Gauging Success

A few days ago, I asked Carl Bildt, the former U.N. special envoy to the Balkans, if he thought that the Western experience in Bosnia and Kosovo might provide any lessons for Afghanistan. He thought for a minute, and then said: “Politics first.” By this he meant that outsiders intruding on the affairs of another country ought first to sort out what political goals they want to achieve and only make use of military force as a supplement to political dialogue. In the Balkans, “too many people made the mistake of thinking we might achieve great things with just a few bombs.”

In essence, Bildt’s comments were a modern rephrasing of an older dictum: “War is politics pursued by other means.” The author of that famous phrase was Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military strategist. Bildt’s words also reminded me of another, even older, military proverb composed by the Chinese general Sun Tzu well over 2,000 years ago: “Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

Although all these comments were meant for other times and other places, I believe they do apply to the new war on terrorism as well—and particularly to the hotter phase of the war launched in Afghanistan on Sunday. Already, the government has issued a sketchy list of its first targets, including air bases, command posts, and training camps. But it would be wrong to gauge our “success” in these operations merely by listing how many of these targets we have managed to destroy. The completion of particular attacks on particular targets doesn’t matter, and don’t believe anyone—including the Taliban—who says otherwise. On the contrary, the use of air power has only succeeded if it has helped to bring about some of the following political goals:

1. To destroy the Taliban’s internal support. This, to be honest, is something many hoped might happen without any fighting at all (see the Sun Tzu proverb, quoted above). The Taliban’s power over its own countrymen is notoriously shaky: Many believe they are still ruling the country only because the Afghans are too war-weary to fight any further. Over the past week or so, rumors were already spreading of Taliban defections to the opposition Northern Alliance. I assume that the Pentagon reckons the psychological shock of the bombing will accelerate this process: Afghanistan has never been attacked with such high-tech weaponry before. I also assume that this is the agenda behind the food packages and transistor radios that are also being dropped on Afghanistan. Taliban soldiers, as well as the ordinary people whose support would be necessary for the Taliban to win a ground war, must be convinced that there is another side rich and powerful enough to be worth joining. The message of the food will be clear enough, and the transistors, all tuned to an American propaganda station, will reinforce it.

2. To help locate Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist network. It is highly unlikely that these early raids will kill Bin Laden himself, which is presumably why George Bush’s televised statement did not cite this as a war aim. Nevertheless, those directing the bombing raids may intend to force the al-Qaida and Taliban leaderships to contact one another—and hence make them easier to find: Using American satellite technology, it is possible to pinpoint the exact location of a person talking on a mobile telephone. Even if Bin Laden (who is notoriously shy of all electronic equipment) still refuses to use any telephones, the bombing raids may still disrupt his ability to communicate with his followers. Messages will be more difficult to pass by hand if everyone goes into hiding in a different mountain range.

3. To make it impossible for terrorist networks to function in Afghanistan in the future. Although individual terrorists can live happily, it seems, in western Europe or the United States, actual terrorist training camps can only exist in lawless or rogue states. If we want Afghanistan to cease to be both a lawless and a rogue state, we must, like it or not, start thinking about a postwar settlement in Afghanistan right now. For this reason, bombing raids must be designed to make it easier for the Northern Alliance to advance on Kabul and other cities. The bombing raids also cannot knowingly target civilians: We want the Afghan population to welcome their new leadership, not hate them. At the same time, we must lay the political groundwork for a wide-ranging, multi-ethnic postwar government of Afghanistan that includes not only the Tajiks and Uzbeks of the Northern Alliance, but the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that dominates the Taliban. This, incidentally, explains the open courtship of Afghanistan’s former king, a somewhat fumbling, elderly fellow, whom many hope can be a unifying figurehead. Even if he agrees to go back to Afghanistan (and even if the Afghans want him) his mere presence will not be enough. Some form of U.N. protectorate or international occupation force, preferably Islamic, will also have to be put into place.

4. To prevent what will be a long-term terrorist war from damaging moderate Muslim states, especially Pakistan. Clearly, we don’t want to win the war in Afghanistan only to have to fight it all over again when a radical regime overthrows the government of Pakistan—and the anti-U.S., anti-U.N. riots have already begun.

This, of course, is the other reason why the bombing raids must not target civilians: The appearance of this military campaign is almost as important as its actual achievements. It must not kill too many people, it must not damage too much civilian infrastructure. Every mosque we hit is a terrible mark against us. A single videotape of a single dying Afghan child could be enough to inflame Muslim fundamentalists all over the world. This is why the Taliban reacted to the raids by claiming that they killed 20 civilians—and why Donald Rumsfeld immediately denied it.

5. To show the American public that their state is capable of standing up to external enemies—and to restore the economic confidence of the United States. Oddly enough, this may be the most difficult political aim to achieve. As long as bombs are falling, Americans will not feel safer, but more endangered. I was slightly spooked this morning when a number of friends rang me in the wake of the bombing raids to make certain that I was all right. This is nonsensical: Why should I, sitting in the center of central Europe, somehow be endangered by a military attack taking place in the center of central Asia? Nevertheless, the same contagious anxiety that produced a rash of international telephone calls on the afternoon of Sept. 11 appears to be repeating itself. It is bad for the airlines, bad for the hotel and tourist industries, bad for trade and commerce in general. Perhaps this is why these raids are taking place now, when the United States had much to gain by waiting. Perhaps the president hopes to cut short the period of economic anxiety, to get the war underway, to achieve one or two tangible victories before the recession sets in. If every ruined mosque is a strike against us, every ruined Taliban airplane is a strike in our favor: Even if it doesn’t matter much in military terms, the photographs will make everyone feel better back home.

Expect to see a lot of them.