What’s gone wrong in the war on terror

ARTHUR KENT September 16 2002

What’s gone wrong in the war on terror

ARTHUR KENT September 16 2002

What’s gone wrong in the war on terror


Don’t expect the Afghan campaign to be renamed Operation Candour


ONE YEAR ON, we’re still wondering and scratching our heads. Why? How? How many? We are the accountants of chaos: politicians, journalists, generals, police and emergency officials; all of us still getting death tolls just right, expressing the grief, the outrage, the resolve to make things right again. The question is: are we committing a collective Arthur Andersen on the most unsettling part of the post9/11 ledger—the gain vs. loss chart, the bottom line on true and tangible results?

Forces from the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance flee a Taliban ambush last November

Especially in the speeches of politicians, this is where things become fuzzy. Exactly how well have our nations performed in trying to prevent future 9/1 Is, in shutting down the terrorists, in stabilizing the regions they haunt for fresh recruits and sanctuary? One year on, there are few answers. Instead, there’s growing suspicion about the gulf between our leaders’

pronouncements and the absence of proof that any meaningful progress has been made. Especially among the families most directly terrorized on 9/11, the culture of commemoration we’re sharing on this tragic anniversary is fine and necessary—to a point. But results, not more sympathy, is what many survivors want most for their lost loved ones.

“I do not want the deaths of these people to be eclipsed,” says Alice Hoglan, “but I’m worried, because even among our colleagues, I see us slipping back into complacency.”

Hoglan has been lobbying tirelessly since last September for aviation security. And not just because she and her sister Candy are veteran flight attendants operat-

ing from San Francisco for United Airlines: her 31-year-old son Mark Bingham was killed on United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers staged a counterattack on the terrorists. Hoglan says the airlines “have been too slow installing fortress doors to the cockpit.” And their “positive bag watch program” is no answer. It just matches each piece of luggage to a passenger on the planes, which is no good at all if you’re dealing with a suicide bomber. Though the U.S. aviation safety act passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks compels airports to begin mandatory X-raying of all baggage by January, 2003, money to pay for screening equipment and staff is still not in place. Plus, says Hoglan: “We’re still in need of better checks on all people who have access to the aircraft— everyone from contract workers like cleaners and caterers, to airline and airport

employees, and all passengers.”

Airline spokesmen argue that their policies are at least headed in the right direction. Which is perhaps more than can be said for the Bush administration’s war on terror. In Afghanistan, U.S. and allied troop deployments at no point have reached even one-third the number of NATO soldiers still keeping the peace in parts of the former Yugoslavia—despite those Balkan territories being only about one-eighth the size of Afghanistan. The CIA, according to a source in the British military, has been delivering “plastic binfuls” of U.S. currency, via American and British military transport, to Afghan regional warlords in payment for helping, or at least not resisting, the hunt for alQaeda and Taliban fugitives. But money can’t buy you luck, it seems: U.S. officers admit that their latest attempt to round up Taliban and al-Qaeda holdouts, Operation Mountain Sweep, was compromised by security leaks from their supposed Afghan tribal allies.

Critics accuse George W. Bush and his point men of dodging the shortcomings of the Afghan campaign with spin: forever elaborating on positives, avoiding negatives. The tactic has their Democratic rivals in Congress fuming in this mid-term election season. And it’s left more and more voters wondering if they’ve been spoon-fed only the kind of information that boosts Bush’s approval levels.

What else would skeptics conclude after comparing a couple of the administration’s

performances in August? On the 15th, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, with Gen. Tommy Franks at his side, told reporters: “Truth be told, the security situation in Afghanistan is reasonably good. In Mazar and Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, the situation is reasonably stable. Is the situation perfecdy tidy? No. But I suspect it would be accurate to say that the security situation in Afghanistan is the best it’s been probably in close to a quarter of a century.”

But just two weeks later, an unnamed administration official admitted in the New York Times that a “mid-course correction” will be implemented to try to put more peacekeepers into Afghanistan. Why? To bring at least a rudimentary kind of law and order to the countryside. Refugee returns have recently slowed to a trickle due to lawlessness, and in much of the country, reconstruction hasn’t even started. The U.S.-backed Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, has demanded more troops since last December; he has been rebuffed by the Bush administration.

So the “mid-course correction” is a starspangled about-face. Just don’t expect the Afghan campaign to be re-dubbed Operation Candour. For starters, the “reasonably good” security in Afghanistan is overshadowed by continuing warfare— and terrorism, as evidenced by a would-be assassin’s bullets coming within centimetres of President Karzai as he was being

driven through Kandahar on Sept. 5. Just hours before, a car bomb ripped through a crowded market in Kabul, killing at least 26 people. The near-simultaneous timing of the attacks, and the proximity to the anniversary of the Sept. 9,2001, assassination of anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, are an eerie reminder of alQaeda’s exploits one year ago.

