US message is get ready for a long haul to Kabul


We live in a world of instant gratification. And now we expect instant war. Fast, clean, and at little cost. Like a video game. Wham, bam, thank you maam! Yet the truth is that, even in this antiseptic age, war is still hell. It is still a slow dirty business.

People, often the wrong people, die, and the messy, but vigorous, pursuit of military victory may, simultaneously, undermine political ends.

The fact is there are no easy options. To bomb means civilian "collateral" casualties. Not to bomb invites an aggressor to produce more of the same - more civilian casualties. One produces political support for the victims and then their supposed defenders. The other emboldens the defenders, giving them a sense of impunity, of success - and builds their political base.

The challenge faced by the United States and its allies from the day they declared their inevitable war on Osama bin laden and the Taliban was to balance the military success of an undoubtedly mightier clout with the political fallout. As long as the former outweighed the latter the US was quids in.

For more than a week now at press conferences here and on TV network pundit sessions we have been hearing talk of how the campaign against Kabul is in trouble, how the US strategy is running aground, the military campaign is half-hearted, stalling.

But assessing the extent to which the US is prevailing, or losing, in this war is particularly difficult because of its peculiar nature and the way in which news is mediated. There are few journalists on the ground in Kabul able to provide objective assessments, only at a remove, and then fed self-serving titbits by the Pentagon, the Northern Alliance, and the Taliban. Some reports of mishaps are coming from humanitarian organisations and the United Nations.

So we hear much from the Taliban about civilian casualties, and little about the inroads being made into their ranks by the US bombs. And the civilian casualties makes the news as if it is the only reality.

But there is also another reality to the eager questioning of whether after three weeks the US strategy is sound. It's simple politics.

On the one hand there are the critics of war, not just of this one, but all wars - the pacifists and the anti-imperialist left-wing. They were never going to be convinced it could work, or convince a country that believes it has a right to strike back.

Then there are those who fear the campaign now needs to be eased back, like Senator Joe Biden, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has broken ranks with his party leadership to warn that unless the air attacks end "sooner rather than later" the US risks appearing to be a "high-tech bully. Every moment it goes on, it makes the aftermath problems more severe," he said.

But then there are also the hawkish critics on the right, engaged in a battle for the soul of the Administration, their Administration, and which they fear is going soft.

That critique received its most public airing on Friday when war-hero Senator John McCain, in an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, complained that the war was being fought with "half measures". The gloves should come off. "We cannot fight this war from the air alone. We cannot fight it without casualties. And we cannot fight it without risking unintended damage to humanitarian and political interests," he argues.

"War is a miserable business. Let's get on with it." Others have echoed Northern Alliance complaints that the US bombing campaign has been far too meagre. "If it is done the same way, it is going to be prolonged more than weeks," Mr Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance's foreign minister, said on Friday.

Some of the rationale for conducting the war at its current "slow" pace arises from the desire to put together a broadly-based political coalition to run the country before the capital is seized by the Northern Alliance.

"But, increasingly, that planning is interfering with - and impeding - America's war aims," Leonard Kaplan writes in the New Republic. "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." Kaplan represents the most hawkish wing of the Democrats and is close to the Republicans who believe the war aims must be broadened to include the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

He quotes a Pentagon official: "We're trying to fight a war here, and \State Department appointees are talking about loya jirgas (assemblies), why we shouldn't hit certain Taliban units, and what Pashtuns like to eat."

"The resulting elevation of Afghanistan's best interests over America's wartime imperatives isn't only hubris; it's disingenuous," he insists.

"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."

Once again, this time under the guise of complaints to a ready audience of the weakness of the military campaign, we find the agenda of the unilateralists and their visceral hatred of coalition building.

The US Administration has been affected by the criticism. Although Mr Bush has spoken repeatedly of a complex, prolonged war that would see its "good days and bad days", and much invisible, the setbacks of the last few days, the execution of Abdul Haq, news of civilian casualties and retreats on the northern front, prompted him to caution the public on Friday: "The American people are going to have to be patient, just like we are." The message is to prepare for the long haul.

"It is the most difficult operation ever undertaken by this country post-Korea," Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the chief of the British Defence Staff, warned in a similar vein. "It may not be the most dangerous because we are not facing an enemy like the Iraqi army, but it is the most difficult in terms of the objectives we've set ourselves."

In contrast to the strategy in the Gulf War, Washington and London have all but ruled out the insertion of a major ground army to take the fight to the Taliban.

The idea is to avoid the mistakes the Soviet Union made in Afghanistan and the political repercussions in the Islamic world of a Western occupation.

That means allowing the Northern Alliance to do much of the fighting while the work goes on to create an acceptable, broadly-based post-Taliban government.

And that all takes time.

Patrick Smyth is the Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times