On a weary course

Print edition : November 10, 2001

With the Taliban showing remarkable resilience, the war on Afghanistan drags on and this leads to domestic unease in the United States on top of the anthrax and other scares.

A MONTH into the bombing of Afghanistan, the Bush administration has started wondering where its strategy is heading, if at all it had a strategy to begin with. It is somewhat baffled by the resilience of the Taliban.

In the past four weeks, waves of jets from aircraft carriers and airbases in forward areas and heavy duty B-52s and B-1s have pounded away at the forward line positions of the Taliban in the desperate hope of softening the ground for the Northern Alliance. But both the Bush administration and the Northern Alliance are disappointed. Officials admit, at least in private, that things are not exactly falling in place; and the impression in the Northern Alliance is that the aerial strikes are not only short of the required intensity but also not extensive enough. The opening that the Northern Alliance commanders expect has not come readily. When this takes place, the expectation will be that the Americans will give air cover for their formal assault on Kabul.

A Harrier takes off from USS Peleliu in the Arabian Sea.-REUTERS

The Taliban has not merely shown its staying power but its continued ability to act with impunity. This was evident from the capture and summary execution of Opposition leader Abdul Haq after a sham of a trial. That the whole episode could have been the result of the fumbling of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is a different matter, and a few people are willing to deal with the issue extensively. Haq's friends are outraged by the fact that the U.S. abandoned him. But U.S. officials would argue that Haq took matters into his own hands and ignored advice. In any event, the Taliban proved its point.

Senior members of the Republican Party are not able to fathom the current thinking of the Bush administration that somehow this war could be "won" by air power alone. Under the pretext of operational secrecy, officials in Washington are not willing to say much on the nature and scope of ground operations but the fact remains that commandos have been on the ground for a long time. But the campaign in Afghanistan is unlikely to see a major conventional ground offensive.

Senior lawmakers such as John McCain, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam war, have said that without bringing in the ground troops in a big way, the operation against the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network will not succeed. However, the administration, for reasons well known, is not prepared to do so. Civilian and military planners are of the view that the U.S. wishes to avoid the experience that the Soviet Union had in Afghanistan. The Soviets, the argument goes, did extremely well in commando raids and helicopter gunship attacks. But the effectiveness of the use of helicopters drastically changed when the U.S. started supplying Stinger missiles to the Afghan Mujahideen. The U.S. military planners' reluctance to use helicopters stems from the fear that the Taliban has in its possession a number of shoulder-fired missiles that could endanger low-flying planes and choppers. The administration says that much of the fixed targets have been taken out in the last four weeks but it is not so sure about the moving targets.

President George W. Bush.-MIKE THEILER/AFP

The Republicans, particularly Bush and his advisers, have long criticised the Democrats and the Clinton administration on a number of foreign policy issues, especially those pertaining to committing troops and launching missions overseas. They criticised these missions on the ground that they were not well-defined; that they did not have a plan for the end-game; and that they relied too much on air power and cruise missiles.

The Bush administration has been doing the same things - chasing ten-dollar tents with million-dollar cruise missiles and extensively relying on air power. And there is the big question about the game plan. If it has such a plan, the administration is doing a fantastic job of hiding it well.

The Republicans, who criticised Clinton's "nation-building" exercises, have "suddenly" realised that Afghanistan would have to be rebuilt and that the task of nation-building does not start and end with some fuzzy notions of democracy and human rights. With this realisation comes the new-found love for the United Nations, which at one time was, for the extremists in the Republican Party, among the "most disliked" institutions. The bottom-line premise is that if Afghanistan is going to emerge from the tatters, a comprehensive rebuilding exercise can be undertaken only by the U.N. Perhaps this is what the game plan is all about, if the U.S. is not able to dislodge the Taliban in the first four weeks of the campaign.

This argument stems from a perception that the Bush administration is so wary of the Northern Alliance that it shudders at the thought of the Alliance's forces marching into a Kabul without a political framework. It fears that once the Northern Alliance enters the capital in full strength, the latter may not be amenable to any reasonable power-sharing arrangement. Hence the talk of forming a broad-based government in Afghanistan. The Bush administration is so caught up in this search for a broad-based alternative that it is even willing to accommodate the so-called moderate elements in the Taliban in a post-Taliban establishment.

There is an argument that the Taliban has not yet been wiped out by the U.S. only because of the Pakistan angle. The perception in Washington is that in its anxiety to have President Pervez Musharraf in its anti-terrorism team, the Bush administration has allowed Islamabad to call the shots. Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), which basically created and sustained the Taliban, has been deliberately misleading and misdirecting the U.S. in the course of its war. Islamabad's aversion to the Northern Alliance is well known.

There are rumblings within the so-called anti-terrorism alliance over the future course of action. Allies of the U.S. such as Pakistan demanded a pause in the campaign during Ramzan. But the demand was quickly brushed aside by senior members of the Bush administration, such as the National Security Adviser and the Defence and State Secretaries.

