Why Are We In Afghanistan?

The first “sophisticated” anthrax spores turned up in a U.S. Senator’s office. Good show: a microbe waving a cigarette holder around while drinking a martini from a long-stemmed glass. Sophisticated or not, the deadly little fellow has all but brought Congress to a halt, which would be something less than an unmitigated disaster were it not for the murder of 5,000 people. Before being able to re-enter their anthrax-contaminated offices, the House passed a bill giving billions in tax rebates to large campaign contributors. What else could they do? No known antibiotic can kill off lobbyist spores. No defense exists against those infectious agents.

If George Bush fails to oppose Gucci Gulch’s multibillion-dollar grab on behalf of I.B.M., G.E. and the other corporate war orphans, his next call for sacrifice will be met by a chorus of farts. As it is, the fear grows that he and the people around him are increasingly fogged-out and disoriented by the unconventional struggle of people who don’t fight by the rules taught at the Army War College.

The war in Afghanistan, the one he should never have declared, has run into trouble. Just a few weeks into it and it’s obvious that the United States is fighting blind. The enemy is unknown, and the enemy’s country is terra incognita. We have virtually no one we can trust who can speak the languages of the people involved. With all our firepower and our technical assets and our spy satellites, it looks like we don’t know if we’re coming or going.

Of course, we are slinging money around like crazy, and that should help. The Washington Post reports that the United States is about to dump between $300 million and $500 million in bribes-whoops, the preferred word is “aid”-into Pakistan. In addition, I assume that a large sum of money has been placed in a Swiss bank account for General Pervez Musharraf, the nervous little dictator with the funny toupee, on whose continuation in power the American ability to wage war in Afghanistan depends. Things are very, very shaky.

Even with the timid and occasionally treacherous help of the Pakistanis, we are flying in fog. We go to the right, we go to the left; statements are issued and then modified. It’s nuts. No sooner had Congress and the President gone to war against Osama bin Laden than we broadened the fight to include the Taliban. Next there was the talk that the citizens of Afghanistan, the land of the woebegone and woebegotten, would turn against their masters, accept Christian baptism and embrace Americanism. Our lunacy has reached the point of scattering sheets of paper around Taliban installations on which is printed a picture of firemen raising the American flag with the legend “Freedom Endures.”

We are mapless, we are lost, and we are distracted by gusts of wishful thinking. That our high command could believe the Afghani peasantry or even the Taliban would change sides after a few weeks of bombing! This is fantasizing in high places. In the history of aerial bombardment, can you think of a single instance of the bombed embracing the bombers? Bombing always unites the bombees against the bombers, and-duh!-guess what the reaction has been in Afghanistan? You don’t need to speak Urdu to figure it out, which is good since none of us does.

The impression left by the never-ending TV press conferences is of a government of constantly surprised men and women-surprised by the actions of the enemy, surprised by the enemy’s popularity in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, surprised to find out there are groups and peoples inside the country speaking languages we’ve never heard.

Talk about clueless! Please note the ruminations by overboggled American officials about the post-Talibanian government in Afghanistan the United States proposes to sponsor; they’re positively eccentric. Aside from the fact that we have a record of nation-building unblemished by even the smallest success, talk of this kind can only earn us the enmity of every group, faction and entrenched interest which might feel threatened, frightened or snubbed by our postwar plans, in the unlikely event that our plans are workable or that we shall ever have the chance to try to carry them out. Moreover, as hellish as the Taliban are, it appears that the ordinary people of Afghanistan prefer them to the brigands and bandits with whom we’ve been trying to make common cause-and who, we’ve been hinting, will take part in a postwar government.

The bombing campaign is looking more pointless for all the crispness of the uniforms worn by the armed forces’ briefing officers, the high-tech lingo and the Pentagon-supplied TV clips, the before-and-after pictures of little, buggy objects being made to go bye-bye on the monitors. The briefers talk about taking out “command and control,” “communications centers,” etc., but judging from the mostly destroyed, never-developed state of Afghanistan, these are targets the briefers wish were there so we could blow them up. At one point in the delirium, our Secretary of Defense mused that we might be running out of targets. Do we bomb for a military purpose, or do we bomb because we can’t think of what else to do?

If we’re going to bomb, we should just shut up and do it. The boasting about our uncanny marksmanship has been no help. We’ve so impressed the world with our “pinpoint accuracy” and our “surgical strikes” that millions now believe that when ordinance goes astray and civilians are killed, we intended it. Dumb generals will cancel out smart bombs every time.

What a strange situation. We’ve been in this shadow war for barely two months, and we should be looking for an exit strategy from a place we’re not even in. Suppose one of our munitions kills Mr. bin Laden; are the Taliban going to shout, “Bingo-you win!” If they don’t tell us, do we keep on bombing? If the Taliban persevere in not following the part we’ve written for them and remain in power, then what do we do?

We can terror-bomb them, give them the World Trade Center treatment, inflict collective punishment on the country, drop land mines everywhere so that those who aren’t killed now will be maimed later. Kill ’em all now and sort ’em out later. Make Afghanistan the demonstration of the American Eagle’s terrifying and unforgiving wrath. Putting morals aside-and what is easier?-would it work?

Having made the mistake of declaring war instead of limiting itself to a pledge of finding and doing justice to the W.T.C. murders, the Bush administration acted in anger, or in the belief that the public demanded a declaration of war. It is a war that the Bush people knew ab initio we would fight under huge disadvantages because of the terrain, the politics and the tactics of the other side. “Asymmetrical warfare” is the name the Pentagon applies to it, and it’s being forced to fight largely unprepared and badly positioned thanks in no small measure to the Clinton administration’s failure.

Bill Clinton had eight years to see to it that the government had the linguists it needed. It has been public knowledge since Ronald Reagan’s time that the government lacked the translators and area specialists it absolutely had to have. But Mr. Clinton didn’t make a move: He made no effort to get the intelligence operatives and spies the United States required for this region, where so much of the world’s oil supplies come from. For eight years Mr. Clinton presided over a C.I.A. and an F.B.I. rocked by a succession of scandals. Louis Freeh, the man he himself put in to run the F.B.I., turned out to be an incompetent at everything but kissing Congressional fannies and building up an impregnable position against Mr. Clinton. To that end, Mr. Freeh let it be known that he favored more investigations of Mr. Clinton, thus making it politically impossible for the scandal-soaked President to force the worthless F.B.I. director out of office.

Mr. Clinton bombed Iraq for years, and after he was done Saddam Hussein’s capacity to use biological and chemical weapons was as great-if not greater-than it had been before the bombing started. Mr. Clinton’s idiosyncratic bombings and boycotts of Arabs was akin to a man without a protective bee suit whacking a hive of angry insects with a stick. He didn’t kill any bees, he didn’t get any honey; he just got ’em mad as hell, and then left his successor naked to deal with whatever might happen. So there was George Bush on Sept. 12, pushed, pressured and perhaps panicked, with a shocked and frightened nation looking to him. In the ensuing hours of turmoil, he took the road not taken-and now his hair whitens and his face ages by the month instead of the year. Why Are We In Afghanistan?