Jewish World Review Nov. 20, 2001 / 5 Kislev, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Victory through air power

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- WHEN a spokesman for the retreating Taliban conceded that a strategic crossroads had fallen to the Afghan opposition, his statement was a tribute to what air power can accomplish in this war:

For seven days, they (the Americans) have been bombing Taliban positions. They used very large bombs

Do you think that last observation was a reference to those 15,000-pound daisy-cutters dropped on the poor devils assigned to defend Mazar-e-Sharif, the vital road junction that fell to the opposition last week?

Use enough of those babies on entrenched troops, and they ain't gonna be entrenched for long. With that kind of fire raining down, troops may retreat or surrender, but not stay and survive.

That same bleak choice may soon face the Taliban retreating from Kabul. As roads to the interior of the country are opened, it will be easier to supply the advancing opposition from neighboring Uzbekistan.

And as airports are seized and secured, American bombers will be able to shorten their runs and increase the number of sorties they fly. After a month of slowly mounting warfare, the end is not in sight, or even the beginning of the end, but we can hope we've seen the end of the beginning.

This country can bomb other targets continuously, too, and for a lot longer than seven days if that's what it takes to burn out the Taliban. As one American general said when asked how long this campaign would last: "As long as it takes.''

The impatient have been demanding that American ground forces be committed to battle on a grand scale. But why rush in when there is already an anti-Taliban force on the ground and advancing as the enemy falters?

The surest index of progress in this war will not be the numbers of enemy killed or captured, but reports of Taliban troops' switching sides. Afghanistan has been invaded by foreigners, all right, but the invasion took place years ago when the Taliban embraced Osama bin Laden, his Arab followers, and assorted fanatics from throughout the Muslim world. Why not let the Afghans themselves throw off their oppressors?

The Pentagon's methodical prosecution of this war continues to impress. The American command isn't just fighting the last war again, which is the usual mistake generals make. This isn't Kosovo or the Gulf. This is a different war against a different enemy in a different part of the world.

Despite all the kibitzers urging the use of American ground forces on a massive scale (with massive casualties to match) the American command has wisely ignored all the kibitzing from the sidelines, all the cries for an all-out invasion of Afghanistan as if it were Normandy.

Instead of plunging headlong into a quagmire, American strategists have patiently pursued long-term objectives: Secure airfields. Open supply lines to our allies on the ground. And, above all, use air power.

Yes, employ special forces, forward observers, liaison officers and undercover operatives ... but not some huge American Expeditionary Force that might occupy the country, all right, and then become a fixed target for the kind of guerrilla warfare the Taliban prefer. That's the big mistake the Russians made in Afghanistan, with fatal results.

If there is a single principle that has guided American planners in this war, it is the old caveat: No land war in Asia. We forget it at our peril.

In the end, it is not strategy that will determine the outcome of this campaign, or even logistics, vital as American supplies are, but the will of the American people. The greatest strategic weapon in the American arsenal is not those daisy-cutters, or the whole vast array of made-in-America technology, but the patience of American public opinion. And so far it is holding up beautifully -- despite all the jittery second-guessing from pundits and pols.

It's as if the American people in their quiet confidence understood some things that have escaped the punditry. Like the need to press on slowly but surely, rather than rush in precipitously.

In any war, resolve is crucial, and bad ideas numerous. One of the worst is that the United States should halt its bombing campaign for the holy month of Ramadan -- lest we incur the hatred of the Arab world. But we will be hated in any case. And if we are foolish enough to stop bombing -- and bombing continuously -- we will not only be hated but despised. Now is no time to go wobbly. Bombs away.

As this war grinds on, the responsibility for conducting it more and more devolves on the military, which is where it belongs. But now and then, as when bombing pauses are proposed, one can sense the bumbling old Middle East hands at the State Department trying to get in on the act.

It was unnerving to hear the American commander-in-chief say that he didn't want the Northern Alliance, which is rapidly becoming a national Afghan alliance, to take Kabul too swiftly.

Even if George W. Bush and his diplomats have their doubts about ousting the Taliban before the next government of Afghanistan has been agreed upon, the president would do better to keep those doubts to himself.

One can understand why he wouldn't want to turn this war into an ethnic clash between Afghanistan's Pashtuns and the Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras on the side of the Northern Alliance, but why argue with success? Why interfere with the mounting confidence and momentum of our allies on the ground?

Whatever the State Department's concerns about the nature of the next regime in Afghanistan, those concerns shouldn't be allowed to delay the Taliban's ouster. Their defeat is the one prerequisite for a post-Taliban regime. Let's not delay it. Once the Taliban are gone, a brand new government can be formed. And the sooner the enemy is defeated, the more likely that is to happen.

Momentum, and the confidence that comes with it, is important in the conduct of any war, but especially in a war like this -- in which the aim is not only to defeat the enemy but to encourage defections. So that fewer battles will have to be fought.

Let's not interfere with that growing sense of momentum. Nothing that hastens the Taliban's collapse should be discouraged. While there is no need to rush, let's not delay victory, either.

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