11 September 2001>News Stories>A Week of Setbacks Tests U.S. Patience and Its Plan of Attack

A Week of Setbacks Tests U.S. Patience and Its Plan of Attack
Thomas E. Ricks and Karen DeYoung . Washington Post . 27 October

The execution of a leading opposition figure by the Taliban, coupled with the errant U.S. bombings of an International Committee of the Red Cross warehouse in Kabul and the apparent retreat of rebel forces in the north yesterday, capped a discouraging week for the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

As the campaign enters its fourth week, with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and winter fast approaching, the Bush administration has begun to hunker down and admit to itself what it has repeatedly insisted in public -- that the war against the Taliban and the terrorists it shelters will be neither short nor easy.

Indeed, some administration officials say that despite 20 days of punishing -- if limited -- airstrikes, the U.S. military has yet to really engage the Taliban. "We're kind of like wrestlers, with totally different styles," said one official, referring to the United States and the Taliban militia that rules most of Afghanistan. "We're still trying to figure out where the leverage point is on these guys. We haven't found it yet."

Time may not be on the administration's side, especially as key Muslim allies in the anti-terrorism war, most notably Pakistan and Egypt, begin to demonstrate open impatience with the pace and results of the campaign.

The United States has about 20 days before the advent of Ramadan could begin to seriously constrain its bombing campaign. Many Muslims have been calling for a cessation of military activity during the holy month, appeals the Pentagon has so far rejected. After that, the onset of winter could slow military operations, especially in the mountains, where clouds, fog and winds will complicate helicopter operations and laser-guided bombing.

Although there is little evidence -- yet -- that the U.S. approach is succeeding, officials at the Pentagon and the White House said yesterday that they are sticking with their original strategy. It isn't time to think about "Plan B," a senior administration official said, because the administration is still at the beginning of implementing "Plan A."

"People are looking for a quicker victory than Kosovo, it seems to me, and I think this is harder and will take longer," the official said, referring to the 78-day U.S.-led air campaign against Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999.

"I would say that, at least for now, what we're trying to do is make this plan work," the official added. "If we come to a conclusion that something radically different is necessary, maybe we'll look at that."

In what has become an administration mantra, President Bush emphasized the "long struggle" theme again yesterday, telling a group of trade and business leaders that "we're slowly, but surely, dismantling" the Taliban.

"The American people are going to have to be patient, just like we are," Bush said. "They're going to have to be determined, just like our military is. And with that patience, and with that determination, we will eventually smoke them out of their holes, and get them, and bring them to justice."

The White House is not yet hugely concerned about the lack of visible military success, another senior official said, noting that the American people remain solidly behind the administration. "I've never been in any meeting where everyone was thinking, 'Oh my God, the public is going to turn on us,' " the official said.

Essentially, the U.S. plan is to use limited airstrikes to loosen the Taliban's hold on Afghanistan. To do that, U.S. jets are targeting members of the al Qaeda terrorist network led by Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden -- who the administration blames for the Sept. 11 attacks -- as well as military units associated with al Qaeda and hard-core Taliban leaders. Pentagon officials say that bombing those three sets of targets will have three important effects: improving the situation for the anti-Taliban opposition, depriving the Taliban of the ability to fight effectively and crippling the Taliban's ability to rule the country.

On a separate and equally important track, the administration is seeking to assemble a viable alternative to the Taliban that would unite the country's many ethnic groups. This effort suffered a big blow yesterday when the Taliban captured and executed Abdul Haq, a tribal leader who had entered Afghanistan on a secret mission to win over fellow ethnic Pashtuns to the anti-Taliban cause.

Whether this plan is succeeding is anyone's guess. "I don't think we're at a stage where we can claim we have any clear evidence of anything," one administration official said.

Senior administration officials insisted yesterday that they were not disturbed. While acknowledging that they were far from destroying the Taliban's ability to survive, they said the objectives had been met in what one called "the disruption phase," the overall goal of which was to "disrupt [Taliban] supply lines, their communications, their ability to hit us."

There was little dispute that Abdul Haq's killing and the bombings of the Red Cross warehouse compound in Kabul -- the latest in a string of errant airstrikes that have cost the campaign support in the Muslim world -- were setbacks.

Some administration officials are beginning to acknowledge that the tasks they set for themselves are proving more burdensome than they first thought. "The focus we had on Sept. 12 has gotten a little blurry," an official said. "The goal is still the same, but how to accomplish it has gotten a little bit more complicated."

Outside the administration, experts on military affairs, foreign policy and Afghanistan are beginning to worry more openly. It is clear that "some of the upbeat, earlier assumptions have given way to more downbeat" assessments, former ambassador to the United Nations and Balkans negotiator Richard C. Holbrooke said in an interview with CNN yesterday.

The diversion of public and political attention to the anthrax scare at home, along with congressional reluctance to appear unsupportive of the war effort, has muted what might have been more extensive questioning. But some on Capitol Hill are beginning to wonder, at least among themselves.

"I think it's pretty clear that things are not going very well at all over there," said one top Senate aide. "We're bombing the hell out of them. And every time we hit a bus or a hospital, it destroys our position there. The Taliban are getting stronger, if anything. We're no closer to finding bin Laden. The allies are getting nervous."

At the same time, noted Robert Pape, a University of Chicago expert on the use of air power, the negatives are beginning to accumulate. There has been an apparent increase in destabilizing refugee flows as civilians have fled Afghanistan's major cities. Wayward American bombs have killed an undetermined number of civilians. And the United States has had a helicopter fired upon in the supposedly friendly nation of Pakistan.

Capturing the mood, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, said in an interview yesterday that "military action must be brought to an end as soon as possible." Musharraf, whose cooperation is essential to the U.S. campaign, added that if the United States is "unable to achieve its military goals in a certain time, we need to switch to a political strategy."

Yet the administration appears to be pursuing precisely the opposite course. Officials say they are settling in for months of a low-grade war, with occasional airstrikes punctuated by Special Forces raids. "People who are looking for a magic bullet aren't listening to the president," one U.S. general said. "This is going to be a long haul."

It now appears likely that the United States will take, over the next three weeks, its best shot at seeing whether its plan is working. When Ramadan begins next month, the Pentagon and the White House will step back and assess what they have achieved.

Officials have indicated that the bombing is likely to continue into Ramadan but at a lower level, with special care taken to avoid religious sites such as mosques -- where many al Qaeda members are now hiding themselves and their weapons.

By the time Ramadan ends in December, winter will have settled in on much of Afghanistan. The cold weather is more likely to constrain the Northern Alliance, a loosely aligned opposition coalition, than it will the Taliban. As its name indicates, the rebel coalition is generally located in the northern and higher parts of the country, where the climate tends to be like that of the northern Rocky Mountains. Despite repeated U.S. bombings of Taliban positions in the area, Northern Alliance forces retreated yesterday from their previous front line southeast of the city of Mazar-e Sharif in the face of a Taliban counteroffensive.

A bigger worry over the winter will be the possibility of a humanitarian disaster that the world, rightly or wrongly, might blame on the U.S. offensive.

Bear McConnell, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's task force on Central Asia, said that there are now 3 million Afghan refugees inside Pakistan, and that the United States projects another million will arrive there over the next three months. In addition, he said, about 400,000 refugees are expected to flee to Iran and that 100,000 or so may head north of Afghanistan.

McConnell said that drought and war -- even before the Sept. 11 attacks and the start of the U.S. bombings -- had been expected to bring death to many people in Afghanistan. He said USAID hopes to "reduce the death rates" but that there is no question that "people are going to die in Afghanistan this winter."