November 17th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Widespread support for Development Bank

Editorial: Election 2001 - The issues which must be addressed

TESTIMONIAL: News Weekly: more than a magazine

BIOETHICS: Church leaders reject all human cloning

DEFENCE: Navy League endorses Coastwatch, rejects coast guard

Straws in the Wind: The great wombat race / Inch by inch / Escobar lives!

ECONOMICS: Development Bank - a boost for regional enterprise

COMMENT: Exposing the anti-American Left

Letter: Development Bank

Letter: Pakistan next?

Letter: Knowledge nation

Letter: What jobs?

Afghanistan: War on terror - the scorecard so far

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Baby bonus signals sea-change in family policy

HEALTH: Are too many Australian children over-medicated?

EUTHANASIA: Belgium threatens to go down the Dutch road

ECONOMY: Where competition policy fails

LITERATURE: Nobel winner celebrates life and civilisation

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Afghanistan: War on terror - the scorecard so far

by Bob Browning

News Weekly, November 17, 2001

American air-strikes have intensified, as has media scrutiny, yet it remains all but impossible to evaluate accurately the military situation inside Afghanistan. Bob Browning explains why maintaining public support in the West remains the critical concern.

No one with a sense of human responsibility should hope for anything less than total success in the war against terrorism. This applies even if those leading the war have less than an unblemished record in regard to the economic and political condition of many Arab and other Muslim countries in which contemporary terrorism hatched and spread globally.

Who wants a world where ordinary people live in fear of fanatics? Events so far leave little doubt that, unless checked, terrorists will strive to escalate attacks to the level of biological and other weapons of mass destruction. Whatever the terrorists claim, this is no way to relieve the plight of the world's poor or to remedy injustice. Clearly, al-Qaeda's motivation is darker and sicker.

Fully supporting the stated objectives of the coalition's war against terrorism, however, does not preclude worrying about the effectiveness and ethics of the tactics being used. The Vietnam War hammered home the message that America's military might is not always matched by its political acumen and operational intelligence. There is also the old adage that the first causality of war is truth. One needs to remain alert to the spin that all sides in conflict give to their progress reports.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the overarching goal of US military action in Afghanistan is "to deal with the terrorist networks that cover the globe." After four weeks of technological state of the art bombardment, however, the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan has achieved limited progress towards its objective. In some respects it has proved counter-productive.

On the positive side, US-led retaliation for September 11 has sent a message to other countries that harbouring or supporting terrorists is no longer risk-free. Forceful response is now a reality. It has also galvanised world attention on the terrorist menace. It has increased public understanding of the reality of contemporary terrorism - its nature, its causes, its already global reach, its potential for more deadly assaults, and its negative impact on the world economy and human relations.

On the negative side, Taliban forces seem far from crippled or cowed by US bombing. With characteristic ruthlessness, the Taliban are dispersing their military among the populace in order to expose US bombing tactics to greater political risk.

As the civilian death toll rises and refugees numbers swell in conditions which largely preclude effective humanitarian relief, some Western coalition allies as well as Muslims are becoming uneasy. Unease increases when neither electronic nor special forces surveillance seems to have enabled bombing strikes to find, kill, or capture bin Laden or other al-Qaeda leaders. Defence Intelligence analysts are now starting to acknowledge that the people in the trenches in Afghanistan are not the elements who form and operate the terrorist cells conducting outrages around the world.

The latest American opinion polls (New York Times/CBS News, October 30, 2001) indicate that even Americans are becoming less hopeful about the military action in Afghanistan than they were when the bombing began. If post-September 11 Americans have doubts, what must be happening among Muslims, many of whom are already radicalised?

In the critical battle for the hearts and minds of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, prolonged bombing, civilian deaths, and starving refugees denied asylum make Muslims increasingly uneasy about supporting what some see as open-ended carnage in a fellow-Islamic state. In a significant number of religious schools and mosques around the world, Islamic militants seek to enrage Muslims over the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, the rejection of its refugees, failures to protect Palestinians from Israeli violations of international law, and the harm done to Iraqi civilians by the US-backed embargo against Baghdad.

Other facts ought to be taken into account, but many do not reach - let alone persuade - the emotionally and religiously charged Muslim masses in some countries. For example, Afghan suffering and refugee surges were considerable under the totalitarian Taliban regime, before the US started bombing. No comparable outcry emanated from Islamic states.

