Strategy Out of Sync

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The Bush administration appeared to make a wise choice in its original sequence of counterterrorism policy objectives. It decided first to facilitate the organization of an Afghan government of national unity to replace the Taliban. Washington then would provide military support for this coalition of Afghan tribes in order to drive the Taliban from power, muster recognition for the new Kabul regime, and, with UN assistance, begin the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Only then would the United States lead the effort to bring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida to justice -- or bring justice to them.

From what can be surmised, Bush's war cabinet agreed that as long as the Taliban regime existed, bin Laden and his terrorist organization would be protected. But without the Taliban, bin Laden could not find refuge in Afghanistan's cities, and therefore would be forced to try to find sanctuary in the boondocks of Afghanistan. There, he and his followers could be isolated, hunted and destroyed. This policy sequence is now out of sync.

The effort to organize a government of national unity has proved to be far more difficult than anticipated. The Northern Alliance -- a coalition of Tajik and Uzbek Afghanis and backed by Russia, India and Iran -- wants to advance on Kabul on its own, relying on U.S. airpower to decimate Taliban forces in its path. However, traditional Pashtun tribal leaders in the south, some of whom favor rallying behind Zahir Shah (the exiled king), and some strongly backed by Pakistan, objected to any U.S. military aid that would put the Northern Alliance in power in Kabul. Pakistan, especially, opposes the establishment of a new Afghan government linked to its Indian rival. The forces in the south called for an inclusive tribal council, a loya jirga, as the proper way to create an alternate regime.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, undoubtedly frustrated by the intricacies of Afghan tribal politics, is working to bring about an alternative indigenous political authority. He has made his policy planning chief, Richard Haass, the point man for the effort. Progress remains slow. Hundreds of Pashtun leaders did meet in Peshawar to call for a loya jirga. The Northern Alliance reluctantly pledged to be patient, for a time, until forces in the south could be organized as part of the anti-Taliban coalition.

The Pentagon, however, became impatient. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made the case that military strikes on the Taliban would facilitate the formation of a government of national unity. Degrading the Taliban's military, he argued, would give its opposition confidence in eventually taking power. Diplomacy and military operations could proceed concurrently. Air strikes began on Oct. 7.

While the laborious process of creating a new regime painstakingly proceeded -- suffering a severe setback when the Taliban captured and executed opposition leader Abdul Haq -- U.S bombing strikes dominated the news. Day after day, reports from Afghanistan and the Pentagon describe the targets hit and the casualties produced -- with Pentagon reports often at great variance with those of the Taliban, who claim widespread destruction of civilian targets and hundreds dead.

The military effort has moved too far out ahead of the diplomatic effort, with increasingly adverse consequences. As a result, the United States is losing the propaganda war. With an Afghan government of national unity yet to be established, U.S. bombing appears to be another foreign power beating up on the Afghans. America kills and has the technology to avoid being killed. The United States appears to many in the Islamic world to be at war with the Islamic world. In particular, angry Pakistanis are putting President Pervez Musharraf under growing pressure for his support of U.S. operations.

Any positive message from Washington -- that all Afghans will be represented in the new regime, that the Taliban is a creature of radical Arabs, that no foreign troops will occupy the country, and that the UN will contribute mightily to reconstruct the war-torn land -- is drowned out by reports of exploding ordnance and its devastating consequences.

The absence of this strong, positive message coupled with the focus on bombing tends to: 1. taint any opposition to the Taliban as a tool of the United States, 2. bolster the Taliban as a valid national authority, 3. make the Islamic world increasingly hostile to U.S. military operations, and 4. create the false expectation in the media that the military campaign will produce the desired political outcome. The danger grows that the lack of military progress will incease calls in Washington for more military action when facilitating an indigenous opposition to the Taliban -- a diplomatic task -- remains the top requirement for a successful counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld now finds his military operations treading water and awaiting progress on the diplomatic front, progress that his military operations have made far more difficult.

Nicholas Berry (nberry@cdi.org) is a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.