What you think we’re doing in Afghanistan right now depends on which newspaper you read. If you read the New York Times, you may be under the impression that our military is attempting to bring down the Taliban regime as quickly as it can. According to a front-page story published on Oct. 23, the United States “resolved much of the confusion in its own ranks when its National Security Council completed a secret review two weeks ago that called for efforts to expedite a Taliban overthrow.”
If you read the Washington Post, however, you may think that our forces are doing just the opposite: trying to figure out how to prevent the Taliban regime from toppling too quickly. According to a story on the front page of that paper published the same day, “The selection of targets and the pace of the campaign have been constrained, if not determined, as much by political and diplomatic calculations as by the Bush administration’s primary goal of dismantling the terrorist network of Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden and the ruling Taliban militia that harbors him.”
Call it the fog of war. But this conflict in reporting points up what has become the key problem of the current juncture in the war on terrorism. Should we be doing everything we can to overthrow the al-Qaida-sheltering Taliban as soon as possible? Or should we be balancing that military goal with other political considerations, such as what might happen to Afghanistan after the Taliban falls, what a new government dominated by the Northern Alliance would mean for our alliance with Pakistan, and how an intensification of the war might affect the rest of the Islamic world. Put directly, should our highest priority be a prompt military victory or political stability over a longer time frame? If news reports about what we’re doing diverge, it may be because the top U.S. officials prosecuting the war don’t agree amongst themselves.
At an earlier stage, the debate within the Bush administration hinged on the issue of Iraq. The militants, typified by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, downplayed the need for a broad international alliance and contended that we needed to take on Saddam Hussein as well as Osama Bin Laden. The moderates, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell, argued for the broadest possible international alliance and downplayed the urgency of dealing with Iraq. That issue wasn’t settled so much as it was mooted. Once we began bombing Afghanistan, it became clear to all sides that we needed to accomplish the first aim of the War on Terrorism before delineating the second.
Nonetheless, the military versus political debate that has emerged in the past week or so follows similar contours. The warriors, led this time not by Wolfowitz but by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, want to move against the Taliban with all deliberate speed. The peacemakers, namely Powell, emphasize the imperatives of coalition-maintenance and avoiding various second-order effects that could flow from a rapid Northern Alliance conquest of Kabul. Publicly and officially, the Bush administration is unified on these issues. But you can glimpse the disagreement by paying close attention to what top officials are saying.
The Defense Department view was legible in comments that Secretary Rumsfeld made at a press conference at the Pentagon on Oct. 22. A reporter asked whether the recent intensification of our bombing of front-line Taliban positions north of Kabul meant that the United States was now ready to have the Northern Alliance advance on the capital. Rumsfeld responded, “We have been ready and we certainly are ready to have the alliance forces move, both north and south.” He went on to say that the United States was “not holding back at all.” Asked whether we would stop bombing during the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, in deference to the wishes of Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Rumsfeld scoffed at the notion.
For the State Department position, consult the transcript of an interview Colin Powell gave to Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Late Edition, a day earlier, on Oct. 21. Asked whether the United States was encouraging Northern Alliance forces to move on Kabul, Powell responded, “It’s a subject of discussion … whether they go into Kabul or not, or whether that’s the best thing to do or not, remains to be seen.” Powell noted that in ethnic terms, the Northern Alliance represents only 15 percent of the country. Our hope, he said, is for a post-Taliban government that can represent all the people of Afghanistan. Asked about bombing during Ramadan, Powell replied, “We’ll have to see as we get closer to Ramadan. It’s a very important religious period, and we would take that into account.”
There are sound arguments on both sides of this debate. On Powell’s are a range of humanitarian, diplomatic and strategic considerations. If the Northern Alliance, which is dominated by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, takes control of Afghanistan and can’t be persuaded to share power with other groups, it’s a recipe for reviving the civil war that devastated the country in the 1990s. “Unless we want to create chaos and mass death and then move on to the next target, we have to make the military activity serve a political objective, which the president has defined as a ‘stable Afghanistan,’ ” says Barnett Rubin, a leading scholar of the country. “To force the military issue before that is ready would be dangerous.” Rubin argues that we need to allow time for the United Nations to develop some kind of peacekeeping force.
Paving the way for a quick rebel victory also threatens our crucial military alliance with Pakistan, which despises the Northern Alliance and vice versa. Fracturing that alliance could make it much more difficult for us to squash Bin Laden and al-Qaida. Finally, more anarchy in Afghanistan means the country could remain or again become a base for international terrorists.
On Rumsfeld’s side of the debate are the odds against anyone governing Afghanistan successfully and the dangers of waiting for someone to try. Discussions among various non-Taliban and anti-Taliban factions are now taking place in Peshawar, Pakistan, and are may move to Istanbul, Turkey, next week. Realistically, they don’t seem to be anywhere near a plausible power-sharing arrangement or interim government. The same is true of hopes for a U.N. force. The prospects for international peacekeeping in Afghanistan make Yugoslavia look like a stroll in the park. Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy, has also made clear that he sees no role for a multinational force until there is some kind of peace to keep. And it’s hard to see how the United Nations can step in before the United States is done making war on al-Qaida.
There are also real risks to delay. Not bringing down the Taliban while we wait for a provisional government to take shape could give our enemies time to regroup and fortify their positions. We may not be able to hunt down Bin Laden until a friendly regime controls the country, which means that waiting gives the terrorists additional opportunities to strike us at home. We also have to worry about our delicate alliances and our precarious Islamic allies, especially if holding back means extending the fighting through Ramadan. As Robert Wright has pointed out, Pakistan is as concerned about delay as it is about a Northern Alliance victory, although this constitutes an obvious contradiction in its position. Finally, worrying too much about nation-building in Afghanistan–as opposed to destroying al-Qaida–could impede the next stage in the War on Terrorism. “If we focus on bringing down the Taliban and creating a new government in Afghanistan, we may not deal with a new terrorist threat,” says former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
I don’t have a good answer to the question of which side is winning this argument inside the administration or to the question of which side should win it. On balance, it appears that the Times story was closer to the truth than the Post story: Rumsfeld, the Pentagon, and the Northern Alliance seem happier today than Powell, State, and the Taliban. And in fact, the least bad position in a world of imperfect choices may be the de facto compromise that has emerged from this clash of views.
That is, it probably did make sense to slow down the Northern Alliance’s conquest of Kabul, as we pretty clearly did. But at some point fairly soon–or perhaps right now–the dangers of delay come to outweigh the advantages of waiting.