IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Are we winning yet?

100 days into it, Michael Moran writes a strategic, political and moral analysis of what this war has wrought so far.

One hundred days ago, as the first American and British missiles began slamming into Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, trepidation reigned across the world. The Taliban and their fanatical guests, al-Qaida, had not flinched in the run-up to the war. They gave no hint that all that they doubted all the talk of Afghanistan as the “graveyard of armies,” as the Kipling-quoting Sunday Times of London pompously put it back in September.

Hardliners on the war — the same people who spoke of nuclear retaliation in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 — hoped to turn Afghanistan into Central Asia’s parking lot. The international community, aghast at the prospect of unilateral American action, wanted to see the “proof” that Osama bin Laden was behind the Sept. 11 attacks before blessing them.

Aid groups warned of mass starvation. French intellectuals, Chinese tabloids, Islamic radicals and Jerry Falwell — not-so-strange bedfellows — all said it served America right and predicted George W. Bush would meet his Waterloo.

The American president may meet it still, but so far, no such town exists in Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld warned the war against terrorism would be a long, tough engagement — more like the Cold War than the Gulf War — one that might take years or even decades to accomplish, if ever. Invariably, though, there are many throughout the world, and a good number on the two fringes of American politics, who want results now. They want to apply the nonsensical horserace mentality that has corrupted American politics to the current American war effort. If there is any single great threat to an American effort in Afghanistan right now, it is the television-stunted attention span of the American elites that run the country’s media, its policy panels and its government.


But there are certain useful things that can be said about the first 100 days of fighting in Afghanistan. The most important of them grow out of the way the United States chose to fight the war, using a proxy force that that minimized the potential for American casualties.

Relying on airpower, the Northern Alliance and relatively small units of American and British special forces produced a quick collapse of Taliban authority across the country. This is the dominant feature of the war in the eyes of many military analysts. An ugly regime toppled, a terrorist group on the run, international and domestic doubts largely allayed, and less than a dozen (known) American combat deaths in the process.

Yet the decision to rely on a proxy force - the Northern Alliance — left the fate of the routed Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in the hands of their fellow Afghans, a situation that left the getaway routes wide open and which may still allow Taliban units to regroup for a guerrilla war against the new Afghan authorities. So Mullah Omar, bin Laden and others may live to fight another day.

This strategy also meant prolonging the initial period of bombardment - the three-week period in October before the Northern Alliance began its offensive on Kabul - thus increasing the number of Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire. The Pentagon is wisely (and somewhat cynically) mum on the number of civilians killed by the Anglo-American air raids. But conservative estimates by an American bomb assessment expert, Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire, suggests that at least 3,200 civilians had died as result of the air raids by mid-December. That is not 3,200 Taliban fighters — their casualties appear to have been much higher. Rather, these were 3,200 men, women and children who, like their fellow human beings in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, had nothing to do with the politics of the conflict. What weight does this deserve in American calculations? Certainly, it cannot be ignored.


Further afield, there are similar highs and lows for the United States after 100 days. Islamic militants in Pakistan opposed to Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s “decision” to help the U.S. war effort sought to reverse that decision by launching attacks in India and precipitating a nuclear crisis. The crisis materialized, but international pressure on both sides, and notably restraint from India, prevented the worst. Indeed, the episode may prove a sobering lesson for both.

Beyond that, the United States has managed quite masterfully the public diplomacy needed to convince other nations some friendly, some not so friendly — to lend a hand in its campaign to root out al-Qaida. Washington won intelligence cooperation from such unlikely sources as Syria, Libya and Sudan. It bought silence from China, and quite surprisingly, outright help from Russia and Iran.

Some of this is a passing coincidence of interests. It is hard to imagine China being comfortable with a new long-term American military presence in Central Asia to go along with the ones in South Korea, Japan and Australia. Russia, too, has its own interests and will pursue them, no matter how good Vladimir Putin looks in a cowboy hat. Iran remains a nation split between those who would like to befriend America, and those in power who regard it with the deepest suspicion.

Then there is Israel and the Palestinian Authority, two states led by two men uniquely ill-suited to the subtle challenges of the post-Sept. 11 world. Upon coming to office, the Bush administration had placed the “Mideast conflict” on the back-burner. That initial neglect sent both sides all the wrong signals. After Sept. 11, Israel’s government drew no distinction between Yasser Arafat, with whom it had signed treaties, and Osama bin Laden. Arafat, on the other hand, failed to understand what the Irish Republican Army immediately gleaned: business as usual (which in the Palestinian Authority meant looking the other way as “the street” vented its frustrations with suicide bombings), just wasn’t going to cut it. Quite contrary to the administration’s pre-war rhetoric, the need for the United States as a forceful check on both sides has never been so clear. The U.S. challenge ahead is demanding, rather than encouraging, a peace deal whose basic outlines have been clear for years.


By and large, given the state of shock that fell upon Americans after the September attacks, the first 100 days leave plenty of room for optimism. No, Osama bin Laden is not hanging on a meat hook, as did the defeated Mussolini. But remember, no one in the West really knew whether Hitler had died or escaped to Argentina after World War II. Did this make the Allied victory any less complete? Not at all. The measure of defeat or victory here will not be bin Laden’s head on a platter.

In fact, what spoiled the party after World War II, and what could spoil America’s anti-terrorism campaign, was the immediate splintering of the victorious coalition into Cold War enemies. The analogy is flawed — neither Britain nor the United States had the ability to demand that Stalin’s regime change its stripes - but the lesson is there to be learned and applied in this war. In the place of Stalin’s tyrannical Soviet Union today is the most reluctant, and most important recruit to America’s war on terrorism: nuclear-armed, fanatic-ridden Pakistan.

Going back to the 1980s, when Pakistan was the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel and Egypt, U.S. administrations made little fuss over the rapid spread of radical Islam and the madrassas that spread it along the Afghan border. These “schools,” after all, were perfect safe houses for CIA operatives fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and they were the tool of Washington’s Pakistani dictator of choice, Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Today, after a series of half measures since Sept. 11, Musharraf appears to be acting seriously against militant groups. This not only augurs well for the war on terrorism; if continued, it may help stabilize the equally dangerous nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan, and in turn help bring wider stability to all of Asia.

This is the real brass ring. Ten years from now, having bin Laden’s ashes in an urn won’t count for much if the United States loses the struggle to coax states like Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Russia into a workable anti-terrorist coalition. We don’t need to be friends; we don’t even need to agree on many things. We just have to agree, like good neighbors, to call the cops when we see something suspicious going on across the street. That sounds simple, but it is going to take a lot longer than 100 days.