Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Still much to learn from the Afghanistan War

Stephen Zunes offers a sobering look at the results so far of the Afghanistan War in Operation Enduring Freedom: A Retrospective Foreign Policy in Focus 11/18/06. Among the important points he highlight are included the following.

The Iraq War has detracted attention from Afghanistan, and has left many Americans unaware of how significantly the war has changed since 2001:

Relatively speaking, the war in Afghanistan has not been nearly as much the unambiguous tragedy as the U.S. war on Iraq. Only the most committed pacifists or the most extreme among the ideological critics of U.S. intervention would have ruled out the possibility of at least some use of force against al-Qaida following the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

Were it not for the Iraq War, however, there would be a lot more debate and serious questions regarding U.S. policy in Afghanistan. On the fifth anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom, the large-scale civilian casualties inflicted by U.S. forces, the torture and abuse of detainees, the ongoing suffering and violence in that country, and the resurgence of the dreaded Taliban all demand a significant rethinking of the war.
This is a significant piece of the history of the war of which I was previously unaware:

Pakistani and British newspapers reported that in late September and early October [2001], leaders of Pakistan's two Islamic-identified parties negotiated a deal that could have avoided war. According to these reports, the Taliban was apparently willing to extradite bin Laden to Pakistan to face an international tribunal that would then decide whether to try him there or hand him over to the United States. However, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain pressured Pakistan's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, to kill the deal. An American official was later quoted as saying that “casting our objective too narrowly” risked “a premature collapse of the international effort if by some luck chance Mr. bin Laden was captured.” In short, the Bush administration appeared to prefer going to war than bringing bin Laden to justice.
The air war in both Afghanistan and Iraq needs to be getting a lot more questions likethis:

Why did the United States focus on high-altitude bombing instead of precisely targeted small-unit commando operations, which would have presumably been a more appropriate tactic against a terrorist group like al-Qaida?

... The emphasis on high-altitude bombing was less a strategic necessity than an effort to avoid casualties among U.S. pilots. Such a trade-off is understandable when soldiers face enemy soldiers, but it is unethical and illegal when the result is a higher civilian death toll. ...

A war against a foreign government involves clear, fixed targets such as command-and-control centers, intelligence headquarters, heavy equipment, major weapons stockpiles, large concentrations of troops, and major military complexes. A war against a terrorist group is not so straightforward. Due to the nature of attacks organized by small groups using clandestine methods, so-called “terrorist bases” generally contain no tangible assets that can be seriously crippled by military strikes. As a result, such air campaigns have a mixed success rate at best, particularly in poor rural countries that have few obvious targets to destroy or damage.
And this is something that most commentators have completely lost sight of with everything that's happened since:

Indeed, the key figures in the 9/11 attacks lived in residential neighborhoods in Hamburg, Germany, not in the bombed-out "terrorist bases" in Afghanistan. Similarly, they received more training from flight schools in the United States than from military camps in Afghanistan. No countries outside the Taliban's Afghanistan have formally granted sanctuary to the al-Qaida network, but these terrorists have still continued to operate.
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