Along the Tracks

Monday, March 04, 2002

Questioning the war

More of a full column here than a blog. Sorry, but when it flows, it flows.
I said it before and I’ll say it again, there are some very legitimate questions to be asked concerning the “next phase” in the war on terrorism. Even I, a full-hearted supporter of the war and all its stated goals, would like to see these concerns addressed. It sharpens the thinking, the planning and the implementation, and that can only be to America’s benefit. So, while some leading Democrats and liberal pundits in the media focus on politicizing the debate, trying to seem critical and supportive at the same time without asking any question that could actually be answered, I have decided to step in with some concerns of my own.
1. Will the “phases” of this war be consecutive or concurrent? That is, will we be sending special forces into several countries to root out al Qaeda, then considering bigger operations (regime change) in Iraq (or elsewhere), or are we planning to march to Baghdad while at the same time operating in several other countries with smaller forces? The answer to this question has real implications for our ability to supply and support field troops - the military “tail” issue.
2. Even though it is obvious we don’t want to occupy Afghanistan or, once it is taken, Iraq long-term, do we have a contingency to stabilize those countries with large numbers of our own troops or with the help of allies? Of course, we hope, perhaps even believe, that local allies with the support of some international peacekeepers will be enough to keep things relatively calm over the next few years as more amiable governments solidify in those countries. But we can’t be sure that will be the case, and a degeneration into anarchy would both invite a return presence by al Qaeda and would destabilize regional situations (i.e., Pakistan-India, Israel-Palestine, Iran, Chechnya), making future problems more likely.
3. How can we best utilize the assistance of key allies, and strengthen relationships with other countries who have similar international goals? Despite what you may hear, Britain and the rest of Europe are 100% behind this war. Even Russia is siding with us more times than not. However, individuals in several governments overseas (and those pesky pundits) have been much sharper in their criticism, largely because America’s plans seem unclear. The huge technology and power gap between America’s military and that of any other country make this America’s war to fight, whether we like it or not. Actually, more to the point, we like it that way - they do not. It’s not that we don’t want help from our allies; they simply are unable to provide much battlefield support to today’s American soldier. Therefore, we prefer not to have our allies “get in the way” and risk greater casualties or loss of strategic superiority for the sake of “multilateralism.” On the other hand, our allies, though not seeking bloodshed, do wish to see themselves as an integral part to the enforcement of the world’s moral values.
Look at it this way. In 1991 - just 11 years ago - dozens of nations joined our coalition in troop numbers large and small to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Even then, American soldiers were better equipped and prepared for battle, but by and large, troops from other countries could march on the same battlefield as Americans and contribute directly to the application of force.
Today, only Britain, Australia, Canada, France and Germany have ANY combat forces which can be used in conjunction with America’s military, and those only in small numbers. Communication is the key to the modern battlefield, and the troops of other nations are a generation behind America’s soldier. Along with all the other things Afghanistan has taught us, it is clear that the communication gap makes friendly-fire accidents - American forces firing on ill-equipped allied troops unable to communicate their identity - a deadly reality. Therefore, until they catch up, it may be safer for allies to fight only in their own zones of combat than to join us in our intricate maneuvers.
That, however, leaves allies feeling powerless to shape the direction of the war. They are, after all, sovereign nations, and would like to be considered equals. The “consultation” and “multilateralism” disputes would be irrelevant if they were on the same battlefield with us, making decisions, offering relevant military advice and placing their men and women in harms way. But they are not, and so they find themselves on the sidelines as the West - their West - faces its largest threat since the Cold War.
This is an important issue, not just for diplomatic reasons, but for the obvious fact that, the song not withstanding, this is not a small world. The aid of our allies, old and new, will be critical to keeping heels on the throats of terrorists. That aid will also be critical in encouraging democracy, human rights and free markets where they do not exist - the surest way to create a peaceful world. That’s not a job for the military, that is a job for all democracies. The key is to build in our allies a feeling of ownership in that goal.

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