America's war strategy flawed

September 25, 2001|By Jerome Karabel

BERKELEY, Calif. -- A war between the United States and broad swaths of the Islamic world was precisely what Osama bin Laden and his accomplices in terror hoped to provoke by attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But they cannot accomplish their goal without our assistance. What they need -- and what President Bush's speech Thursday made clear we are getting ready to deliver -- is a large-scale military assault on a Muslim country.

By presenting the Taliban with a list of non-negotiable demands and effectively threatening them with death, the White House has virtually guaranteed that the United States will soon be at war with Afghanistan. And in pursuing that war, we are likely to find ourselves unwitting allies of the very forces we seek to defeat. As the nation prepares for war, the real question before the American people is not the justness of the cause of fighting terrorism, which is a righteous one. Rather, it is whether the road on which we are embarking will accomplish our objectives.

So far, the Bush administration's case for massive military action has proved unconvincing, for its strategy rests on at least four deeply flawed assumptions.

Assumption One: That, as President Bush stated, "there will be universal approval of the actions this government takes."

Though virtually every nation was horrified by the terrorist attacks, support worldwide for a military response is limited. In a little-publicized Gallup international poll on terrorism takes last week, 26 of 29 Countries, including Britain, preferred by large majorities "to extradite the terrorists to stand trial" rather than "a military attack on the country or countries where the terrorists are based." Apart from the United States, the only Countries polled that supported military action were Israel and India. And even our closest friends urged caution. Javier Solana, the European Union's top foreign policy official said, "The center of gravity in the fight against terrorism is not the military."

Assumption Two: That the United States can "smoke out" the terrorists and win a decisive victory over them.

This strategy works better in the movies than it will in confronting an elusive and secretive foe that has tightly organized cells scattered across the globe. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld estimates the Al Qaeda network has terrorist cells in up to 60 countries. The United States has been unable to identify, much less control, such cells on its own territory; "eradicating" a far-flung global network seems a distant prospect.

Assumption Three: That the United States can win a clear victory in a military conflict with Afghanistan.

From the moment the administration announced it would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them," momentum for an armed conflict with Afghanistan has been building. Though it is well within our power to destroy what is left of a country already devastated by war with the Soviet Union and the civil war that followed, pacifying the entirety of this mountainous nation is almost certainly beyond us.

Assumption Four: That the United States can carry out what the White House has called a "sweeping" war against terrorism without producing unintended -- and massively counterproductive -- consequences.

In the best circumstances, a bloody assault on Afghanistan likely to result in a large number of civilian casualties will vastly enlarge the pool of suicide bombers in the next generation. In the worst circumstances, it will destabilize precarious regimes in the region, bringing Islamic radicals to power.

Pakistan is a prime candidate to become a Taliban-like regime. The second-largest Islamic nation in the world with a population of 142 million, Pakistan may already have been pressured by the United States into making more concessions than its fragile government can withstand. Anti-American demonstrations are widespread, and a recent poll reported that two-thirds oppose assisting the United States in an attack on Afghanistan.

Should the current military regime -- which includes a considerable number of Taliban sympathizers among its senior officers and its intelligence apparatus -- topple, the United States would be faced with the world's first radical Islamic regime with nuclear weapons.

As we consider our response to the dastardly attack of Sept. 11, the nightmarish prospect that the real legacy of our actions may be a radicalized Pakistani regime possessing 30 nuclear weapons -- each of them larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima -- demands that we stop to consider the real possibility that our actions may be catastrophically counterproductive.

Jerome Karabel is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and is a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute in Oakland, Calif.

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