The Bush administration has waged an effective war in Afghanistan, and, for the most part, has waged it in a just manner. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we wrote that the terrorists should be brought to justice because of their crimes and because of the danger they pose to life in this country and elsewhere. If this cannot be done peacefully, then they are legitimate targets of military action.
At the time, we hoped that the Taliban regime would see that it was in their own interest to turn over the Al Qaeda terrorists to the U.S. government or an international tribunal, but these hopes were dashed and war became the last resort.
We also feared that in a quest for revenge, the war might be waged without due regard for civilian casualties. Although civilians (as well as allied and U.S. soldiers) were killed as a result of bad intelligence, malfunctioning equipment and human error, there is currently no evidence that civilians were intentionally targeted. In the early stages of the war, aircraft, airports and air defense systems were the principal targets. Next came military supply depots, repair facilities and communications. Only after their logistical support was in tatters were Taliban frontline soldiers attacked. Political hawks, who were demanding heavy bombing in support of the Northern Alliance at the beginning of the war, failed to understand the wisdom of the U.S. military strategy.
Our editorial also expressed fear that the war might drag on, as happened when the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan. Here we underestimated the strength and extent of opposition to the Taliban within Afghanistan and the willingness of Taliban allies to switch sides as soon as the Taliban star began to decline. The support of other nations in the region was also critical to the U.S. success.
While the Bush administration deserves praise, its policies have not been without defects. Many Al Qaeda and Taliban troops escaped into the mountains or Pakistan. In addition, the administration lost the moral high ground by arguing that the captives taken during the war were not covered by the Geneva conventions governing prisoners, a position it was ultimately forced to reverse. Now it is trying to convince a skeptical world that there is a difference between the Taliban soldiers and the Al Qaeda terrorists, a distinction that it could have made more successfully if it had not earlier tried to ignore the Geneva conventions. In addition, allegations that U.S. soldiers have beaten captives are alarming. The facilities holding prisoners should be immediately opened to international inspection by the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
The first casualty of war, the saying goes, is the truth. While secrecy is vital to protect military plans, post-battle secrecy breeds suspicion and prevents us from learning from our mistakes. The military would have more credibility if it acknowledged quickly and forthrightly civilian casualties and other military mistakes. To assert, for example, against all evidence that those killed at the village of Chowkar-Karez, outside Kandahar, were enemy soldiers, renders suspect all information given out by the military. Better to admit the mistake, apologize, make reparations and strive to do better.
Apologies and reparations would do much to show the Afghan people that we, unlike so many previous foreign powers, are different: we care about their welfare. Estimates of civilian casualties from the war range from 1,000 to 4,000. Justice demands that we spend at least part of our military budget to help those innocent civilians who were wounded, widowed or orphaned by U.S. weapons. We also have an obligation to retrieve and destroy unexploded ordnance, lest more innocents suffer from the war.
Rebuilding Afghanistan politically and economically will not be easy. Tribalism, corruption and anarchy are once again asserting their influence. The heroin trade will soon follow. The international coalition that supported the war is weakening in the peace. Pakistan and Iran, as close neighbors of Afghanistan, are maneuvering to support their allies, as are the former Soviet nations. Mr. Bush’s cowboy rhetoric, while popular at home, is not helping to preserve the coalition abroad. Nor is the administration’s attempt to blame all the problems in the Middle East on Yasir Arafat helping to convince the Muslims of the world that we are on their side. Rather the message is: Now that we have won the war, we don’t need you any more.
But the struggle against terrorism is not over. Osama bin Laden and many of his cohorts are still at large. There are terrorist cells all over the world, and some very evil people are still seeking nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction. To deal with these threats we will need a strong and permanent international coalition. We will not achieve this if we repeatedly show lack of respect for international institutions and procedures.