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
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
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
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
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
Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus.
His column appears Thursday and Sunday. His e-mail address is email@example.com