The Breakfast Table

Marveling at the Action in Afghanistan

Dear Alexander,

I write you this morning with a slightly strange perspective. Today I am moving houses—or rather, I am moving a portion of my possessions from one apartment in Warsaw to another apartment in Warsaw, the rest of my possessions being in various other houses and in various other countries. I’ve spent much of the past 10 days preparing for this event, buying toothbrush holders and refrigerators and doorknobs and the like, and therefore didn’t really watch television or read newspapers last week. As a result, some of the news this morning has an oddness about it, as if I had missed an episode of a soap opera and were trying to work out who the new characters are.

I missed, for example, the first few days of the new assault on al-Qaida remnants hiding in caves in Eastern Afghanistan, the story that seems to lead most British and American papers this morning. Suddenly, there is new terminology to grapple with—the “thermobaric bomb”—and new geography to learn. Knowingly, the New York Times writes that the town nearest the caves, Zormat, is “notorious” for smuggling and is therefore an obvious place for al-Qaida fighters to seek refuge. If it is so obvious, why didn’t we look there before?

It seems to me, anyway, that the real importance of this assault is the participation of American ground troops in it. In the past few weeks, I’ve more than once been asked by incredulous foreigners about the “real” reasons why American ground troops didn’t play a larger part in the Afghan war—in particular in the final Tora Bora operation, during which Osama Bin Laden escaped. Was there a deep tactical reason? Was it a conspiracy? Was it cowardice? Was it just a rather foolish mistake? I suspect the latter, although apparently no one in the Pentagon wants to admit it.

It does seem fairly obvious, in retrospect, that the Afghans, while happy to chase al-Qaida out of their country, would fail to see why it was actually necessary to risk their own lives in order to capture or kill Osama. The $25 million offered for his scalp apparently made no difference to anyone’s behavior, being far too large a sum, and therefore far too theoretical. Al-Qaida was offering $5,000 bribes, in cash, on the spot, to anyone who would help them escape—a much more reasonable prospect, and I’m sure the one I would choose, too.

But if I’m marveling at the action in Afghanistan, I’m also stunned by how little some other running stories have changed. The Washington Post this morning has an article called “Europe, U.S. Diverging on Key Policy Approaches,” which could have appeared at any point in the past four months and, I suspect, could easily appear at any point in the next four months as well. We are in for a long spell of this, I’m afraid: Snarly quotations from Chris Patten and Hubert Vedrine advocating “the need for multilateral engagement,” Kyoto treaties, and so on—contrasted with more pointed quotations from members of U.S. think tanks, politely explaining that “Americans see the Europeans as wanting to put their heads in the sand.”

Behind the scenes, I’m afraid it is all a lot more bitter and nasty—and more emotional as well. Let’s face it, Europe is grappling with the sudden realization that its military power counts for nothing—and that the increased “influence” that the closer European Union was supposed to bring hasn’t materialized. Meanwhile, Americans are slowly waking up to the fact that they are not just a superpower, but the only power: American military spending over the next five years will be higher than that of China, Russia, and the EU combined. Myself, I am going to stick by the idea of the transatlantic alliance and “Western civilization” in general, but I can tell this is going to make me unpopular.

Anyway, I must rush back home now, pack some more napkin rings and bottle openers and paper clips into boxes—and find out how many wine glasses the so-called movers (five large men of various ages and a nanny) have already smashed.

Anne Applebaum