The Magazine

Fighting to Win

Nov 12, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 09 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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There's another reason we're glad to see the president is willing to change course in fighting this war. Tactical and strategic flexibility is an enormously important virtue in a war leader. In this as in all wars, if one strategy isn't working, you've got to recognize it quickly and try another. There is no dishonor in changing strategies. The United States brought itself to failure in Vietnam in part because of a rigidity that made it difficult to adapt to new and unexpected realities on the ground. President Bush's willingness to shift course suggests he may well be a successful commander in chief.

It would help the president in his mission if administration and military officials stopped pretending all the time that "everything is going according to plan." Everything never goes according to plan, and pretending that it does can only create a credibility gap. The Bush administration needn't worry about looking omniscient. The American people know this is a tough war, and a complex one. They expect some course changes along the way. Explaining what we're doing now, why changes are needed, and how they contribute to our war aims will suffice.

It's likely the president will have to show continued flexibility in the coming weeks and months, because there's no guarantee that the current intensified bombing will do the job. Perhaps bombing the Taliban's front lines will open the path for the Northern Alliance to march through to Kabul. And perhaps the Northern Alliance has the wherewithal to exploit the opportunity. But it is also possible that the heavier bombing of the Taliban forces won't be enough.

That means the president must be prepared to move to the next step: not just sending in advisers and commando units, but deploying ground troops in Afghanistan. This may be a limited deployment at first, to create a base of operations for further attacks. But we suspect a major deployment of American ground troops will be needed to finally oust the Taliban, capture Osama and his gang, and make Afghanistan a terrorist-free zone.

A decision to deploy a substantial number of American ground troops would not be an easy one. No one is under any illusion that it will be without cost. But time is of the essence. This has nothing to do with the patience of the American people, which we trust will never flag in this fight. But given the dynamics in the Muslim world, there is a huge benefit to winning quickly, or at least to being visibly on course to an overwhelming victory in Afghanistan in the near future. Then we can move on to winning the overall war on terrorism, a war in which anything short of full victory is unthinkable.

November 12, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 9