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Optics bad for America in battle over Afghanistan
Haroon Siddiqui

Haroon Siddiqui, The Star's Editor Emeritus, gave this speech on Friday at York University where he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.

This article was published in the
Toronto Star on Nov 4, 2001
AMERICA'S JUSTIFIED war on terrorism, which started off well, is going awry, not so much militarily, as armchair generals suggest, but politically. Only the naive thought that the Taliban could be vanquished quickly, without dirtying our hands, by bombing them from afar. George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld said from the start that they were in for the long haul. What they have discovered since is that they may be there much longer than envisaged.

But that's not their real problem.

Nor is it the mid-November onset of the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims must fast sunrise to sunset, eschewing even liquids. For most Afghans, every month has been Ramadan for many years of war, drought and deprivation. A hardy people, they live on very little.

America's greater challenge is to grasp that this war is not just about this war but two additional ones as well:

  • First, winning over public opinion in two related but distinct constituencies, among Afghans and among Muslims everywhere else.
  • Second, killing the ghosts of its own wretched record of the last decade during which the Bill Clinton administration, aided and abetted by CNN and other omniscient and omnipresent American media, portrayed Muslims as the West's principal post-Cold War enemy. Having maligned Muslims so thoroughly for so long with the broad, hateful brush of anti-Islamism, America should not now be surprised that, its mercy missions in Bosnia and Kosovo notwithstanding, they are not exactly rushing to embrace it when it needs them the most, even if many share its aim of eradicating terrorism.

    As justified as this war is, its moral high ground is being steadily eroded by America's hi-tech war on a low-tech people - the richest nation pounding the most impoverished, with hundreds of thousands of frightened and fleeing innocents penned behind sealed Iranian and Pakistani borders and bombed from on high. Inevitably some get killed, including children. Just as inevitably, their numbers get exaggerated by the enemy. But numbers don't really matter.

    Nor does the routine reality of war that imprecise targeting happens, due to unintended human or technical error or poor intelligence.

    It also serves little purpose to rationalize the collateral damage by invoking Sept. 11. This war is not about revenge but justice. That means nailing the perpetrators of crime, not killing more innocents.

    The optics are bad for America. Thus hard-line anti-American Muslims are not the only ones calling for a halt to the bombing, in its 29th day today. Every speaker at a recent conclave of anti-Taliban Afghan exiles, people who have the most to gain from the American campaign, condemned it. So have virtually all Muslim allies, including Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf who, more than any other leader, is on the front lines of this war and has put his job on the line.

    The chorus has been joined by United Nations and Western humanitarian agencies. With 5.5 million Afghans, especially 100,000 children, at risk of starvation and with 1 million internally displaced refugees, the aid agencies need a pause in the hostilities to rush the food in before winter sets in.

    Opinion is shifting even in Europe in the wake of a steady stream of pictures of Afghans trekking to safety on foot, in bullock carts or on mules, many carrying the old and the infirm on their shoulders. A majority of Britons, French and Italians now oppose the way the war is unfolding. Even the slick Tony Blair, self-appointed war envoy for Washington, is having trouble smoothing over the growing skepticism.

    Then there is the awkward issue of America's aversion to exposing its soldiers to risk. To the foolishly brave Afghans, that's just cowardice. American credibility nosedived the other day when a helicopter rescue mission plucked up American soldiers but not Afghan rebel commander Abdul Haq in the territory of the Taliban, who then executed him. While Afghan life is cheap and tribal loyalties can turn on a dime, who among the disaffected Taliban would want to risk defecting to such an outfit?

    Another metaphor for American misconception emerged from a recent commando raid on the Kandahar headquarters of the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. He wasn't there but his dozen guards were killed and the Americans seized some papers and computer disks. The mission was deemed disappointing, because it "failed to produce the intelligence bonanza that the Pentagon had hoped for," especially about the movements of senior Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, according to the New York Times. Anyone who thinks Afghans reach their hideouts by drawings or manage their affairs by documents or organize their travel by a computerized schedule, needs a prolonged local learning period.

    Perhaps, as long as three to four years, said Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, chief of British Defence Staff, co-ordinating the British war effort with America's. Rumsfeld, himself, hinted at committing some ground troops, at least through the winter.

    Such a sustained military engagement, essential no doubt, will be difficult in a geopolitical terrain that's far rougher than the mountains of Afghanistan.

    The new intensified bombing may yet allow the Northern Alliance to punch through to the key cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and the capital, Kabul. That would still leave a lot of turf, and caves, under the control of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

    Flushing them out will require more than B-52s and F-14s. It will require the wisdom to undo the damage of the Clinton years, hold world public opinion in tow and a political coalition intact.

    Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursday and Sunday. His e-mail address is hsiddiq@thestar.ca