How Many Villages Must We Bomb Before We Find bin Laden?
Barack Obama has said that he is not against war, only against stupid wars. One might then reasonably ask if the present war in Afghanistan is not a stupid war?
During the election campaign, the president-elect said it was the “right war” (instead of the one in Iraq), and that he would even support opportunistic illegal raids into Pakistan to seize Osama bin Laden, in emulation of that contempt for international law that when displayed by the George W. Bush administration won the United States so much admiration.
What is this war for? To seize bin Laden and his associates. The American government believes that he and his headquarters are in Pakistan, and presumably has intelligence to support that conclusion—although it has not been good enough for many months of American air attacks and special forces operations into the badlands of the Pakistani-Afghan frontier to succeed.
What level of confidence do American officials have that he still is there, despite all the effort to find him? If he is still in Pakistan’s tribal region, and given that he is an intelligent man, why should he stay there, waiting to be bombed or captured? During the Vietnam War, according to Stanley Karnow’s comprehensive history of the war, the American command insisted that there was a large Communist headquarters, the “Central Office for South Vietnam”—COSVN—located in the so-called Fishhook district of Cambodia.
That was one reason for the Nixon-Kissinger invasion of Cambodia. The combined South Vietnamese and American operation was in part motivated by the goal of finding and destroying this headquarters. When they found it, according to Karnow, instead of being “the miniature Pentagon imagined by official U.S. spokesmen,” American troops found “a scattering of empty huts, their occupants having fled weeks before.”
What reason is there to think that bin Laden is less prudent than the Vietnamese? Given six years of warnings that Washington believes he is in the Pakistan tribal territories, and is trying to find him there, would it not be reasonable for him to make other arrangements? Is it not possible that he and his headquarters would be gone by the time Americans or their auxiliaries, the reluctant Pakistani army and frontier police, finally arrive? Assuming that they do.
We are incessantly reminded that this is a world of instant communications. Bin Laden and his staff, for all that we know, might long ago have set themselves up in a comfortable resort hotel somewhere in the Gulf Emirates, or in the South American highlands, or the South Seas. Perhaps they have trimmed their beards, visited fashionable tailors, and now live in comfortable apartments in Paris or London, meeting in restaurants, and communicating with their collaborators through e-mails sent through constantly shifting networks of e-mail cafes. Or perhaps he uses the ordinary post office. His agents may also regularly disseminate heartless rumors in Pakistan about villages where he can be found, timed to invite American air raids to kill the maximum number of civilians.
The second objective of the American and NATO war is to prevent a Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan, the country it ruled from 1994 until 2001, when the U.S. organized anti-Taliban regional forces to retake the country, supported by U.S. B-52s. This was to punish the Taliban for having given pre-2001 hospitality to bin Laden, possessing a similar Islamic fundamentalist religious program. However, the Taliban itself were then concerned only with Afghanistan and had no foreign activities, terrorist or otherwise.
The Taliban today simply wants back what it considers its country, since its tribal and ethnic group is not only the largest in Afghanistan but in the entire region, totaling an estimated 40 million people.
Many in Pakistan, including part of the army’s intelligence apparatus, agree, so the American and NATO war against the Taliban is slowly, and one fears inexorably, merging with a struggle inside Pakistan between Islamic integrists and the new Pakistan government, which is identified with the increasingly hated Americans who keep bombing villages inside Pakistan.
The United States and its NATO allies are engaged in a war against a fanatical religious group that is backed by many of the 40-million-member Pathan ethnic group; the U.S.-NATO effort supports a weak, and by general acknowledgment corrupt, American-sponsored government in Kabul. Moreover, again according to general agreement, they are losing this war, a prospect that will not be changed by the two U.S. brigades scheduled to reinforce the troops there.
Washington has until now resisted initiatives, apparently coming from both sides in the war, to find compromises and a settlement.
Washington’s purpose in attacking what historically has been the most stubbornly impenetrable region of Asia is to lay hands on a man who might not be there and even if he is will undoubtedly leave before American troops arrive—if they arrive.
Does this sound like a stupid war? It is one of George Bush’s two stupid wars. Obama might announce just that, say that Washington will support whatever settlement of the fighting its Asian participants can agree upon, and has a secret plan to deal with Osama bin Laden in its own time and its own way, which no longer will be by fighting cruel and irrelevant wars in small countries.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.