Karzai’s brush with death may have been his second in as many months: in July, a suspected al-Qaeda suicide bomber with 1,000 lbs. of explosives in his car was arrested in Kabul; he is thought to have been targeting Karzai. The Afghan leader, following the recent assassination of one of his vice-presidents, Abdul Qadir, has replaced his personal security team with U.S. special forces soldiers. The reason: continuing friction between leaders of the country’s Pashtun majority and the Tajikdominated Defence Ministry, which had previously provided Karzai, a Pashtun, with bodyguards.

Training of the new national army is proceeding at a camel’s pace. In the provinces, insecurity is the norm: UN staffers have been murdered in Mazar-i-Sharif and robbed in Ghazni. Heroin production has resumed, with refining chemicals on open sale in many bazaars. Two warlords now on the CIA’s covert payroll, governor of Kandahar Gul Agha Sherzai and Hazrat Ali of Nangarhar province, were accused by Western investigators of big-time drug trafficking in the pre-Taliban era. In Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, the CIA has tied itself in knots of patronage, bankrolling competing strongmen: Pacha Khan Zadran, who opposes the Karzai government, and Hakim Taniwal, the interim leader’s choice of governor for the region. Meanwhile, on the cultural front, although the capital’s post-Taliban media is relatively liberal, it may be too early to declare a “Kabul Spring”: religious conservatives have succeeded in barring female singers from state radio and banning Indian movies from Kabul TV.

To many Afghan-watchers, the Bush administration is heading toward the unthinkable—squandering America’s advantage after the rout of the Taliban, a carbon copy of George Bush Sr.’s failure to consolidate U.S. gains after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

“They’re betraying their own slogans,”

says one military intelligence analyst in Washington. “They said ‘no more warlords.’ They said Afghanistan had to be normalized, never again a haven for terrorists. But al-Qaeda’s still there and in Pakistan, waiting and watching and planning. We’ve been distracted by issues like Iraq and domestic politics. It’s wasteful and it’s wrong.” The source says his own assessments, which advocate a more results-oriented campaign against terror, have been buried by Washington infighting. “All the bureaucracies are competing for political capital, for influence. The people at the top of the intelligence agencies don’t want to face up to realities. They worry about making mistakes, so they come up with half measures. There’s no follow-through, no ethic of everyday hard work to secure the basic objectives.” Finally, given the high hopes Americans have attached to counterterrorism, he cites rampant careerism. “Whether it’s corporate America, big church America or military and government America, you have a whole group of folks who believe their careers are more important than the mission. Too few of our leaders are focusing on achieving the big goals.”

Steven Livingston, a political scientist at George Washington University, says the American news media, too, has some soulsearching to do over its performance in the past 12 months. “It’s clear that technology offers greater, swifter coverage of events such as those in Afghanistan,” he says, “but I’m not sure it has revealed much more. Were the right questions raised, and were they raised often enough? I think the past year demonstrates a lot about the availability of information, and the picture is pretty disappointing. Many U.S. media managers admitted that they and their agencies had not been paying enough attention to international news, and they pledged that was going to change.” Instead, Livingston says, there’s mainly been a change in interpretation. “What has come to be defined as international news is what the U.S. thinks of a particular place. That doesn’t produce a more balanced, sophisticated view of the world, which in turn creates no real impetus for a reappraisal of U.S. foreign policy.”

Guilty as charged, says one network news producer, who complains that once B-52 strikes petered out in Afghanistan at

the beginning of the year, his team couldn’t get their stories on the air. “The networks won’t respond unless there’s a hook that’s just out of sync with the reality of war. You know, big massacres, huge advances on the ground. But this is Afghanistan, everything happens in tiny increments. It’s just too complex to present on TV news in the States.”

If daily events are ignored or distorted, it’s fair to ask what hope there can be for America’s long-term political and diplomatic strategies for counterterrorism. While decidedly non-telegenic and totally lacking in Rumsfeldian tough-talk, these initiatives are probably the most effective ways to prevent future 9/11-style attacks. The U.S. needs to change its presence and image on the ground in the Third and Muslim worlds; in effect, to parachute its creative forces behind the lines. It must demonstrate, culturally and economically, the benefits of co-operation.

In late July, 10 months after the terrorist outrages in the U.S., and only after scoldings from think-tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations, Bush announced a new strategic White House office aimed at influencing international opinion. There will be exchanges of cultural programs with Islamic nations, and more TV and radio broadcasts featuring the up-sides of Muslim life in America. A bill has been introduced in Congress to increase overseas cultural programs by US$200 million.

It might be too little and very late, but the Americans haven’t exactly been beaten to the cultural counterpunch by other Western states, or the United Nations. Why, the people of member countries could ask, did it take until the summer of 2002 for the UN to propose a campaign to dissuade disaffected young Arabs from enlisting in terrorism? And why is the committee’s remit so vague—that the UN should project a clear message of the unacceptability of terrorism, and UN information centres should make more of an effort to establish links with institutes and schools in the Arab world?

This Sept. 11, it’s questions like these, not just victims’ names, that should scroll before us, make us all reflect. Unless we come up with answers—and results—we abuse what was meant to have been the victims’ lasting legacy: a world where terror and terrorists have no future. li1]