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Afghanistan, Continued: Does War Really Work?

14 December 2001

The hasty retreat of Taliban forces from the major cities of northern Afghanistan in mid-November marked a surprising turn in the war. The speed with which the Taliban collapsed took most analysts by surprise. But the shift in the war could not have come at a better time for the Bush administration, which was beginning to face rising criticism from European allies and sustained questioning from some journalists in the U.S. on the issues of civilian casualties and the military effectiveness of the bombing campaign.

While Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld took pains to point out that the Taliban retreat was only a first step towards the administration's goal of "rooting out" Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, the white-collar warriors of the Washington press corps were in a much more expansive mood. An analysis piece by Eric Schmitt of the New York Times was entitled "Surprise. War Works After All." Michael Kelly of the Washington Post took the U.S. peace movement to task for even daring to question the legitimacy or efficacy of the war effort, and went out of his way to ridicule columnist James Carroll of the Boston Globe for his critical pieces on the war. Charles Krauthammer led the charge of U.S. pundits who argued that the interim success against the Taliban meant that the United States could (and should) overthrow Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Before we get too carried away with the wonders of U.S. military intervention, it probably makes sense to reflect for a few moments on what has actually been accomplished in Afghanistan.

Will Al Qaeda survive?

John Cloud's piece in the November 26th issue of Time magazine ("What Is Al-Qaeda Without Its Boss?") suggests that even if Bin Laden and his key aides in Afghanistan are eliminated, the activities of his network may be able to carry on in much the same manner as before.

Irene Stoller, the former chief of France's anti-terror division, argues that "This movement, these groups are far too spread out, diffuse, and fluid for a single operation to knock them out* Bin Laden and his lieutenants may seem like super-managers of international terror, but the real planning and execution is carried out at lower levels."

Cloud notes that a major concern is the organization's continuing ability to tap into "varied sources" of money, which include not only various Islamic charities but "gem miners in Tanzania, and Muslim traders trafficking in contraband in the border region where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet."

A November 16th front page piece in the Wall Street Journal offers a fascinating case study of how the sale of tanzanite, a rare gem that to date has only been discovered in a small area near the base of Mt. Kiliminjaro, has been used by operatives of the Bin Laden network as a means of raising funds (Robert Block and Daniel Pearl, "Much-Smuggled Gem Called Tanzanite Helps Bin Laden Supporters)."

It is the latest example of the "business of war" - how rebels, militias, and terrorist groups can use the global banking, trade, and transport systems to generate the revenues that allow them to operate independently of the "state sponsors" often cited by the Bush administration. Jewelry featuring tanzanite, a blue gem stone that became wildly popular after it was learned that the necklace worn by Kate Winslet in the movie The Titanic was made of it, has now carved out a $380 million annual market in the United States. Interviews with miners in Tanzania and documentary evidence provided in the trial of the suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U .S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya indicate that a group of fundamentalist Muslim middlemen have taken control of a considerable share of the trade in tanzanite stones, which they channel through free trade zones in places like Dubai and Hong Kong, setting aside the profits for Al Qaeda and other fundamentalist Islamic networks and projects.

Anti-terrorism expert Roland Jacquard suggests that the Bin Laden network raises at least $300 million per year through the channels mentioned above. Jacquard also suggests that "If Bin Laden disappears, someone else will step up and find the same funding he did. If no one steps up, the money will find its way to people at lower levels - until things radically change." Jacquard argues that trying to shut down the funding sources fueling Bin Laden's network will be a difficult and lengthy undertaking.

Cloud ends his Time essay by suggesting that beyond any single military, economic, or law enforcement tool, ultimately "The long-term solution requires tackling the underlying political, economic, and social roots of terrorism - unresolved demands for Palestinian rights, perversion of Islam by radical clerics, corruption and poverty in many Arab regimes, and grievances over U.S. policy in the region. Bin Laden and his lieutenants didn't start the wave of Islamic terrorism; they only rode it for a while. Which is why they won't be totally defeated."

Is the war working?

So, has the war in Afghanistan "worked?" Yes and no. In terms of the Bush administration's narrow objective of eliminating the Taliban and disrupting Al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. intervention has clearly had an impact. In terms of the longer term goals of making it harder for Al Qaeda and other global terror networks to operate, the results are far less clear. Since, as indicated above, a group like Al Qaeda is decentralized and can operate without a government "sponsor," the war in Afghanistan may have only a modest impact on its ability to operate.

As far as serving as a model for future conflicts, as President Bush suggested in his December 11th speech at the Citadel, the administration's conduct of the war raises a number of troubling questions. The Pentagon's standard practice of denying responsibility for civilian casualties - as evidenced by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's repeated statements that any deaths in the conflict are the fault of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, regardless of whose weapons killed them - sets a terrible precedent, both by undermining respect for the laws of war and by reducing accountability on the part of the U.S. government for the consequences of its military activities.

Similarly, the Bush administration's unwillingness to adjust its military strategy to accommodate humanitarian and human rights concerns, from calls by Human Rights Watch to ban the use of cluster bombs to requests by its Afghan allies to stop the bombing campaign - smacks of a unilateralist approach that does not bode well for cooperation in future international crises.

The administration's conduct of the war has also undercut democratic practices in the United States. From President Bush's push for the establishment of secret military courts to try foreign terror suspects to Attorney General John Ashcroft's decisions to round up and imprison over 1,000 individuals without charging them with any crime, established civil liberties have taken a beating in the first few months of the war on terrorism.

Of equal concern, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has set up a system for withholding information from the press and the public that is far more comprehensive than anything implemented by his predecessors. From prohibiting Pentagon officials from speaking to the press without his explicit permission, to warning government contractors to avoid revealing substantive details of their activities to reporters, to the decision to buy up all commercial satellite photos of Afghanistan so that independent assessments of the impacts of U.S. bombing cannot be carried out, to his combative responses to questions about civilian casualties and human rights abuses by U.S. allies in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld has established a system of information control that is dangerously out of step with the demands of a democracy, which requires informed consent of the governed for ma jor government undertakings such as the unfolding "war on terrorism."

Thus, the celebratory mood expressed in recent U.S. media coverage of the war obscure some important underlying questions: 1) Will destroying Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan have a significant impact on the ability of the organization and other terrorist groups to carry out attacks on U.S. targets in the future?; and 2) Is the war in Afghanistan a new model for how to effectively combat terrorism, or is it merely the first step towards an open-ended, unaccountable "war without end" against terrorist groups and their presumed state sponsors that will eventually isolate the United States from its allies in the ad hoc anti-terror coalition?

William D. Hartung.
Director, Arms Trade Resource Center; Senior Fellow, World Policy Institute.
(c) William D. Hartung.

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