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waging war on terror - an interim assessment by andrew j. bacevich

The U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan looks a lot like the American military interventions of the 1990s, argues Andrew Bacevich. He believes that the early military operations in Afghanistan suffered because they were not unconventional enough, mirroring too closely U.S. military actions taken over the last two decades.

The day that is said to have changed everything -- Sept. 11, 2001 -- has left the American "way of war" largely unchanged. In Afghanistan, the war on terror's main (or at least most visible) front, the Pentagon has stuck to the formula devised in the course of various interventions that involved American soldiers during the administrations of the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton. It is thus hardly surprising that Operation Enduring Freedom has yielded the same blend of tactical finesse and strategic missteps that characterized U.S. military actions in the 1990s.

As Americans quickly discovered, in one of that decade's apparent ironies, winning the Cold War had the effect of increasing rather than diminishing the level of U.S. military activism. Committed to maintaining its status as the sole superpower -- styled in official parlance as "exercising global leadership" -- the United States since 1990 has dispatched its armed forces to a wider variety of places for more varied purposes than at any other time in its history.

Former U.S. Army officer Andrew J. Bacevich is the director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. He is the author of American Empire, to be published in the fall of 2002 by Harvard University Press, and of the The Pentomic Era: the U.S. Army Between Korea and Vietnam. (DIANE Publishing, 1995).

In a strictly operational sense, U.S. forces have generally performed well. But when it comes to achieving its publicly declared political goals, the United States has floundered and has found itself grappling with unforeseen and unwanted second-order results. Beginning with Operation Desert Storm -- where, despite a seemingly crushing defeat, Saddam Hussein inexplicably survived -- the consequences flowing from even the most successful military operation have tended to be less than fully satisfactory.

In part, this stems from the fact that those goals have at times been unrealistic -- as, for example, when President Clinton promised that U.S. troops would "restore" democracy to Haiti. But there is a further explanation as well, one related directly to how the United States chooses to employ force.

What are the principal characteristics of the American way of war that emerged between the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and the war over Kosovo in 1999? Four come to mind -- all four amply displayed over the past year in Operation Enduring Freedom.

First, a pronounced reliance on advanced technology -- especially air power and precision-guided munitions, employed at ranges beyond reach of the enemy's weapons. U.S. military doctrine once viewed closing directly with the enemy as a precondition of victory. Buoyed by an almost mystical belief in air power, present-day U.S. officials view close combat as something to be avoided if at all possible. We'll fight, but preferably at arm's length.

Second, within the ranks of the political and military elite, a conspicuous sensitivity to casualties, especially casualties suffered by our own forces. As a result, whenever fighting on the ground becomes unavoidable, the United States relies to the maximum extent possible on proxies. The general rule is that if there is dying to be done, let others do it.

Third, because you don't find hired guns in the nicer neighborhoods, a willingness to collaborate with highly suspect regimes or movements able to lighten the burden of U.S. forces. The two instances of U.S. armed intervention in the Balkans, for example, found the United States making common cause first with Franjo Tudjman's Croatia and then with the Kosovo Liberation Army -- neither likely to win prizes for respecting human rights. Given the choice between cozying up to unsavory characters and going it alone, the United States typically chooses the former -- even if doing so undermines the moral legitimacy of U.S. actions and calls into question our claims to act on behalf of larger ideals.

Fourth, carried home from the failed U. S intervention in Somalia of 1992-1993, an acute allergy to anything even vaguely suggestive of "nation-building." As a result, although policymakers justify U.S. intervention with promises of long-term support for political democratization and economic development, once the immediate military issue is resolved the tendency is to minimize the level of American involvement and exposure.

The events of 9/11 provided the United States with a justification to claim an even greater freedom of action in the use of force -- the Bush Doctrine of preemption.

But 9/11 did not appreciably change the way that the United States actually uses force. Although in the attacks' immediate aftermath President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared that the global war on terror would be sui generis, Operation Enduring Freedom has replayed the themes common to U.S. operations of the 1990s.

Between October and December 2001, American air power and so-called "freedom fighters" drawn from the ranks of the Afghan internal opposition -- motivated and coached by a few dozen U.S. special operations troops and CIA operatives -- combined to overthrow the Taliban and deprive Al Qaeda of its chief base of operations. Conventional ground forces of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps played a minimal role apart from the relative handful of soldiers assigned to secure airfields and process prisoners. U.S. casualties were few in number -- certainly fewer than the number of Afghan civilians killed by errant American bombs.

In laying the basis for the Afghan campaign, the Bush administration could be found courting a dizzying array of shady regional actors. These included not only the warlords of the morally dubious Northern Alliance, but also the dictators governing the surrounding Central Asian republics and Pakistani strongman General Pervez Musharraf.

Although at the outset of Enduring Freedom the Bush administration had proclaimed its abiding concern for the well-being of all Afghans -- and especially Afghan women -- no sooner had the Taliban been toppled than the United States began paring back expectations about what it might be willing to do. When it comes to creating a modern Afghan nation, the Bush administration looks to the "international community" to foot most of the bill.

. . . .

In Afghanistan, adhering to the four precepts governing the new American way of war has produced very real accomplishments along with notable shortcomings and disappointments.

On the plus side, the United States has dealt a major blow to Al Qaeda, depleting its ranks and disrupting efforts to plan and coordinate further attacks. The overthrow of the Taliban not only deprived Al Qaeda of its preferred sanctuary but also provided a salutary lesson to other regimes that might be tempted to harbor terrorist networks. These are notable achievements for which the Bush administration can rightly claim credit.

Yet on several other counts, Operation Enduring Freedom falls considerably short of qualifying as a complete success.

First, the senior leadership of the Taliban and of Al Qaeda -- above all, Osama bin Laden -- is still unaccounted for. When the United States and its coalition partners appeared to have bin Laden trapped at Tora Bora in December, the reluctance to commit U.S. ground forces and the reliance on untrustworthy proxies allowed him to escape, probably into Pakistan. For the moment at least, bin Laden's trail has grown cold. And although the Bush administration has of late tried to de-emphasize his capture or elimination as a major war objective, victory by any definition requires that the chief architect of Sept. 11 be brought to book.

Second, as has been the case in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans, the United States finds itself today being drawn inexorably toward what promises to be an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan. General Tommy Franks, the commander responsible for U.S. operations in Central Asia, has acknowledged that American troops can expect to remain in Afghanistan for years, if not for decades. Unwilling to make the major political and economic commitment implied by genuine "nation-building," policymakers end up opting for a Pax Americana, relying on U.S. troops to maintain a semblance of order. Thus does the perimeter of the American imperium continue to expand, along with the responsibilities of policing it.

Third, in Operation Enduring Freedom our haste to recruit local partners without checking too closely to see if their hands are clean may well give birth to an especially problematic legacy. U.S. officials from President Bush on down have proclaimed General Musharraf to be a great statesman and friend of the United States. Yet he seems more likely to become South Asia's version of Saddam Hussein -- seizing power through a military coup, rewriting the Pakistani constitution to suits his own purposes, recklessly threatening nuclear war against India. Back in the 1980s, the United States found it expedient to collaborate with Saddam against Iran -- and lived to rue the day. Americans may yet rue the day when they befriended Musharraf.

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