Some Tentative Reflections on the War in Afghanistan

by Stanley Meisler

January 14, 2002

click aquí para versión en español

To make cold sense out of the events of last year, I have been trying to order some of my thoughts. The situation is so complex that it spawns at least a dozen issues:

1. The destruction of the World Trade Center was a despicable, incredible act that can not be justified in any way. Americans have the right to feel fury and contempt for the perpetrators and those who gloat over their deed. Their deed was so foul that I turn away from the television screen whenever the events of September 11th are replayed. I feel too drained, at least so far, to spend time at Ground Zero when in New York.

2. Many Americans were troubled by the swagger and strut of George W. Bush during the last election campaign, and I still am. But that cardboard cowboy tone - with its simple pledge to make the bastards pay - fit the mood of the American public and made most everyone feel united, purposeful and a little better. That was a significant achievement.

3. The terrorist carnage and destruction, as Osama Bin Laden made clear in a videotape, was far greater than the terrorists intended or even conceived possible. The enormity violated the logic of terrorism. It provoked the victim into terrible retribution, and it set an awful standard for future martyrs of the cause. What can a terrorist do that will ensure him a greater place in Valhalla than the dark villains of September 11th? Does that mean that Al Qaeda terrorists and their sympathizers will do nothing now unless they can come up with more? I do not know. But I doubt it.

4. We have to be careful about the use of the word war. Terrorists unleashed havoc on our shores. We have not seen such carnage on mainland America since the Civil War. But we are not at war now in the way Americans were at war during the 1940s. We have been challenged and angered and terribly hurt, even humiliated, but we have not needed to mobilize all our energies in a total effort to defend our liberties and democracy. Despite our patriotic rhetoric, there was never any danger that terrorists could bring us down the way Hitler brought down France during World War II. What we have done is mount a punitive expedition (albeit the most devastating in history) against the Taliban and Al Qaeda the way the British mounted punitive expeditions against the Mahdi and his fanatical fundamentalist followers in the Sudan during the 19th century. When politicians thunder on about the war on terrorism, they are often using war as a metaphor much the way they do when they call on us to wage wars on drugs, on crime, on communism.

5. But there was war and devastation in Afghanistan. I suspect many thousands more Afghans died during the last few months of 2001 than the total of our dead on September 11th. Many were terrorists and abetters of terrorism who deserved their fate. But, despite the bland Pentagon denials, many were innocent civilians. And a large number, perhaps most, of the dead were ignorant, brain-washed youths who followed orders of malevolent leaders. If you accept the need for retaliation, as I do, you can not castigate our armed forces for killing. The responsibility for the Afghan deaths lies with the stubborn and stupid Taliban leadership that refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden. Yet, though we are not to blame, I wish we would openly grieve for the many needless deaths in Afghanistan.

6. The American punitive expedition succeeded in several ways. It demolished the Taliban for harboring terrorists. It demolished the terrorist operation within Afghanistan. It sent a signal to the rest of the world that the United States will no longer tolerate those who harbor terrorists intent on maiming us. The great supposed failure has been the escape, at least so far, of Osama Bin Laden and the Mullah Omar. This is a failure, however, only because of the macho boasting of our president. It is inconceivable that the Mullah will ever run Afghanistan again or that Osama will be allowed by any other government to operate openly under its protection. They may live as fugitives in fear like Eichmann in Argentina or Barbie in Bolivia. And like Eichmann and Barbie, they will be hunted down in time.

7. The real American failure has been at home. Nations like Britain and Israel that live with terrorism know that they must live with strict security measures. From Day One, President Bush, as commander in chief, should have ordered a government takeover of airport security with a pledge of intensified surveillance of baggage and passengers and a deployment of marshals on flights. Instead, while the president flittered around the country on September 11th, the secretary of transportation issued an inane ban on curbside checking of baggage. The ideological Republican disdain for government rather than private control delayed matters further and aggravated the public’s nervousness over flying. The administration’s handling of the subsequent anthrax scare dampened confidence. And the vague alerts by John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge about vague terrorist threats sounded like no more than feeble attempts to cover their asses. If terrorism did strike, they could say, we told you so.

8. The stretching of the Constitution by Ashcroft and others in the name of anti-terrorism has been shameless. The frenzy to incarcerate and question Middle Easterners smacked of show biz. Since U.S. security agents had failed to prevent September 11th, they were running around wildly to make believe they were preventing whatever was planned next. It had the air of the roundup of usual suspects in Casablanca but was less funny.

9. Saddam Hussein is an unsavory despot whose departure would benefit both Iraq and the Middle East, but that is no justification for mounting another war against him now. An Iraqi escapade would distort the battle against terrorism. Possessing weapons of mass destruction does not automatically prove you a terrorist. It has been a long time since anyone has produced credible evidence that Saddam has sponsored a terrorist attack. His international crime is grievous but different. He has defied the U.N. resolutions that provide for outside verification of his destruction of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In fairness, he never had any motivation to comply since both the elder Bush and Clinton vowed never to lift sanctions so long as Saddam ran Iraq. Saddam needs to be dealt with - harshly, if necessary - through the United Nations.

10. Future actions against terrorism will demand subtle decisions and the cooperation of other nations. Do we move - either directly or indirectly - against all terrorists? Or are some terrorists different from others? Is Palestinian terrorism fair game because it crosses borders? Is Basque terrorism not fair game because it does not cross borders? Are violent separatists terrorists? Are rebellious victims of oppression terrorists? Do we battle only terrorists who target us? If so, does that require us to move into Egypt? To badger Saudi Arabia? The issues are complex, and the solutions are difficult. We obviously need support from others for whatever policies we adopt. Yet, even in the wake of September 11th, the Bush Administration has allowed Undersecretary of State John Bolton to travel to international conferences and thumb his nose at our allies. Bush still doesn’t understand our need for entangling alliances.

11. There is no doubt that something went terribly wrong with American intelligence, and in due time one or more commissions, at least one congressional, will form to assess blame. As usual, the CIA will probably not look very good. I suspect that Republicans will try hard to put as much blame as possible on Bill Clinton for failing to wipe out Al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors years ago. How loud these detractors would have screamed, however, if he had done so. Wagging the Dog, they would have shouted. How dare he try to divert our attention from sex, Monica and other vital issues of the day.

12. The astonishing popularity of Bush gives him an opportunity to forge a domestic program that could unite the country behind him. But he is hampered by his conservatism, his fear of the right wing, and his lack of imagination. Getting Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive" reflects patriotic, gung-ho machismo, but promising that future reductions in taxes will be cancelled only "over my dead body" reflects closed minded machismo. No matter how crippling his future tax cuts may prove, Bush will not discuss them. His pledge, of course, is an echo of his father’s cry to "read my lips: no new taxes." The son’s echo is tougher and even more stupid.

January 14, 2002
Washington D.C.

click aquí para versión en español

see also:

Rhetoric and War
September 25, 2001

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