Our Only Tool is a Hammer
Is the Bombing of Afghanistan a Viable Strategy?
J. C. Adamson
For many Americans, including our President, Secretary of Defense, and military strategists, the bombing of Afghanistan is, unfortunately, a feel-good exercise that is probably producing few if any positive results.
Since I'm questioning something which 9 out of 10 Americans seem to approve, perhaps I'd better lay out some disclaimers. First, I'm not a pacifist. I'm certainly more dove than hawk, to use the parlance of Viet Nam, but I don't oppose military action, when it is necessary, useful, and workable. Second, I make no defense of the perpetrators of the ghastly crimes of September 11th; there may be explanations for those actions, but there is no possible rational defense of them. Finally, I believe I am a patriot. My ancestors fought in the Revolution of 1776, and I was reared to believe that the Constitution of the United States of America is the sacred guarantor of the rights of humankind.
Still, I question the bombing of Afghanistan. I question it because I think it may damage, rather than serve our purposes. The declared goal of the aerial attack is to weaken the Taliban's military capacity, presumably to enhance the ease and success of our own upcoming ground action. The truth of the matter leaked out in the context of a Pentagon news briefing after the second day of attacks: we were told that we were already running out of viable targets. The Taliban military had very little in the way of bomb-worthy military equipment and facilities to begin with, and we had already struck most of it.
Our military spokesmen keep saying we want to remove the enemy's command and control capability. That's always a good idea in combat, of course, but the Taliban's command and control is about as sophisticated as that of the Jets and the Sharks in the fifties musical, West Side Story. A B-2 bomber, or a Cruise Missile, probably isn't the weapon of choice for taking out a horse-mounted courier, or a scout with a walkie-talkie.
We're told that other targets include supply depots. But it doesn't appear that we have good enough intelligence to identify Taliban warehouses. We've already slipped up and hit a Red Cross humanitarian aid warehouse, and possibly a U. N. mine-removal operation. (It was hit, but perhaps not by our bombs.) If we've bombed those facilities, thinking they were logistical targets, it seems reasonable to assume that we haven't been highly efficient in the removal of Taliban storehouses.
We're told that part of our attack strategy is to disable airports, so the Taliban can't use them to defend against our attacks. But they only have a dozen or two aircraft, and suffer a shortage of parts for their routine maintenance. Our airport attacks may only be cratering runways we'll ultimately have to repair for our own use.
So why have we kept up the aerial barrage, long after we ran out of targets. I think of the old adage, "When your only tool is a hammer, you tend to perceive every problem as a nail." Bombers and Cruise Missiles are what we have, so we tend to perceive every military problem as a bomb target. Not only do we have lots of bombers and missiles, we paid a lot of money for them—a million dollars per copy for the missiles, and up to a billion each for the bombers. We're proud of all that hardware, and we want to prove to ourselves that the investment was worthwhile. So we bomb—day and night—even if there is nothing left to bomb.
Another factor is that we don't have many other tools to use. A land invasion is almost out of the question. We have nowhere from which to stage. If we try to put enough forces on the ground in Pakistan to mount an invasion into Afghanistan, we might well have to fight our way out of Pakistan, through waves of popular resistance, before we even get to the Afghan border. And an invasion over the border mountains, through the legendary Khyber Pass, would be a foolish venture. We could probably do it, but the cost would be phenomenal.
Land invasion has another problem. As in Viet Nam, we'd have great difficulty distinguishing Taliban military from Taliban non-militants, Northern Alliance resistance, and starving Afghans who just want to stay out of the way.
More covert ground action, with small, specialized strike forces is probably a more viable approach, and is probably what we'll eventually do to strike Osama bin Laden. But is that kind of effort substantially aided by the bombing we've done since the first days of the attack?
The bombing makes some of us feel good, though. The generals and admirals, as well as the pilots and support personnel are defending their nation as they're trained to do. And there is heroism in their action. Their skills, training and equipment may make their job look easy, but it isn't. It's difficult and dangerous.
For the rest of us, this activity makes us feel like we are doing something, too. The terrorist activity that began to dominate our attention on September 11th will continue to widen and spread. The people who are mailing anthrax-laced envelopes around the country are still at large, and surely are still working every day to accomplish their sinister goals. We don't know who they are, or where they are. We don't know if they are few or many. We don't know what they'll do next. We can't strike them when we can't find them. But this highly visible bombing campaign makes us feel as if we're taking sensible action.
The truth may be otherwise. We don't really know that we'd impair the abilities of terrorists on U. S. soil by eliminating a handful of fugitives in Afghanistan. Certainly, the zealous criminals who are spreading anthrax along the U. S. East Coast today aren't making phone calls to Osama bin Laden for approval every time they go to a corner mailbox. And if bin Laden were to step under a U. S. bomb today, the actions of the terrorists in our land would not cease.
But there are other considerations. It appears that our bombing activity has seriously disrupted humanitarian aid efforts in Afghanistan. Before the bombing began, The Red Cross and other agencies were feeding hundreds of thousands of people every day. It's not clear how much of that activity continues, but it certainly has been severely curtailed. The U. S. has been dropping food rations to the Afghanis, but the quantities are a small fraction of what others were providing. U. S. rations have also been seen on the black market in Afghanistan. That shouldn't surprise us. But what does it say to a poverty-stricken Afghani family, when their food relief has been interrupted, their children are hungry, they manage to somehow acquire a few meals on the black market, only to find them clearly marked as coming from the U. S., and containing U. S. propaganda? And how much worse if the family knows that U. S. bombs have destroyed a nearby humanitarian supply depot?
If the bombing isn't effective, and may well be injuring our long-term efforts, what then are our options? What would happen if we stopped the bombing today? Would it weaken us? Would it aid the terrorists who continue to wage war against us? Might it open up new avenues for us to work with the oppressed tribes of Afghanistan to remove bin Laden and his followers from their midst? Would it allow us to work more effectively to feed the hundreds of thousands of starving Afghanis? Would it help us build stronger alliances with Muslim states and organizations in the Middle East?
On the other hand, what happens if we continue on this course? Will we degrade our Middle Eastern alliances? Will we make new and dangerous enemies in Afghanistan and elsewhere? Or will we actually weaken terrorist organizations, and hasten the day when they might be ineffective against us?
No one has these answers. No one has ever faced these questions. But if our only tool is a hammer, and the problem isn't a nail, perhaps we'd be well advised to try to invent or discover some other tools.
© J. C. Adamson, 2001