The Pentagon’s admission that Taliban forces in Afghanistan are not collapsing under the weight of the American bombardment, and that the Northern Alliance has not begun to march toward Kabul, casts doubt on the tactics being employed to run this war.

Its tactical model is familiar by now: air power applied from a safe height, with collaborating ground action by allied or proxy forces. In Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army assumed the ground role. In Bosnia, it was the European force already there.

Difficulties in Afghanistan also raise questions about the political assumptions and expectations that govern the campaign. US policy has assumed that the Northern Alliance, and possible Taliban defectors or dissident tribal groups elsewhere in the country, would do the ground fighting to overturn Afghanistan’s present government, once air power had broken its resistance.

This is not happening. A major emissary to Pashtun fighters, Abdul Haq, has been captured and killed. Serious evidence is lacking of a Pashtun disposition to defect. American tactical assumptions seem overconfident. Taliban military structures are rarely elaborate enough to be broken by bombing. The Pentagon announces that it has destroyed “command-and-control” centers at Afghan airfields, but correspondents who know the country say that a command-and-control facility is likely to consist of a wooden hut with a telephone that doesn’t always work.

Another problem is one with which the Air Force should be familiar by now. Bombing is not that effective against a technically unsophisticated, highly motivated army that digs in or disperses. This was true of the bombing in Vietnam. It never came close to making a decisive difference. In Kosovo, the Serbian army was not defeated by bombing. Postwar reckoning demonstrated that it had survived dismayingly well, contrary to NATO’s claims. Serbia eventually surrendered to NATO because Russia, its only serious source of foreign support, pulled out of what it had come to see as a damaging association, and told Belgrade to give up.

Finally, there is a natural reluctance on the part of anti-Taliban Afghans to be killed as proxies for an American army whose mission priority is to assure its own safety. In-and-out commando operations by US special troops seem unlikely to seriously hurt the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, if it is to do the real fighting, wants political rewards the US and Pakistan don’t want to offer.

The Pentagon’s reluctance to do more on the ground results not only from its allergy to casualties, but from the common-sense observation that ground warfare in Afghanistan, as winter approaches, would likely give the Taliban, not an ultramodern American army, most of the advantages of “asymmetric warfare.” Anyway, the United States is supposed to be conducting a war on terrorism, not a war on Afghanistan. Until September 11, Washington had for years demonstrated little or no interest in what was going on in Afghanistan.

Since then, Washington’s difficulty in finding and capturing Osama bin Laden has apparently led it to substitute the goal of overturning the Taliban government, an undertaking with which it can come to grips. If the Taliban are out of the way, the terrorist leader can be found, or so it is assumed. Merely setting up a new government to replace the Taliban would allow Washington to claim a victory, even if it is not the victory it set out to have.

In the meantime, bin Laden may have decided that it would be wise to ride a mule out of the country, shave his beard, and, using his wealth and one of the various passports undoubtedly available to him, check in at a convenient Four Seasons hotel. If that seems exaggerated, it is nonetheless true that he and his organization can go to ground, and then “exterminating” terrorism would become a more formidable job than it is already.

The problem is that there is no closure in overturning the Taliban government. The American public wants the victory over terrorism that was imprudently promised by President George W. Bush. If the Afghan war goes into the winter without victory, and the terrorist leader is not captured, the President’s most recent warnings—that the struggle may be a long one—seem unlikely to meet the expectations he has raised. But even if bin Laden were to be captured, the public and the President would find no closure. Today’s terrorism is not, unfortunately, so simple as that.

The facts at present are that, while Osama bin Laden cannot be found, some of the political and intelligence operations against al-Qaeda seem to be going well. An extensive apparatus for tracking terrorist communications, organizations, and funding is being put into place. Inadequate or inconsistent laws abroad and in the United States concerning transients, residence, political refugees, sedition, and instigation to violence are being reviewed and debated.


The United States and its allies, had they the will, could take advantage of these successes, and of the arrival of Ramadan and Afghanistan’s harsh winter—traditionally a time when Afghan wars pause—to suspend the bombings. The situation in Afghanistan, and among Washington’s Muslim allies, could be allowed to evolve over the winter months. The result might prove constructive. Washington might take the time to reflect on its respon-sibility, which is to deal intelligently with the terrorist threat to the United States. Bin Laden and his group are instances of that threat. If he is killed he will be replaced. The causes of terrorism will remain, and they are political.

Afghanistan and its people are no threat to the United States, but they are the ones taking the full weight of America’s indignation. Fear of American air attacks has provoked a huge exodus of refugees from Afghanistan, people already victims of three decades of wars of foreign invasion and internecine conflict. The attacks have made it all but impossible for much-needed relief agencies to go into the country. As the utility of the bombings becomes increasingly hard to defend, the administration’s priorities seem upside down.

—October 31, 2001

This Issue

November 29, 2001