First, win the war

October 31, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - There's a healthy dose of hubris, not to say unreality, in the current effort by the Bush administration to create a post-Taliban regime in Afghanistan when the incumbents are not yet politically or militarily dead and buried.

The assumption that sooner or later the gang that is sheltering Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network will be driven from power may well be correct. But the Pentagon's admissions that the Taliban is dug in, and the lack of evidence that the Northern Alliance opposition is making any substantial headway against the regime in Kabul, suggest it's much more likely to be later.

If so, the notion of nation-building, or more accurately nation-rebuilding, which President Bush as a candidate in 2000 so conspicuously denigrated as future policy, seems just a tad premature. In fact, being concerned about what happens after the Taliban is gone obviously has been affecting the military effort to remove that regime from the scene.

The administration recognizes the advantage of having a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan that is as home-grown as possible, but achieving it is another matter. With every passing day of American military might pounding the country, anti-U.S. sentiments are refueled there and elsewhere in the Islamic world, encouraged by the man Mr. Bush likes to call "the evildoer."

The schizophrenia of the policy of pounding the country while we stroke it with diplomacy and CARE packages is not likely to make that world feel much better about us if it is seen as a war against an existing regime, rather than a war against terrorism. Yet that is how our policy will increasingly be viewed if there is no tangible progress in the latter effort and the campaign to remove the Taliban leadership and government drags on.

This is so even though Congress did not explicitly declare war on Afghanistan or the Taliban regime. Instead it authorized "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons" Mr. Bush determines had anything to do with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The president's personal declaration that any regime that harbors terrorists will suffer the consequences is a very broad application of Congress' war-making power. After initially dancing around the question of whether the United States intended to wage war on Afghanistan or just get the terrorists, there no longer is any doubt that our policy is to remove the Taliban.

In spite of Mr. Bush's repeated candor in telling the American people that the war on terrorism will be long and difficult, the prospect of a drawn-out military campaign against an entrenched regime, and no terrorist leaders captured or killed to show for it, spells political trouble ahead for him.

Notably absent in the whole equation are voices of authority and responsibility among Islamic clerics combating the outrageous notion that bin Laden and his gang are acting in defense of, and in accordance with, the Islamic religion. The recent assemblage of foreign Islamic leaders was ineffective in this regard. Until this community can be mobilized as a counter to bin Laden's rantings, our own actions, military and diplomatic, will be swimming upstream in the waters of public opinion in the Islamic world.

For all of the Bush administration's conscientious efforts to build an international coalition on the pattern of the senior Mr. Bush's achievement in the Persian Gulf war of a decade ago, situations then and now are different. Mr. Bush Sr. drove out an invader; Mr. Bush Jr. is engaged in ousting an incumbent regime.

For all the lip service paid by members of the current coalition, some of them seem not to have really bought into the nation-rebuilding aspect of the deal.

It is much too early to conclude that in the war against the Taliban as part of the war against terrorism, we are on the road to another tunnel with no light at the end, as in Vietnam.

But we do seem to be putting the cart before the horse in conducting our diplomacy as if our military has already made the Taliban history.

If that is the first order of business, we should get on with it with more focus and clarity.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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