by Austin Bay
Heaven forbid, America's military campaign in Afghanistan justisn't moving quick enough for the lords and ladies of television chitchat.
According to the tube's more hype-drenched squawk shows, thePentagon has already botched the war on terror. Why, Headline News has torepeat week-old videos of Navy F-18s bombing bleak Afghan hills. Airstrikesget same-old, same-old fast, babe. As for Don Rumsfeld in a suit behind apodium? Not hot visually, no sex and bang bang to press conferences withclunky blue drapes, y'know?
Take a deep breath, folks.
As you release that breath, pray that the American chatteringclass' need for constant carnival and instant gratification doesn't damageUncle Sam's shrewd war effort too darn much.
Some cultural essayist will soon churn out a frothy piece forThe Atlantic Monthly asking "Can the Me-Generation Really Wage a Long HaulWar?" The essay will opine on baby-boomer self-absorption, the shortattention 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 pointedquestions about the eight-year beach party known as the Clintonadministration.
I can already answer the culture critic: Yes, contemporaryAmerica can and will wage a long, tough war because we know we have to.After Sept. 11, this is a We-Generation. A television programmer's cravenneed for "the new" isn't an American fundamental, liberty is.
At the moment, securing liberty means conducting a savvymilitary and political campaign in Afghanistan. As this war progresses andthe 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 thoroughlycripple the nodes and networks that support global terrorists --- a dauntingbut doable task.
Toppling the Taliban regime is a critical first phase. How wetopple the Taliban will have long-term strategic resonance. America wantssuccess, but the right kind of success.
Afghanistan presents an array of challenges --political andmilitary obstacles that take time to assess, invest and defeat. So to heckwith 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 andSpecial Forces teams among rural tribes, particularly in thePushtun-dominated south. Developing personal relationships with tribalelders is a glacial process. Green Beret majors have to sit down and sip alot of tea, as chieftains scrutinize promises of aid. Uncle Sugar wants mywarriors now, but where will the Americans be in three years?
The pay-offs of this intimate diplomacy, however, aresignificant. America gleans intelligence on the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Thesecontacts provide for a more stable political accommodation after the Talibancollapse. To leave Afghanistan in chaos is not the precedent America wantsin its global terror war.
Some critics blithely ignore the disarray created by Al Qaeda'smurder of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Massoud. Bin Laden bet Massoud'sassassination would produce an Afghan opposition collapse. Bin Laden losthis bet. However, slaying the opposition's best commander certainly hinderedcombat operations. In that light, the Northern Alliance's recovery andcooperation with the United States demonstrates a remarkable resiliency, nota deficiency.
While opposition groups have adequate ammo to hold their ownterritories and conduct limited local offensives, a sustained offensiverequires resupply. A hasty general attack that flopped would be both abattlefield and political disaster. The U.S. military has jury-rigged asupply line into the heart of Central Asia in less than six weeks, aremarkable achievement.
Aid agencies, like the World Food Program, do need access to thestarving Afghan population. However, politics, more than military activity,opens and closes Afghan aid corridors. At the moment, food trucks are readyto roll, but Taliban militias block the roads. The Taliban regime thusassumes responsibility for the Afghans' plight. Offensives, prior to theonset of winter, to better secure aid routes makes military and politicalsense, and I suspect these operations are in the works.
But in war everything is difficult. In part, America is payingthe price for a generation of elite opinion leaders largely devoid ofpersonal military service. The lords of chitchat might have more patience ifthey had suffered the wretched (but enlightening) experience of humping arifle and 70-pound rucksack at 2 a.m. in the rain, with a sergeant hard ontheir weary heels.