370. "How Not to Win the War." USA Today (November 7, 2001) p 15A.


The United States has been scaling back its bombing on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath. And only after much public agonizing has the Bush administration decided to continue bombing during the Muslims' holy month of Ramadan. All of this even though the other side has given us no indication that it would curb its attacks on the days holy to us -- or to them.

The reason? We fear offending the sensibilities of Muslim nations that support us and further inflaming the enmity of the others. Is this any way to win a war? Political considerations are severely hampering our military's ability to oust the Taliban from power.

Need more persuasion?

* For 2 weeks, we spared the Taliban by keeping the Northern Alliance from overrunning Kabul and thus laying claim to being a major player in an Afghan government. Such a victory would cause the military front to run ahead of the lagging political front, we were told. Also, we did not wish to displease Pakistan, which is at loggerheads with the alliance.

* If not for such political considerations, the Northern Alliance might have captured a crucial airport at Mazar-e Sharif early in the war. That would have allowed us to operate from inside Afghanistan rather than from faraway bases. This, too, was delayed into late October, until we discovered that putting together a stable Afghan coalition government is, indeed, a rather tricky business.

* Another opportunity lost by waiting was that it allowed the Taliban forces to disperse into the countryside. Earlier on, they were easier targets for bombers. Now we will have to engage them in a guerrilla war, which is likely to extend the fighting and increase our casualties.

Some might say that I should not second-guess our leaders. But the art of war is not rocket science. And I am not second-guessing the military, but objecting to the micromanagement of the war by politicians.

One reason the war in Kosovo -- also fought against a small country, Serbia -- took so long was that initially a 19-member committee composed of political representatives of various nations had to approve each bombing target. We won once the general in charge was given guidelines and freed to proceed within their confines.

Now, I am not arguing that the Pentagon should be given a free hand. Our elected officials should set the goals of the war as well as formulate the various do's and don'ts, such as guidelines to minimize the loss of civilian lives. In fact, all of this has been done quite properly.

But then civilians should step aside and let the military do its job, in line with the cold logic of warfare.

We face the same issue in other parts of the globe. President Bush correctly stressed that the war against terrorists is worldwide and encompasses cells in some 60 countries. Major attacks on all of these have been delayed because they may offend one or more of our allies. Thus, when we learned that Iraq might be the source of the anthrax terror attacks, we were told by political analysts that we should not even think about hitting Iraq, because "the coalition will not like it." And, despite the known terrorist cells in the Philippines and Malaysia, it wasn't until mid-October that we finally got around to sending the Philippines a handful of military advisers to train Filipino troops.

After initial claims of great progress in trying to curb money laundering by terrorists, we hear little about it. The reason? Several of our allies are involved, and we fear antagonizing them.

And finally, when the Saudi and Egyptian airlines bluntly refused to release to us in advance names of passengers on their incoming flights to United States, we did not pull their landing rights.

The increasing difficulty of keeping the coalition together has reached the point that instead of helping the worldwide war against terrorism, it often stands in the way.

What about the argument that we must please all of these allies or we will have not bases from which to operate? First, a detailed examination shows that much of the war is carried out from bases in the United States, Germany and our naval ships. Second, some important allies will not fall off if we act more vigorously, including Turkey and Pakistan. Still others greatly limit what we are allowed to do from their territory anyhow, especially Saudi Arabia.

We are also warned that acting more boldly might antagonize "the Muslim world," but this is hardly a monolithic block. Many Muslims reject the Taliban's harsh kind of Islam and fear Islamic terrorists. Moreover, most people respect not only attention to sensibilities but also military might.

Our willpower is being tested. If it continues to be questioned -- because of excessively political dillydallying and curtseying to Muslim sensibilities -- we shall lose much more than the coalition: The war against terrorism will turn into another 100-year war, with unimaginable human toll and misery on all sides.

Amitai Etzioni, the author of The Limits of Privacy, teaches at George Washington University. He is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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