Getting smarter in Afghanistan

July 14, 2002

THE U.S. Army announced Wednesday that it's scouting out a good location for a permanent base in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province, a place where Taliban support was strong to begin with and is unlikely to have lessened following the July 1 attack by an American plane on a wedding party that killed at least 40 people.

It's going to be dangerous work, but putting troops on the ground there could turn out to be a good idea -- if it's handled intelligently. The American military is very good at bringing overwhelming firepower to bear on whatever target it chooses -- that's why there were so many casualties among the wedding celebrants -- but the situation in Afghanistan has reached the point where getting good information and establishing decent relations with the locals are considerably more important than brute force.

After the Uruzgan incident, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, in his usual blunt manner, "There cannot be the use of that kind of firepower and not have mistakes. It is going to happen." And he is absolutely right. That's why having some sort of permanent military presence in a place like Uruzgan could advance American interests much more effectively than the impulse to call out the AC-130 gunships every time something looks fishy. Keep the firepower in reserve and get some eyes and ears in where it matters.

If the Army takes the trouble to learn its way around the province, and do the smart thing and the right thing in times of trouble, it could do a lot of good. If it acts like a typical, bullying, not-too-bright army of occupation, disaster beckons.

Uruzgan is a treacherous part of an uncertain country. The Pentagon is still not convinced that someone, perhaps hiding among the wedding party, wasn't trying to shoot down the American plane that day. The point is, though, that the United States needs to start convincing ordinary Afghans that it isn't the enemy. In often very difficult conditions, in other words, the military needs to show heroic finesse.

At the moment, Afghanistan is not the setting for pitched battles. It is the setting for intrigue and assassination, evident most recently last weekend when Vice President Abdul Qadir was shot to death as he left his office in Kabul. Mr. Qadir was an unsavory warlord with a hand in the drug trade who had many equally unsavory enemies. But he was a Pashtun in a country where Pashtuns are seething over a U.S.-backed government that appears to be dominated by Tajiks.

The United States must demonstrate considerable diplomatic skill if it is to help the new government achieve a legitimate standing within the country. A good way to start would be to show ordinary people the tangible benefits of American involvement -- better schooling and better health care, for instance -- and to stop shooting up the countryside from the air.

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