by Austin Bay
The U.S.-led attack on an Al Qaeda holdouts near Gardez,Afghanistan, should serve as a sobering reminder that this nuanced andintricate war will be long and difficult.
This first offensive combat commitment of U.S. conventionalground troops -- and I emphasize "first" -- should also remind us that weare still in the early, formative phases of this conflict.
On Afghan mountains, in the White House, on Capitol Hill, inevery American home, the United States is now constructing the political andmilitary "architectural foundation" for a long-haul campaign.
In order to win this war, that foundation must be strong, itmust be sustaining.
Let's first consider the military foundation. Yes, some of theinitial construction was slap-dash. War, like every other human enterprise,has a learning curve.
America didn't expect to fight a war in the Himalayas. 9-11forced the fight. The Afghan battlefield required instant adaptation. Hilltribes and warlords aren't the most reliable allies, but, frankly, that'sAfghanistan. Afghanis topple Afghan governments. Astute outsiders acceptthat condition.
The war in Afghanistan demonstrates that the United States isable to recognize unique local conditions and adapt strategy and operationsas required. That's an excellent long-term foundation.
Sure, there are limits to accepting local "givens." That alliedwarlords might let trapped Al Qaeda fighters slip away was a risk the UnitedStates took last fall. The logistics infrastructure necessary to supporteffective U.S. ground combat operations in the region didn't exist.
It does now. The commitment of troops to the Gardez battledemonstrates long-term U.S. resolve to smash terrorist resistance. Whencircumstances demand it (and particularly when we've "reshaped" conditions),U.S. infantry will destroy terrorists in even the most forbidding terrain.
In fact, the Afghan campaign provides an ongoing object lessonin America's ability to "reshape and re-set" initial military and politicalconditions, one that should produce long-term diplomatic benefits.
- With the Taliban collapse, radical Islamists no longercontrol a nation-state that promoted terrorism. Those hasty local alliances,which had the downside risk of letting defeated Al Qaeda slip free, had theupside effect of demonstrating the internal "brittleness" of dictatorialregimes.
- U.S. counter-terror intelligence has improved dramatically.Busting the Taliban loosened tongues. We've a more precise idea of who's whoaround the globe.
- In September 2001, the supply line to support large-scaleU.S. operations in Central Asia didn't exist. The logistics line is stillslender, but the Pentagon can now support brigade-sized forces. But here'sthe foundation statement: The United States has demonstrated the militaryability to not only "go to the ends of the Earth," but to go there in forceand sustain that force. It may take time, but we'll get you.
- Non-Afghan allies are now fully involved in the mission.French Mirages are dropping bombs. Allied commandos are engaged in theGardez operation. International peacekeepers, with Muslim Turkey taking alead role, are securing Afghan cities and coalition support facilities.
These four "military" points, of course, are indicative of realpolitical success. America is conducting a "global war" with global support,a remarkable political foundation.
"Coalition building" by Secretary of State Powell has beeneffective. Russia and China have cast their lot with the United States.Despite snipes and gripes by the ilk of French Foreign Minister HubertVedrine, Bush's "axis of evil" speech clarified one of the war's key tasks,stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Though these successes are significant, the long-term politicalfoundation necessary to win this war still isn't secure. Afghanis toppleAfghanistan. Meet another geopolitical truism: The trick to defeatingAmerica is to get America to defeat itself, to weaken American will.
Unfortunately, 9-11's full import has yet to sink in on someAmericans. 9-11 changed our world. The habits of political partisanship mustchange as well. Congress plays an essential role in building the politicalfoundation for a successful war. Real national leaders --as opposed toheadline-seeking hacks -- must understand that building and sustaining theAmerican public's will to fight and finish The War on Terror is, at themoment, their most urgent mission.
Constructive critique, the vetting of realistic alternativepolicies made with an understanding of the stakes, is a democratic strength.Cheap shots in the hope of partisan gain, however, can have deeplyfracturing effects on public faith, and undermine military success in a longwar where setbacks are a certainty.