‘The War on Terror’

It is now more than a month since the “war on terror” began. At the time of writing the Northern Alliance has captured Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul: the Bush administration can claim a significant victory and real progress in its effort to destroy the Taliban. On the US home front there have been no more anthrax-laden letters for a while and the edgy public mood has calmed. No one is quite sure what “normal” should now be, but there is a widespread public desire to return to it, even—perhaps especially—in New York City. The President continues to enjoy record levels of public support.

How justified is the American public’s continuing confidence in its government? Washington’s handling of the anthrax scare, and of domestic security as a whole, has not been very reassuring. This is not so surprising. In Republican administrations especially, the departments of health and transportation, the postal service, and even the office of attorney general are typically filled with second-string political friends and time-servers, men and women elevated beyond their competence to posts in which their party has little interest. They never expected to find themselves in the front line of a major national crisis and their performance has been inept. Like the FBI and the CIA, they appear overwhelmed and underprepared.

The secretaries of state and defense of the Bush administration have performed much better, as might have been expected from their background and experience. They have even begun to mount a propaganda offensive in which an Arabic-speaking professional US diplomat at last went on the al-Jazeera television station and presented the US case. The military has been less convincing. On the evidence to date, and notwithstanding the retreat of the Taliban forces to their strongholds in the south, the United States has been fighting not so much the war it needs to fight as the one for which its forces are best prepared. That, of course, is what peacetime armies always do at the start of wars—the learning curve is protracted and usually bloody. In this war, given America’s overwhelming strength, we shall probably win all the battles in any case. Whether we shall win our war remains an open question.

Up to now, Washington’s main concern has not been winning the war so much as securing the “coalition.” Our priorities since September 11 have been clear: Washington, and especially the Pentagon, has taken extra special care to make friends, purchase allies, neutralize opponents, assuage local sensibilities, appease Pakistani fears of a Northern Alliance victory, ensure the safety of its soldiers and airmen, fine-tune its bombing campaign, and in general behave like a good international citizen. These are all worthy objectives in peacetime, and one can only hope that the US will continue to be so solicitous of international sentiment once the war is over.

In the meantime, however, the war on the Taliban has taken longer than anticipated—just a week before the fall of Kabul the Pentagon was expressing its surprise that the Afghans had…

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