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Slow to Anger

The battle over how to fight the war.

As well as bombs and food, American aircraft have been dropping leaflets over Afghanistan that say, "The partnership of Nations is here to assist the People of Afghanistan." It's unclear how many Afghans have been convinced their welfare is the primary aim of America's war. But the propaganda is certainly winning hearts and minds at the State Department, which has been busy plotting Afghanistan's political destiny. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who has been mapping out the "eventual shape" of Afghanistan, instructs that "the Afghan experience seems to show that when government is roughly a loose federation, it seems to work best, with a very high degree of local autonomy." Colin Powell has even mused that Taliban officials might play a useful role. Now there's nothing wrong with planning ahead. But, increasingly, that planning is interfering with—and impeding—America's war aims. Nowhere is this more evident than on the plain north of Kabul, which, until recently, the State Department's logic had transformed into a bed-and-breakfast for weary Taliban fighters. "We're trying to fight a war here," complains a senior Pentagon official, "and [State Department appointees] are talking about loya jirgas, why we shouldn't hit certain Taliban units, and what Pashtuns like to eat for breakfast."

Two weeks ago State Department officials didn't want the bombing to begin at all—arguing it should wait for the outlines of a future Afghan government to come into place. Then they insisted that the U.S. air campaign spare Taliban forces arrayed against the Northern Alliance, so the rebels couldn't advance on the capital. And now Colin Powell, Policy Planning director Richard Haass, and Haass's deputy, Clinton holdover Donald Steinberg—who, according to sources at the State Department, have elbowed aside the more conservative Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Christina Rocca—argue that the United States should effectively prolong the war until America can cobble together a coalition to rule Afghanistan. Far from sharing the military's aim of "eviscerating" the Taliban, their worst fear is that it will fall too quickly.

The concern is that if the minority-dominated Northern Alliance takes Kabul, its members may revert to killing one another, and the Pashtun tribes of Southern Afghanistan might revolt, plunging the country back into chaos. "[The Northern Alliance] is incapable of running Afghanistan," says a State Department official, "and, frankly, we don't trust them to stay put if nothing stands between them and Kabul." UN secretary general Kofi Annan has emphasized the point in almost daily telephone conversations with Powell, who, in turn, has emphasized it to President Bush. A second, but less important, rationale for keeping the Northern Alliance out of Kabul derives from the need to keep a lid on Pakistan, whose dictator, Pervez Musharraf, insists a Northern Alliance victory would return Afghanistan to "anarchy, atrocities, and criminal killings." (In truth, Musharraf objects to the Northern Alliance because of its ties to India.) Both are legitimate concerns. The question is, are they so urgent that the war should be put on hold?

Oddly enough, the logic of defeating our adversaries by not defeating our adversaries briefly found a willing audience at the Pentagon as well. But it wasn't the State Department's logic. Senior officers involved in the war's planning supported temporarily exempting frontline Taliban positions not in the name of diplomacy or regional stability, but for purely operational reasons. The principal one being this: Pentagon officials believe the majority of Al Qaeda operatives have sought refuge in Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan. Were the mostly Uzbek and Tajik fighters of the Northern Alliance to take Kabul quickly, military planners fear the Pashtun would rally around the Taliban and Al Qaeda, making the task of hunting them down even more risky and daunting than it already is. They also claim that a chaotic Afghanistan would make it more, not less, difficult to locate the terrorists harbored in its midst. Finally, Pentagon officials hope that defections from northern Taliban positions will provide the United States much-needed intelligence—and dead Taliban won't be very helpful in this regard.

BUT THAT’S WHERE the similarities between the Pentagon and State Department positions end. Far from opposing close collaboration with the Northern Alliance, American military commanders have already benefited from the opposition's tactical intelligence and have no objection to it taking Kabul—particularly as no other force can, and the United States certainly won't—once U.S. troops have assaulted Al Qaeda strongholds in the South. "We would like to see them heave the Al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership ... out of that country," says Donald Rumsfeld, who insists that "the Afghan people are going to have to sort out which among the opposition groups will have what role in a post-Taliban Afghanistan."

In fact, the Pentagon has been encouraging the Northern Alliance to move aggressively. For, according to senior defense officials, the true problem with the Northern Alliance isn't that it will take Kabul too quickly; it's that it might not be able to take it at all. "The idea that, once we bomb, they're going to drive unopposed into Kabul is ludicrous," seethes one Pentagon official. "They still have to get into the city, and that's going to take time." At the National Security Council, too, a review completed this week concluded that the United States should accelerate its efforts to oust the Taliban. The State Department, by contrast, didn't want the path to Kabul cleared until progress had been made toward the formation of a coalition government—a process that could take weeks, and which thus far has gone exactly nowhere.

There are, to be sure, wartime measures the United States can take to promote post-war stability. The insistence on not attacking bridges and electricity grids, the sluggish and exquisitely calibrated air campaign, the parade of American diplomats courting the former Afghan king—all testify to the imperative of keeping the country's infrastructure intact.

But exempting Taliban troops from bombardment took that imperative too far. Reporting from Afghanistan, Washington Post correspondent Peter Baker noted: "The Taliban has been so confident that the United States would not strike front-line positions that every night it moves troops there from the city to protect them." Those units, which, according to the latest estimates, have been reinforced by 7,000 troops, consist largely of Arab fighters recruited by bin Laden—and, as such, offer exactly the sort of target the air campaign was meant to destroy.

Doing that, however, hardly settles the question of Kabul, which is still the object of furious debate within the administration. That's because the clock is ticking on this war. In exactly one month winter arrives in Afghanistan and, with it, the impossibility of launching an offensive against Kabul from the North. One administration official suggests the Northern Alliance could seize the northern city of Mazar-e-sharif and advance on Kabul in the spring—and, in fact, U.S. air strikes have deliberately encouraged the opposition's advance toward Mazar-e-sharif. But letting the Taliban hang on to Kabul through the winter would amount to a huge, and entirely unnecessary, defeat for the United States. In exactly one month, too, Ramadan arrives, which could ignite a public explosion in the region if American operations continue. Already, televised images of civilian casualties and a steady stream of Taliban propaganda have stirred the pot next door in Pakistan. Hence the very same Pakistani officials who have been urging America to disown the Northern Alliance have also been insisting we conclude the war quickly. But they can't have it both ways, and neither can we.

President Bush has declared that the "mission is defined, [the] objectives are clear." Yet the debate over what follows the Taliban has obscured those objectives. Indeed the war increasingly seems to be about the very catchphrase that candidate Bush insisted had muddled our missions in Bosnia and Kosovo: nation-building. The merits of that practice notwithstanding, in the Balkans the building took place after the war, not during it. Alas, the certainty that the United States can eject the Taliban whenever it pleases has led the Bush team to reverse the order. The resulting elevation of Afghanistan's best interests over America's wartime imperatives isn't only hubris; it's disingenuous. For behind the State Department's moral posturing is a crude realism, brought to us by the same Metternichs who, in the name of "stability," insisted that we not upset the Iraqi order during the Gulf war—and who now apply the same argument to Afghanistan.

But this isn't the Gulf war. It's a war fought in self-defense. And the preoccupation with secondary and tertiary aims, coupled with the absence of a clear intent to destroy the instrument of aggression, plainly undercuts its effectiveness. If Foggy Bottom intends to rebuild Afghanistan, fine. But first things first. A stable Afghanistan, after all, isn't the point of this war. A stable America is. And, more than anything else, Americans need a victory.

This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.