Friday, November 9, 2001

Heaven forbid, America’s military campaign in Afghanistan just isn’t moving quick enough for the lords and ladies of television chitchat.

According to the tube’s more hype-drenched squawk shows, the Pentagon has already botched the war on terror. Why, Headline News has to repeat week-old videos of Navy F-18s bombing bleak Afghan hills. Airstrikes get same-old, same-old fast, babe. As for Don Rumsfeld in a suit behind a podium? Not hot visually, no sex and bang bang to press conferences with clunky blue drapes, y’know?

Take a deep breath, folks.

As you release that breath, pray that the American chattering class’ need for constant carnival and instant gratification doesn’t damage Uncle Sam’s shrewd war effort too darn much.

Some cultural essayist will soon churn out a frothy piece for the Atlantic Monthly asking “Can the Me-Generation really wage a long haul war?” The essay will opine on Baby-Boomer self-absorption, the short attention span of a channel-surfing public raised on sitcoms and soundbites. Why, if the essay gets real aggressive, it may even ask one or two pointed questions about the eight-year beach party known as the Clinton administration.

I can already answer the culture critic: Yes, contemporary America can and will wage a long, tough war because we know we have to. After September 11, this is a We-Generation. A television programmer’s craven need for “the new” isn’t an American fundamental; liberty is.

At the moment, securing liberty means conducting a savvy military and political campaign in Afghanistan. As this war progresses and the weeks become years, the major venue of the struggle will change. Afghanistan will become old news.

That’s a point that appears to escape too many TV pontificators: Afghanistan isn’t the long-range objective. The goal is to thoroughly cripple the nodes and networks that support global terrorists a daunting but doable task.

Toppling the Taliban regime is a critical first phase. How we topple the Taliban will have long-term strategic resonance. America wants success, but the right kind of success.

Afghanistan presents an array of challenges political and military obstacles that take time to assess, invest and defeat. So to heck with TV’s demand for hype and a headline.

Afghan demographics religious, tribal and ethnic fractures create a politically fragmented society. It takes time to seed CIA and Special Forces teams among rural tribes, particularly in the Pushtun-dominated south. Developing personal relationships with tribal elders is a glacial process. Green Beret majors have to sit down and sip a lot of tea, as chieftains scrutinize promises of aid. Uncle Sugar wants my warriors now, but where will the Americans be in three years?

The payoffs of this intimate diplomacy, however, are significant. America gleans intelligence on the Taliban and al Qaeda. These contacts provide for a more stable political accommodation after the Taliban collapse. To leave Afghanistan in chaos is not the precedent America wants in its global terror war.

Some critics blithely ignore the disarray created by al Qaeda’s murder of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Massoud. Osama bin Laden bet Massoud’s assassination would produce an Afghan opposition collapse. Bin Laden lost his bet. However, slaying the opposition’s best commander certainly hindered combat operations. In that light, the Northern Alliance’s recovery and cooperation with the United States demonstrates a remarkable resiliency, not a deficiency.

While opposition groups have adequate ammo to hold their own territories and conduct limited local offensives, a sustained offensive requires resupply. A hasty general attack that flopped would be both a battlefield and political disaster. The U.S. military has jury-rigged a supply line into the heart of Central Asia in less than six weeks, a remarkable achievement.

Aid agencies, like the World Food Program, do need access to the starving Afghan population. However, politics, more than military activity, opens and closes Afghan aid corridors. At the moment, food trucks are ready to roll, but Taliban militias block the roads. The Taliban regime thus assumes responsibility for the Afghans’ plight. Offensives, prior to the onset of winter, to better secure aid routes makes military and political sense, and I suspect these operations are in the works.

But in war everything is difficult. In part, America is paying the price for a generation of elite opinion leaders largely devoid of personal military service. The lords of chitchat might have more patience if they had suffered the wretched (but enlightening) experience of humping a rifle and 70-pound rucksack at 2 a.m. in the rain, with a sergeant hard on their weary heels.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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