Is U.S. policy being driven by the Pentagon’s hardware?

On Monday, November 5, 2001, William Raspberry wrote a Washington Post column in which he asked:

“Did I miss something? A few weeks ago, the administration line was that the Taliban’s chief sin against us was its failure to surrender Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden himself was the mastermind behind the catastrophe we’ve reduced to the shorthand of 9-1-1. The Taliban had a simple choice: “Cough him up,” in President Bush’s inelegant phrase, or risk our military fury.

The Taliban, the radical Islamic militia that rules most of Afghanistan, didn’t cough him up, and the bombing began.

That much I understand. Where I get lost is that, at some unremarked time after the commencement of the air assault, the Taliban itself became our focus. Oh, we still want bin Laden, of course, but we want the Taliban, too.

The shift happened so subtly that I have found myself thinking that the Taliban was always a major player in the terrorist arena — and that we’d always known it. But I’ve been looking at hundreds of newspaper articles going back before the August 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and I find virtually no mention of any suspicion of the Taliban as an exporter of terrorism.”

Each week of the war has involved the use of ever-larger and “dumber” bombs.

The anticipated shift to the use of elite troops capable of entering Afghanistan to capture and remove bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives, has not materialized.

Prior to the largest foray of Special Operations troops and the elite Delta Force into Afghanistan on October 19, Pentagon official declared the Taliban military capacity “eviscerated.”

Pentagon officials declared the covert raid a success, but evidence indicates otherwise.

  • On October 24, the Pentagon declared that the Taliban had entrenched itself for a long, hard battle.
  • Pentagon officials have said nothing more about raids into Afghanistan by elite troops, but they have increased the number of advisors on the ground working with Northern Alliance troops.
  • The United States forces shifted their targeting focus to the Shomali Plain, the location of the front between Northern Alliance and Taliban forces, and introduced larger and more destructive weapons and tactics such as carpet bombing.

The U.S. is now deploying cluster bombs, each containing about 200 bomblets designed to scatter themselves over a large area in order to target concentrations of troops and vehicles. The U.S. has also used the 15,000-pound bomb known as the daisy-cutter, which was described as follows by CNN military expert Major General Don Shepperd.

“This is a standard, if large explosive bomb that disperses a GSX slurry and uses aluminum powder as an explosive. It then uses an ignition mechanism to ignite it all at once, providing a huge explosion. It’s much different than carpet bombing in that it kills people with concussion, as opposed to shrapnel.”

It is disingenuous at best to continue claiming that the United States is doing everything possible to prevent civilian casualties when it is deploying 500- and1,000-pound gravitational (i.e., dumb) bombs, cluster bombs, and the daisy-cutter.

It is also disingenuous to say that bin Laden and Al Qaeda are the targets of such an attack.

Using these weapons and tactics only makes sense if the Taliban is identified as the target of the war effort.

  • It is impossible to use bombs – smart, dumb, cluster, or otherwise – on a terrorist organization that is dispersed throughout the world, in hiding, and aided by sympathizers.
  • It is next to impossible to fight the “first war of the 21st Century” using 20th Century weapons, if the enemy is identified only as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
  • The American public wants results.
  • The Pentagon wants to succeed.
  • One solution to this dilemma is to redefine the enemy so that the military has a “front line,” clear targets, and the possibility of advancing and making the enemy retreat.

What are the long-term policy implications of the shift in military strategy for the overall objective of making the world safe from terrorism?

The administration is now:

  • Using incredibly large and destructive bombs against poorly equipped, but highly determined troops – thereby looking like the bully against underdogs in the eyes of many in the Islamic world. This perception is further supported by the administration’s indication that Somalia (another weak, war torn, and impoverished nation) may be the next theater of operations.
  • Following a military strategy that is strengthening the determination of the Afghan people to resist defeat and support the Taliban.
  • Assuming the role of “king maker” or “regime creator” in Afghanistan, but doing so with a very short-term focus on establishing a government that is friendly to the U.S. and acceptable to Pakistan, Russia, Iran and other neighboring countries regardless of the level of internal support among the Afghan people. The military pressures to get this war won are artificially shortening the time-line for negotiating complex political problems.
  • Entrapping itself in a highly escalated military operation from which it will be difficult, if not impossible, to back away without losing face.

For the past eight to ten years, military policy analysts have been urging the development of troop configurations, weapons systems, and law enforcement mechanisms capable of being used effectively against organizations such as Al Qaeda.

Resistance from Pentagon officials and congressional leaders has been fierce.

  • “Until last month, the Pentagon spent most of its annual budget of more than $300 billion on training and equipping to fight two major conventional wars at a time.”
  • Even the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, released on October 1, short-changes the types of forces needed to engage in a fight against terrorism.
  • The result of these policies includes a military force heavy in traditional hardware and a Federal Bureau of Investigation lacking basic computer equipment equivalent to that available to academics at even small colleges and universities.

So, how much of the administration’s shift in policy focus (not just military strategy) is being driven by the Pentagon’s available military hardware? And, should military hardware drive policy?

If this really is a new kind of war against a new kind of enemy, shouldn’t our leaders be taking the time to develop the necessary tools before “ramping up” a war effort to the point where the military hardware and tactical needs drive policy rather than the other way around?

Jayne Seminare Docherty, PhD, is the professor of Conflict Studies at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.