Sunday’s first round of attacks against Afghanistan was followed by the obligatory wave of backslapping and press spin. Officials from the U.S. and U.K. proclaimed major blows to the Taliban’s offensive and defensive capabilities and insisted the air raids had caused few if any civilian casualties. They emphasized that humanitarian aid in the form of food and medicine was being air-dropped even as the bombs fell; at a Sunday press conference defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld skirted questions concerning the scope and impact of these deliveries at a time when the Taliban still controlled the areas in which aid supplies were most needed. Meanwhile the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance (aka the United Front), a minority force based in the Panjshir Valley that controls roughly 5 percent of the northern territories, launched strikes of its own. Desertion and defection were said to be the rule of the day among Taliban forces. All in all it was made to sound as though the Taliban would collapse in a matter of days.
We shall see. The Taliban’s command and control apparatus is too diffuse and low-tech for the U.S. to deal decisive blows from the air; the real crux is what happens on the ground, and at present the U.S. still seems to want the Northern Alliance to fight its battles there. Toward that end, as Patrick Cockburn reported on Sunday, U.S.-paid crews are laboring mightily to construct an airstrip in the Panjshir Valley town of Golbahar to lift supplies to Alliance forces. This is a strategically critical move in view of the fact that winter weather will soon preclude using ground supply lines to reinforce the rebels.
The Northern Alliance has considerable tactical advantages in the steady stream of military supplies comings its way (not only from the Americans but Russia and Iran) and its control of a key north-south ground route through Afghanistan, but the fact remains that they are a force of 10,000 arrayed against Taliban troops numbered at 40,000 or so. Any hopes of a quick toppling of the Taliban government depend less on the actions of the Northern Alliance than on the loyalty and staying power of Taliban fighters. If they are in as much disarray as U.S. propaganda suggests, the current government may indeed collapse before long. But that may not spell the end of U.S. military engagement, because the fall of the Pushtun-dominated Taliban would create a political vacuum there is no easy way to resolve. The Northern Alliance consists mainly of minority Shia Muslim tribes; they cannot hope to head a new government. And there is no assurance that efforts at forging a Pushtun coalition government led by the 86-year-old former king would proceed smoothly. Laying the Taliban low might only be the precursor to a long and bloody civil war.
Or suppose the U.S. succeeds in vanquishing the Taliban fairly quickly and installing, at least for the near term, an Afghan government more to its liking. In either case, the American decision to go after the Taliban as a first resort rather than bin Laden specifically is a telling one. It suggests a tilt toward the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz position that favors more hot war rather than less, and sooner rather than later. Consider: If the U.S. prevails at little immediate cost versus the Taliban, it will bolster calls for carrying the war to other states that “harbor terrorists.” Conversely, if the Taliban proves capable of staying and fighting for a long period, the ensuing conflict will mean more civilian casualties in Afghanistan and inflame public sentiments in other countries of the region, which likewise will augur for further U.S. military engagements on other fronts.
Either scenario would be very much to the liking of Osama bin Laden, whose wish all along has been to involve the United States in as broad a war as possible. On Sunday bin Laden proved himself as masterful at politics as he is reputed to be in matters of coordinating terror. In a videotaped statement broadcast throughout the Muslim world and on U.S. television, he drew an express connection between his cause and the Palestinian question. “America will never taste security and safety,” he pronounced, “unless we feel security and safety in our lands and in Palestine.” Thus he struck at the U.S. where its vaunted international coalition is weakest: with respect to its abiding support of Israel, whose impulse since September 11 has been to press its advantage against the Palestinians wherever possible.
Back to Bosnia?
As the administration weighs its options for military action outside Afghanistan, Iraq remains the presumptive favorite among secondary targets in Pentagon planning circles. But there’s a fresh entrant shooting up the charts. Sunday’s Los Angeles Times carried a long analysis feature asserting that Bosnia may be the “common cradle” of future terrorist actions against Europe and America. The story points to Bosnia as the source of a foiled terror attack on the Los Angeles International Airport during last year’s millennium celebrations, as well as a more recent plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Paris. The Times reporters further claim that al-Qaida operatives have been fleeing Afghanistan for Bosnia en masse since the September 11 attacks, and that numerous among them carry Bosnian passports to deflect the suspicion of international intelligence agencies.
The prospect of hitting Bosnia is bound to appeal to those elements of the Bush administration most obsessed with seeming tough and pro-active. A strike there carries two potential advantages: It would likely cause little tumult in U.S. public opinion, which is already conditioned to U.S./U.N. military actions there, and it figures to engender fewer immediate complications among precariously pro-U.S. Arab regimes in the Middle East.
More Anthrax in Florida: Inquiring Minds Want to Know
One news item lost in the hubbub of Monday’s Afghan strike coverage was the CDC’s confirmation of a second case of anthrax in Florida. Like the first victim, the second man diagnosed is an employee of the Sun tabloid newspaper in Boca Raton. The Sun is based in a building that likewise serves as home to American Media Inc.’s other tabloids, the Globe and the National Enquirer; American Media reported that it voluntarily evacuated the building on Sunday evening.
The anthrax strain in question is a rare airborne variant that is not communicable person-to-person and has not been seen in the United States since the mid-1970s. After the first confirmed case late last week, some cable TV reports speculated that the victim, a 63-year-old man named Bob Stevens who worked as photo editor at the Sun, might have ingested the anthrax bacterium by inhaling fumes from animal bone meal he was using as fertilizer in his home garden. No word yet on official speculation as to the cause of this second case. 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.