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Russ Wellen: Was Afghanistan Really the Good War?

Was Afghanistan Really the Good War?

Attacking Afghanistan, invading Iraq -- same difference.
By Russ Wellen

How many times have you heard someone preface his opposition to the invasion of Iraq by professing his support for attacking Afghanistan? To dodge the charge he's soft on terror, he holds up the earlier offensive as a model for the war on terror.

You may even agree with journalist Mark Bowden of "Black Hawk Down" fame, as expressed in his piece, "The Kabul-ki Dance" (collected in "Road Work," Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004). "The astonishing precision of modern American weaponry," he writes, "deflates. . . outrage" against bombing Afghanistan.

In other words, we supposedly worked the kinks out of precision bombing with the Gulf War and Kosovo.

Bowden's portrait of a squadron of F-15 pilots and "wizzos" (the bombardier as video gamer) is illuminating. But it requires some serious denial to adhere to the belief that only a handful of bombs ganged aft agley. Especially once he describes the operation's massive scale.

"From early October of 2001 until the following January," Bowden writes, "the sky over Afghanistan caterwauled with war planes and support aircraft from the British and American Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force -- so many that the greatest danger faced by . . . [the air crews] was colliding with one another or being clipped by . . . [bombs] from above."

Bowden cites, in descending order, scores of satellites hundreds of miles up and, at 40,000 feet, B-52s and B-1s (leaving, from that height, little collateral undamaged). Below them flew planes jamming enemy communications, fighters for support, tankers for refueling aircraft, and helicopter rescue teams. But this was just the supporting cast for the stars -- the "strikers": Fs 14, 15, 16, and 18. The F-15 alone carried nine bombs, including the occasional 5,000-pound bunker buster.

In light of this imperfect storm -- 21,000 flights and 20,000 bombs -- perhaps the 400 to 3,500 civilian deaths were proof of "astonishing precision." Besides, they're a drop in the bucket compared to 600,000 dead in Iraq, the "bad war."

But how can a person of conscience countenance such a no-holds-barred bombing campaign? After all, there are few countries as poor and wretched. Even Donald Rumsfeld, in Richard Clarke's famous quote, complained that "there were no decent targets in Afghanistan." (In other words, "Where's the fun in bombing a country back to the Stone Age that's already there?")

Rumsfeld may also have been unconsciously acknowledging that bombing is more effective at steeling an opponent's resolve than bending him to your will. Not only is the Taliban resurgent, but civilian casualties are as well. Sixty were killed in the south of Afghanistan by NATO forces last week. As with Lebanon, nothing beats killing civilians for driving a populace into the arms of an organization we've designated terrorist.

Al Qaeda's base in Afghanistan may have been shattered by, in large part, the bombing. But, besides its hit or miss nature (hit civilians, miss bin Laden), bombing terrorists doesn't work because they grow among civilians like weeds. With terrorists, you either pull them out by the handful or enrich their arid growing medium by stimulating the economy.

In fact, bombing terrorists strikes as discordant a note as attacking a nation like Iraq whose government harbored hardly any terrorists (if only because it cornered the market on terror itself).

Finally, if it's credibility on national security issues that we crave, a good place to start is by ceasing to enable the administration. Rather than wracking our brains trying to solve their problems, let Bush & Co. clean up their own messes in Afghanistan and Iraq. In other words, save your breath. They're not listening anyway.

Instead, look to the future and keep them from making another mess. Let newly elected Democratic congressmen know there's hope for the Iran and North Korea stalemates.

As North Korea and Iran remind us at regular intervals, we don't observe the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Just for a moment, take them at their word. Aside to military wonks: nuclear tactical weapons are not a toy -- find a new one.

At present, due to non-nuclear signatories' disillusionment with the nuclear powers' refusal to disarm, the treaty is toothless. But show Article VI -- which requires the signatories to reduce and eventually liquidate their stockpiles -- some love and you've fitted the NPT with a new pair of choppers. Considering how vast our nuclear arsenal is, the first steps to disarmament will be painless.

North Korea and Iran will finally be forced to put up or shut up. Meanwhile, Democrats will have made their first end-run around Republicans on national security in a generation.


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