One is again reminded of the Vietnam War, and the concept of being "bogged down" over the long-term in a guerilla war, where the technologically weaker force has significant advantages. When it comes, as it must, to ground war in difficult local terrain, the Afghan mountain fighters are vastly more knowledgeable and experienced in their own patch that even the coalition's special forces. They require next to no infrastructure or logistical stretch to sustain formidable fighting force in their difficult home terrain and climate.

There are other negative factors. One of the more important is the tension in the relations between the US and several of its chief regional allies - in particular, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Israel.

The concept of being "bogged down" in a war refers to political as well as military circumstances. Complex relationships with allies and domestic factions at home can inhibit a combatant nation from exercising options that seem to others to be logical, available and effective.

US officials are pressing the Saudis to become more active in hunting down possible suspects in the September 11 attack and more forceful about seizing the financial assets of those suspected of helping bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

US domestic criticism is also mounting. Some but not all of it emanates from the Israeli lobby. Thomas Friedman one of America's leading columnists wrote (New York Times, October 30, 2001):

"On Sept. 11 we learned all the things about Saudi Arabia that we didn't know: that Saudi Arabia was the primary funder of the Taliban, that 15 of the hijackers were disgruntled young Saudis and that Saudi Arabia was allowing fund-raising for Osama bin Laden - as long as he didn't use the money to attack the Saudi regime."

Saudi Arabia, however, is allowing the US to keep several thousand military personnel and equipment on Saudi soil. This enables the US to patrol the southern no-fly zone in Iraq. More recently, the Saudis gave the US access to highly sophisticated air-warfare facilities at its Prince Sultan Airbase. From there, the US directs its air attack against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

More important still is the essential long-term strategic relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest crude oil producer. This relationship is based on the steady flow of oil to the US to keep its - and the world's - economy functioning. In return, the US guarantees Saudi Arabia and its ruling royal family security from external military threats.

A secondary American interest is in the estimated $170 billion that the Saudis have paid the US over the past decade for military equipment. Recently the Saudis awarded further contracts worth an estimated $50 billion, to upgrade the kingdom's gas production facilities. Most of the contracts went to US companies. Oil industry men are prominent in the Bush Administration and the Bush family are considered close friends of the Saudi royals.

Factors such as the above put constraints on US choices which not all critics recognise. US-Pakistan relations impose similar restrictions on US freedom of action.

Pakistan's support is crucial. In return for its support, however, it wants a regime established in Afghanistan that will be amenable to Pakistani influence and reliably anti-India. This inhibits US military tactics in regard to using the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

The Realpolitik of keeping Pakistan on side led the US to give the cold shoulder to opposition leader Abdul Haq, whom the Taliban executed two weeks ago. Many considered him the leader most likely to win real support from the majority ethic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtoons. Haq was also considered best able to make a coalition with the Northern Alliance, which represents minority ethnic Afghan groups.

Robert Kaplan, a leading commentator on Afghanistan who spent long periods with the mujahadin during the war with the Soviet Union says of Haq (Atlantic Unbound, November 2, 2001):

"He was charismatic. He had a sharp, analytical mind. He understood the West, probably better than any other Afghan, without being Westernised ... because of the support he had inside Afghanistan, he was able to even contemplate going into Afghanistan and rallying Pashtoon defectors from the Taliban. None of the other purported Pashtoon leaders in a post-Taliban regime would even contemplate something like that."

Kaplan says the Pakistanis never liked Abdul Haq, because:

"He didn't take orders, and the Pakistanis said, 'This is a man we cannot control'. Because the Pakistanis didn't like him the Americans and the Brits couldn't help him, since the Americans and the Brits have basically decided to do what the Pakistanis want. So they were very cold to Abdul Haq and gave him no assistance."

Others to express concern over US policy and tactical choices include James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser to President Clinton: "Just defeating the Taliban militarily by itself will not be victor ... We need a different regime in Afghanistan," he says.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter, is also concerned that the Administration is switching goals. "When we started out, we were going to smash al-Qaeda and punish the Taliban. Now we seem to be getting engaged in an Afghan civil war, almost as an end in itself. That could be a quagmire" (Christian Science Monitor, November 2, 2001).

Critical discussion of this sort is not aimed at stymieing the war against terrorism, but at helping ensure its strategy is on the right track and its tactics effective. Open discussion, not imposed political correctness, helps expose counter-productive special interests and insufficiently broad mindsets.

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