US badly needs a victory somewhere

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URL: http://www.smh.com.au/news/0111/03/world/world8.html

Embattled on all fronts, the US badly needs a victory somewhere, anywhere The military campaign is taking too long, popular support is slipping, the propaganda is failing and Americans are scared, writes Gay Alcorn in Washington.

Almost a month after the United States began bombing Afghanistan, these are the headlines on the front page of The Washington Post: Experts Warn Bioterrorism Could Expand, US Intensifies Bombing. US, Britain, Step Up War for Public Opinion. Learning as We Go (about Anthrax), Rivalries Poison Political Efforts, and Economy Shrinks for First Time Since 1993.

On all fronts, America's declared war on terrorism is struggling. The Taliban regime, which the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, predicted would collapse from within like a pack of cards, remains in control of 90 per cent of Afghanistan. The US Administration once believed that the ragtag opposition group the Northern Alliance could seize the cities of Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif by winter. It has taken none of them. The political attempts to assemble a post-Taliban government are in disarray, a "disaster", according to one diplomat. Support for military action in Afghanistan is slipping in Europe and in the Muslim world. A poll in the British newspaper The Guardian found support for the campaign has fallen by 12 percentage points over the past two weeks to 62 per cent. In Greece, about 30 per cent of the population think the September 11 terrorist strikes were in response to America's foreign policies. The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirayuda, says it would be "emotionally explosive" to continue attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts on November 17.

And the public relations war? "A mass murderer operating from a cave in southern Afghanistan appears to be winning a public affairs, public diplomacy battle with the world's communication leader, the United States," lamented Richard Holbrooke, the former American ambassador to the United Nations.

At home, CNN runs its AMERICA STRIKES BACK banner across the screen, but it is more a morale booster than a reflection of the national mood. The Vice-President, Dick Cheney, is again in a "secure undisclosed location", and the White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, is forced to explain that Cheney is not in "hiding", nor in a "woodshed". George Bush retains the overwhelming support of Americans, but appears to struggle compared with Britain's Tony Blair to present a nuanced moral case for an extremely complex campaign. "We will plant that flag of freedom forever," Bush said this week, "by winning the war against terrorism, by rallying our economy, and by keeping strong and adhering to the values we hold so dear, starting with freedom." (Wild applause.)

Psychologists say people fear new threats more than familiar ones, so while only four people have died from anthrax in the United States, the fear of it outstrips the real risk. Every day there is breathless coverage of what might happen - a possible mass attack using biological, chemical or even nuclear weapons. Just as serious is the economy, now in recession in all but name. And there has been no breakthrough such as a confession in the investigation of the September 11 hijackings. More than 1,000 people have been detained, but not one has been charged with involvement in the terrorist strikes.

There are tentative signs that Americans are wavering in their confidence in the Government's ability to protect them from biological attack or to win the declared war on terrorism. A New York Times poll this week found that just 18 per cent believed the Government could protect them from terrorism, down from 35 per cent three weeks ago. Only 28 per cent believed Osama bin Laden would be captured or killed.

"By any measure, it has been a bad week for the Administration," said Steven Hess, a Brookings Institution political analyst. So much so that Rumsfeld, a laconic uncle figure, arrived at his media briefing on Thursday to read a long response to charges that the war's progress was too slow and its strategy too cautious.

"Consider some historical perspectives," he implored. "After the December 9th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour, it took four months before the United States responded to that attack with the Doolittle Raid in April of '42. It took eight months after Pearl Harbour before the US began a land campaign against the Japanese and the US bombed Japan for three and a half years, until August 1945, before they accomplished their objectives."

Rumsfeld says progress so far is significant - Taliban command centres have been destroyed, their air force pulverised, their communications severed. The pressure for a quick victory was a symptom of America's "instant gratification" culture, its 24-hour news cycle. Rumsfeld believes, probably correctly, that Americans will show patience.

Bush is said to have told aides that this struggle is the opportunity for the baby boomer generation to prove it can display the same kind of selfless valour as the World War II generation, known as the The Greatest Generation in America. The cultural question is whether, after years of prosperity, Americans have the stomach for a drawn-out war, in which large numbers of Americans are killed at home and abroad. Will the narcissistic generation last the distance?

There is another baby boomer echo, that of a Vietnam "quagmire", the code word for a long, dispiriting, ultimately futile campaign, which haunts this generation still. The Republican international affairs columnist Robert Kagan said this week: " I find, personally, eerie similarities with the early stages of the Vietnam War ... we're trying to fight this war on the cheap, on the diplomatic cheap, on the military cheap, on the political cheap. We have built our strategy, such as it is, around the constraints, which is, it seems to me, one of the key parallels with Vietnam."

The objection of Kagan, reinforced by senior congressmen such as the Republican John McCain and Democrats John Kerry and Christopher Dodd, is that the Pentagon was tentative in the early stages of the air war because of the State Department's insistence that a coalition to rule Afghanistan be put in place before the Taliban was ousted.

More recently, critics have argued that an air campaign alone will not be enough to dislodge the Taliban. There are increasing suggestions that the Pentagon is drawing up plans for a ground invasion as a last resort if the bombing campaign fails, and if attempts to encourage Pashtun leaders to defect from the Taliban are unsuccessful, and the Northern Alliance is unable to seize Taliban territory. According to The Washington Post, the Administration has finally "de-coupled" the military and diplomatic goals. Rumsfeld denies there was ever any "coupling".

It is the commander of US forces in the Middle East, General Tommy Franks, who is deciding the targets to hit each day, and which ones not to hit. Lawrence Kaplan, a well-connected international commentator for New Republic magazine, says Franks has shown a "marked aversion to risk", which has led to arguments with Rumsfeld about the vigour of the campaign. Rumsfeld is bouncing off the walls, says Kaplan, caught between General Franks and a White House insistent on leaving the war to the military. "Cheney's laying low, Condi [Rice, the National Security Adviser] is in over her head, [Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley is cautious, [Rumsfeld] isn't close to the President, and the President trusts the military," an Administration official told Kaplan. "That's just the way it is."

The "way it is" is so far not a wild success. It is too early to make quick judgments, but the United States badly needs a victory soon, at home or abroad.

Copyright The Sun-Herald/The Sydney Morning Herald, Fair Use for Educational and Research Purposes Only

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), November 04, 2001

Answers

I remember when the Iraqi communication centers were destoryed, the Iraqi air force was pulverised, and their command centers severed. This is so much plutocratic hogwash.

-- David Williams (DAVIDWILL@prodigy.net), November 04, 2001.

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