliban forces north of Kabul. The administration itself is worried about handing too much control over Afghanistan to the Northern Alliance, since it doesn't include the nation's largest ethnicity, the Pashtun. Before giving the alliance the green light, Bush wants to set up an orderly succession to a stable, multiethnic government. But so far the parties to such a succession haven't been able to agree on much of anything. 

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

In sum: We want to win this war fast, but not too fast; we want a collapse of Taliban authority, but a graceful collapse followed by a finely orchestrated succession that, unfortunately, shows no signs of materializing. So, for now we'll just bide our time, dropping more bombs from 15,000 feet while the Muslim world gets steadily more enraged.

It may have reached the point where those bombs are actually assets for the Taliban. With most "high-value" targets already vaporized, the ongoing destruction is of diminishing strategic utility. Meanwhile, every couple of days a bomb kills civilians, providing a PR windfall that the Taliban has finally mustered the presence of mind to exploit: The evil Western media, after being banished from the country, are being brought back for guided tours. Henceforth images of dead Muslim children will be broadcast in Muslim nations ad nauseam. And already, according to this morning's Washington Post, things are getting dicey in Pakistan, where killing demonstrators is becoming routine and anti-American sentiment is spreading well beyond fundamentalists.

The bombings are reinforcing a stereotype not just of American brutality, but of cowardly American brutality. In his Sept. 20 address to Congress, Bush vowed that this war would "not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago, where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in combat." But so far it looks exactly like that: rich Americans dropping bombs from outer space, while—whoops!—every once in a while a poverty-stricken family gets blown up. Oh, and, sorry about the ongoing disruption of relief supplies to millions of starving Afghanis. (Have you tried the vinaigrette dressing sitting in the middle of that minefield 40 miles from here?)

I'm not saying ground troops are the answer. In fact, the conspicuous introduction of American ground troops could be the straw that breaks Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's back. And I'm not saying we should set out to create American casualties. But letting our planes fly lower, and using attack helicopters even in the face of Stinger anti-aircraft weapons, would have benefits well beyond proving our manhood. [Update: Hours after this piece was posted, newspapers reported that the United States is using low-flying AC-130 gunships in Afghanistan. More evidence of the Earthling's growing influence in Washington policy circles!]

First, it would help us more surgically and thoroughly annihilate those components of the Taliban army that are loyal to Osama Bin Laden. Second, by getting down and dirty, we would send a message to all those Taliban forces that were initially thinking of defecting but have since found that a war fought from 15,000 feet is eminently survivable. Defection would again seem attractive.

Oh—I forgot: Massive Taliban defections to the Northern Alliance might lead to victory, and we don't want victory just yet!  

I'm not belittling the contradictions that afflict this campaign. They're real. Handing Kabul to the Northern Alliance might be just as likely to send Pakistan over the edge as dragging out this war is—and it might also lead Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan to rally 'round the Taliban. But shouldn't these contradictions have been foreseen? Weren't they inherent in the administration's strategy from the beginning?

Administration officials might reply that, no, we just ran into some bad luck: Afghanistan's factions have proved stubborn, so the succession plan has stalled. But suppose that a clear succession plan was already established, systematically allocating influence among the factions. How strong an incentive would the Northern Alliance then have to take Kabul, given that taking it would no longer expand the alliance's influence?

It's a hard trade-off to get around: The more the post-war distribution of power is predetermined, the harder it is to motivate proxy forces to fight a war for you—especially when the post-war arrangements are designed expressly to limit the power of the proxy forces.

Before this war started, I spent much time stressing the downside of military intervention. If you're wondering why a skeptic of war now sounds like a hawk, it's because the downside I stressed is the intensification of hatred in the Muslim world—which will have fallout years down the road, in the form of terrorism, even if regimes like Pakistan's survive for now. And since this inflammation is widening on a daily basis (it has now led to lethal riots and brisk Osama Bin Laden T-shirt sales in Nigeria), the worst kind of war, it seems to me, is the kind we're fighting: one prosecuted at a casual pace. But I could be wrong. God knows the geopolitical situation is more complicated than I had realized in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. And I don't think I'm the only one who underestimated its complexities. 

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