There’s no telling how expansive the first wave of U.S. military strikes will be when they arrive, and no reason to conclude the government really knows yet either. But every sign points toward enthusiasm for waging a war, or wars, of impressive scale indeed. First note the implicit caveat above: Whatever comes in the days or weeks ahead, we are already promised that it is only the first wave, with much more to follow. The other day defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld let fly with the figure of up to 60 nations that might stand to feel the “full wrath” of U.S. military might for harboring terrorists. And yesterday the Bush administration christened its blank-check offensive Operation Infinite Justice, marking what was surely the first time in human history a war was named before an enemy was named.
That moniker by itself ought to give pause, but in the U.S. so far there is not even a whisper of dissent from Bush and company’s ambitious warmaking aims. The government and media have done a first-rate job of ensuring the American public has no idea what it may be in for if the country chooses to wage a protracted war upon all its antagonists of Islamic persuasion-and that, after all, is the mandate Bush has sought with his repeated talk of guilt by association for any nation that “supports or harbors” terrorists. He wants license to wage an American Jihad.
And here at home he’s got it, for now anyway. In terms of public memory, Vietnam may as well never have happened; its lessons concerning the peril of waging guerrilla warfare on difficult terrain amid a largely hostile populace are entirely forgotten now. What Americans see instead is the succession of sleek, tidy push-button strikes that began with the Gulf War and continued sporadically over the past decade. I suspect most of them now look forward, at worst, to a more prolonged version of same. They are certainly not prepared for the kind of war the Bush administration will get by launching a major incursion into Afghanistan and other states yet unspecified.
Start with Afghanistan itself and presume the fighting will be contained there, as it almost certainly will not. The administration has already suggested that getting bin Laden would not be enough; it will have to wipe out the Taliban government that has sponsored his presence. The ruling Taliban, like the bin Laden-affiliated guerrilla cells now based there, are a diffuse force. You can banish any thought that a series of neat tactical air strikes will be enough to do the trick. As the Los Angeles Times reported last Sunday, “The goals the administration has set out ‘will almost certainly require an expeditionary force on the ground in Afghanistan,’ said L. Paul Bremer, a former State Department counter-terrorism chief. ‘It’s going to be a hell of an operation.'”
A hell of a costly operation, that is, as the Russians learned in the course of their decade-long losing battle with the Afghans. Last week a Reuters dispatch featured extensive remarks by Col. Yuri Shamanov, who spent five years as a regimental commander there. “If the Americans go to war,” he said, “I pity these boys and their mothers and sisters and brothers. It will be ten times worse than Vietnam. Vietnam will be a picnic by comparison. Here they will get it in the teeth. Oh. They will get it good. Rockets won’t save you: There’s nothing out there to shoot at. Blast away years’ worth of ammo. The mountains will survive anything. The Afghans will be ready to fight, no worse than they fought against us, and they fought very well against us.” The going will be made considerably tougher by the abundance of Soviet land mines that remain planted in Afghani soil. To date the mines have killed tens of thousands of Afghani civilians and crippled 2 million more. And some 10 million of the old Soviet mines still litter the landscape-“in fields, on mountainsides, beside roads, around the big cities, along irrigation ditches,” according to a Tuesday report by Robert Fisk in The Independent. “No infantry can march across this territory,” he adds flatly.
To compound matters, the U.S. knows very little about present-day Afghanistan, having effectively taken it off radar since the withdrawal of Russian forces in 1989 and the subsequent end of the Cold War. On Wednesday a UK paper, The Telegraph, published an excellent analysis of the morass awaiting U.S. armed forces there. It pointed out that the U.S. government’s “only major intelligence source is satellite imagery, which cannot clearly differentiate between Taliban and Arab fighters nor between fighters and civilians. America is expected therefore to rely on intelligence provided by Afghanistan’s neighbors and other allies such as Britain which will take time to collate and evaluate. The key to obtaining intelligence on Taliban and bin Laden troop movements and their whereabouts is the degree to which Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which has been the principal backer of the Taliban, will cooperate with the CIA.”
