A couple of weeks after the September 11 attacks -- before the military campaign in Afghanistan had begun, and when Secretary of State Colin Powell's coalitionism seemed to be driving American policy -- a concerned observer privately asked Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld what in the world was going on. According to one account of the meeting, Rumsfeld responded, "Don't worry. When the war starts, the Pentagon will be calling the shots."
Rumsfeld was off by three weeks. Only in the past few days has the Pentagon begun to wrest control of the war in Afghanistan from the hands of Powell and his top policy adviser, Richard Haass. Better late than never. But the price of State Department control of strategy for the first weeks of the war has been high.
The State Department's strategy, if one can call it that, was to slow down the pace of the war and delay victory over the Taliban. In particular, State Department officials wanted to prevent a rapid advance of the Northern Alliance on Kabul until Haass could put together a broader coalition of Afghan political forces that could in turn agree on the shape of a post-Taliban government. Meanwhile, the Pakistan government, a longtime supporter of the Taliban, was insisting that some members of the Taliban must be included in the "post-Taliban" government. And so eager were Powell and his team to keep the Pakistanis happy that the secretary of state even seemed willing to go along with the idea of preserving "moderate" Taliban influence in Afghanistan.
The results of all this? The political efforts to build an anti-Taliban coalition have gone nowhere. This is hardly surprising. It may be impossible to pull together hostile Afghan factions under any circumstances. But it is certainly impossible to achieve a consensus on what a post-Taliban government is going to look like before we actually begin defeating the Taliban.
And thanks to the go-slow strategy, the Taliban until last week had suffered no serious military setbacks. On the contrary, the Taliban was scoring victories against the Northern Alliance and managed an enormous coup in the south when it killed a potentially key opposition leader, Abdul Haq. Happy talk from military officials about the Taliban being "eviscerated" turned to grudging admiration for the Taliban's tenacity. The military boasted of achieving air superiority over Afghanistan, but on the ground, the Taliban was actually growing in numbers, swelled by new recruits from abroad.
What's more, the go-slow strategy was beginning to undermine the State Department's prized achievement, "the coalition." Instead of scoring some quick early successes, which might have bolstered confidence that the United States knew what it was doing and was on the road to victory, the limited bombing campaign of the first few weeks succeeded in making our few, fragile Muslim allies nervous. The State Department behaved as if we had all the time in the world to make military progress in this war. But we didn't. The United States needs rapid, impressive, and convincing victories in Afghanistan, both to attract opposition elements to the anti-Taliban fight and to maintain support abroad.
Here, then, were the results of the State Department's conduct of this war in the first few weeks: No military progress against the Taliban on the front lines where it counts. No political progress in forming an anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan. No diplomatic progress in strengthening the coalition in support of the war elsewhere in the Muslim world.
The good news is that the administration appears now to be pivoting away from the State Department's flawed approach toward Rumsfeld's more aggressive military strategy. As the Washington Post reported last week, senior administration officials admit, on background, that they made a mistake and are now "giving wider latitude to the Defense Department to accelerate the U.S. battle plans." The strategy now, according to one official is, "Let's do what we need to do. Let's get on with it and get it over with."
The shift in strategy is good news. It signals an understanding of the importance of winning the Afghanistan stage of the war on terrorism as quickly and as decisively as possible. There has been at times an eerie lack of urgency in Washington about the Afghan war. This suggests a failure to understand the damage that would be done elsewhere -- especially in Pakistan and in the Muslim world -- if it seemed we were halfhearted. A chance to show awe-inspiring, sudden force and joltingly mighty resolution has probably already been lost. But moving now, with the utmost energy, to win the war in Afghanistan, rather than treating it as an occasion for a never-ending exercise in round-robin negotiation, is the next best thing.
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