Thanks to its work on the public relations front, the Bush administration still commands the solid support of the American people for the campaign against terror. But the perception that the chances of the U.S. "getting" bin Laden are getting slimmer has caused increasing uneasiness. Even as the administration tries to put out the impression that its game in Afghanistan is going according to plan, not many are convinced.

What worries many inside and outside the government is the possibility of Afghanistan turning out to be the Bush administration's Vietnam. The fear is that the U.S. is in a quagmire and that sooner than later even the so-called allies will start distancing themselves from the action. Quite intelligently, the administration seeks to allay these apprehensions by bringing in the longer-term aspect of the anti-terrorism war - that is, the military component is just one of the several elements in the war.

The Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. Security has been tightened for bridges in California following specific intelligence reports that they may be targeted in terrorist attacks.-BEN MARGOT/AP

Any comparison to Vietnam may not be appropriate, but the tactics adopted on the military front and the domestic political rhetoric remind one of the Vietnam war. For instance, not too long ago there was a media report about the Bush administration thinking of sending more "advisers" to Afghanistan. This was how it all started in Vietnam.

The ongoing military campaign is only one part of an elaborate scheme that is unfolding in America. As television networks continue to show footage of rubble and plumes of smoke, there is the almost instant focus on what has now come to be called "homeland security".

If on the foreign front much of the focus is on keeping the coalition intact by holding consultations with "allies", it is a different ball game on the domestic front. And it has to be played in a way that offends the sensitivities of neither Americans nor foreigners. Both at home and abroad, the constant message from the President downward has been that this is a campaign against "evil" and that it is not directed at any group of people or any religion.

At the same time, the administration is banking on the help of other nations to continue with the investigation process. For instance, 15 out of the 19 terrorist hijackers had their visas issued in Saudi Arabia, and the Bush administration had a tough time even ascertaining the identities of the persons involved in the acts of September 11.

More than 1,000 people have been detained and about 200 questioned. While the administration is fighting a multi-pronged battle against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, there is concern that the administration, in the face of the unwillingness of key witnesses to come forward and talk, may be getting ready to ship them out to countries where heavy-handed tactics are more the rule than the exception in the process of investigation.

Bio-terrorism has attracted serious attention in America of late. But this is one of the many perceived threats from terrorists. The others are an attack on a nuclear plant and the poisoning of food and water supplies. In view of this, the authorities have had to take constant precautions. For instance, they declared a no-fly zone over a nuclear power plant.

At least three States and the nation's capital are in the grip of the anthrax scare. Four persons died and several seriously affected people are in hospitals. What started off with innocuous letters to Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, and the NBC television news anchor Tom Brokaw soon engulfed the entire country. Three weeks into the crisis, there was hardly a government department in Washington that had not been exposed to the anthrax scare. The postal system is on the verge of a shutdown.

The House of Representatives took the unprecedented step of shutting down its complexes. Its members went home for a few weeks and the buildings were sanitised. This raised eyebrows in the Senate Chamber, which refused to go along. There were charges of elitism against the House of Representatives. What many found bizarre was that the members decided to shut down the House at a time when postal employees were going about their business in a dangerous environment. Two postal workers died as a result of anthrax inhalation. But the Republicans and Democrats in the House are convinced that their decision was right.

The anthrax scare put the federal, state and local authorities in a spot. There is no clue as to the origin of the anthrax spores. But the White House and the federal agencies are sure that it is the handiwork of a highly experienced and qualified individual or organisation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other intelligence and enforcement agencies, even while not ruling out a foreign source of the anthrax spores, are close to concluding that the crisis has a domestic authorship. The suspects include anti-government and anti-liberal groups, a lone "crackpot" or a disgruntled scientist who is simply trying to take advantage of the situation.

But some sections in the establishment see the hand of Saddam Hussein in the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. The message in all this talk - however premature it may be - is quite simple: if Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the terrorist hijackings or anthrax, he will pay a hefty price.

America is limping back to normalcy as far as air travel is concerned. But indications are that if business does not pick up fast, several major carriers will go bankrupt.

The administration has been quick to cash in on an emotional environment. It got $40 billion for emergency spending and a package of $15 billion for the airline industry. Also, it got the lawmakers' approval for a new anti-terrorism law and is tightening the immigration laws.

The saving grace in the new anti-terrorism law is the provision that it will be reviewed at the end of three years, mainly to see if there has been any violation. But lawmakers of all hues swear that there is nothing in the new law that runs counter to democratic principles.

As for immigration, the axe will fall across the board, for singling out people from any one country or a particular group will not stand legal scrutiny. The immediate focus is on students and visitors who may have overstayed their visas. The Immigration and Naturalisation Service plans to ensure that students entering the country do register at schools they are supposed to, by keeping tabs on the change of majors and even addresses. The INS argues that much of what is being talked about now had already been discussed but set aside for a variety of reasons, including those relating to civil rights and liberties.

The difficult aspect of the domestic situation relates not to the steps being taken to come to grips with terrorism but to the way it is done. The Bush administration has nothing to worry about in this regard. Even the Democrats, who would have cried foul during a normal hearing on any anti-terrorism move in the House of Representatives or the Senate, stand by the President in the name of crisis.

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