Shift your gaze beyond the borders of Afghanistan and the prospective troubles begin multiplying at a dizzying rate. Tactically speaking Pakistan is the linchpin of any sustained U.S. incursion into Afghanistan, the only practical base of operations for getting at Taliban and bin Laden strongholds in the east. And while American officials would like to soft-pedal the point, Pakistan’s continued cooperation is far from assured. The Musharraf government’s current capitulation to U.S. demands is a precarious one, purchased with a good deal of arm-twisting and at the cost of enormous civil unrest inside Pakistan’s borders. Until last week, remember, Pakistan was the Taliban’s principal ally in the region, and there are a great many people in Pakistan-including high officials in the military and the intelligence service-who would rather it stayed that way. Musharraf might survive a short U.S. presence in Pakistan but his chances grow dimmer the longer it lasts, particularly if the Taliban makes good on its pledge to start lobbing missiles across the border at its former ally. The upshot is that the U.S. could pretty quickly find itself under siege not only by the Afghans but in Pakistan as well. And if the Pakistani government falls into the hands of a regime that would like to join the war against the U.S., it will have nuclear weapons at its disposal.
The internal divisions of Pakistan are mirrored in countries all round the region, where the rise of so-called “Islamic fundamentalists” has changed the picture considerably since Gulf War days. Presently U.S.-friendly regimes in states such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt will find themselves under increasing internal strain in the event of a protracted tussle in Afghanistan. If the war is carried into Iraq as well, an eventuality that many in the U.S. and Israeli governments are slavering over, it will drive the Saudis out of Bush’s big tent and-well, you get the picture. At minimum anti-American sentiments will rise to a new pitch throughout the Middle East, and bring untold masses of fresh recruits to the guerrilla cells overseen by people like Osama bin Laden.
In fact the best-case scenario is that this is all it will do, for the present at least; the worst case is that it will topple more U.S. client regimes and bring us one step closer to all-out war with more enemies than we can count. It is indicative of the current climate in the United States that the only voice raising such a possibility is the old nativist and right-wing culture warrior Pat Buchanan, who was quoted yesterday in Sam Smith’s Progressive Review. “What took place last Tuesday was an atrocity,” he said. “What is coming may qualify as tragedy. For the mass murder of our citizens has filled this country with a terrible resolve that could lead it to plunge headlong into an all-out war against despised Arab and Islamic regimes that turns into a war of civilizations, with the United States almost alone.”
Almost alone? This is exactly the opposite of the picture the Bush administration and the major media wish to present, in which practically the whole world stands against the depredations of a dastardly few. But Buchanan’s view is closer to the truth of the matter. This is essentially America’s war, unless or until other countries in the West are visited with similar attacks. It’s been no trick to elicit expressions of outrage and fellow-feeling from the NATO membership and elsewhere, but even among European nations only Tony Blair’s Britain seems particularly determined to follow the U.S. very far down the path of conflagration; most of the others have indicated that there will be limits to the degree of support and assistance the U.S. can expect, and in a major war those limits would only grow more strained with the passing of time and the piling up of costs and casualties.
How much of this comes to pass is largely up to the Bush gang and how many Wanted Dead or Alive notices it decides to post around the world. Today’s New York Times contains a revealing account of the divisions within the administration, which center on a Colin Powell faction that wants to proceed slowly and define its targets modestly, at least for starters, and a claque arrayed around deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz that would like to include Iraq and Lebanon in its first strikes. But so far, to judge from the sum of its public posturing, the administration seems inclined to give the perpetrators of last Tuesday’s attacks exactly what they must have wanted: American involvement in a long and bloody war of attrition that, after a certain point, it will not be possible to win or to extricate ourselves from. CP
Steve Perry writes frequently for CounterPunch and is a contributor to the excellent cursor.org website, which offers incisive coverage of the current crisis. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.