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Experts say bombing is risky strategy


By most measures, the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan has received widespread support from the American public as justifiable retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Few voices of dissent are heard in news reports.

But interviews with a wide array of foreign policy experts and leaders of nongovernmental organizations reveal more criticisms of the military campaign than generally reported.

Experts spoke of a range of alternatives. These included conducting a more limited police operation in Afghanistan instead of a military assault, addressing the political and economic grievances that stoke terrorism, and taking the moral high road rather than lashing out in retaliation -- an admittedly unlikely approach.

“There are always alternatives,” said Gary Sick, who served on the staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan and is now executive director of The Gulf/2000 Project. “One is to turn the other cheek and to say we will not lower ourselves to conduct the same kind of operation with the same risk to innocent civilians” as in the Sept. 11 attacks. “We will work to stop the flow of money, to impose the most stringent economic sanctions possible on Afghanistan and to bring terrorists to justice without military operations.”

Sick, senior research scholar and adjunct professor of international relations at Columbia University, pointed to President Jimmy Carter’s response to the seizure of American hostages during the Iranian Revolution as a case where the United States foreswore military retaliation, in large part because Carter believed that military retaliation would mean the hostages’ death.

The United States obviously rejected that approach in this particular crisis, said Sick, who remarked that it would be fairly unusual in international relations for a government with any significant degree of power not to respond with violence to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

“I’m not sure in the end we’ll look back and say it was the right thing to do,” Sick said of the bombing. “It does send a message to terrorists that has not always been sent before, that if you conduct an atrocity of this magnitude you can expect massive retaliation. That is an expensive message to send, and it carries with it some very high costs in the sense of innocent people being killed along the way, but it’s also like to get the attention of terrorists. It certainly gets the attention of governments who harbor terrorists. There is a deterrent effect that may never be measured.”

Other analysts saw clear perils in the military campaign, believing it undermines international support for the war on terrorism and shifts world attention away from the crimes of Sept. 11 to the wisdom of the U.S. military response. Questions also surfaced about the immediate usefulness of the raids. “A loose network of terrorist cells does not have the kind of tangible assets that can be seriously crippled by military strikes,” said Steven Zunes, associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco.

Exacerbating anti-American feeling

Zunes believes the bombing campaign will exacerbate anti-American feeling in the Mideast and make it harder to form a concert of nations focused on eradicating terrorism. Even before the bombing began Oct. 7, Zunes warned of the dangers of a large-scale military response. He urged a more targeted operation in its place.

“A limited attack against suspected terrorists -- involving small commando units, Special Forces, SWAT team-style operations -- could bring those responsible to justice and break up the terrorist cells … yet not create the backlash a more blunt use of force would create,” Zunes wrote in an article posted on the Web site of the Institute for Policy Studies.

The United States justifies bombing Afghanistan on the grounds that the Taliban regime there has not complied with U.S. demands to turn over Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks.

But, according to Richard Falk, professor of international law at Princeton University, the Bush administration created confusion in demanding that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden while refusing to provide it evidence of his culpability in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The request for evidence is not really a negotiation,” Falk said. “It’s a reasonable precondition” for asking that Osama bin Laden and his associates be turned over to the United States. “I think people have been persuaded by the media that there is no reasonable doubt [of his guilt] and in that sense there is no reason for evidence. Either we don’t have the evidence or we feel reluctant for some understandable reason to be given Osama bin Laden,” and are therefore withholding it, he said.

The author of On Humane Governance: Toward A New Global Politics and Revolutionaries and Functionaries: The Dual Face of International Terrorism, Falk did not rule out a role for military force in combating terrorism. But he sees problems with the U.S. bombing campaign. On one hand, it shifts all the burden of loss of life to those that are in Afghanistan, including innocent civilians, and therefore does not meet the criteria for a just war, he said. Those that conduct a just war need to expect some risk of loss of life themselves.

Further, he said, the bombing campaign “does not seem clearly related to reducing the threat [of terrorism] because it’s also creating a fair amount of antagonism to the United States, which intensifies the threat.”

“What could we do? Some of the things we are doing,” he said -- “trying to cut off the source of the [terrorists’] funds, trying to apprehend those connected with terrorism. The law-enforcement approach. I also think we could possibly, taking some greater risks ourselves, rely on smaller units on the ground with less of a massive preparatory bombardment that is taking place in recent days and which has almost inevitably produced these civilian casualties.”

David Nalle, Washington editor of the Central Asia Monitor and the veteran of a 28-year career with the U.S. Information Agency, with stints in Iran, Jordan, Syria and Afghanistan, is concerned about public opinion not only in the Mideast but also in Central Asia, a region dominated by autocratic governments with poor human rights records.

“A great hope for Central Asia would have been a peaceful, well-organized Afghanistan which would be a major outlet for those landlocked countries to the trade and commerce of the world,” Nalle said. Instead, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan is “allying us in the eyes of many people with their homegrown dictators, just as we understand now that we are being condemned by many people in the Muslim world for our attachment to people like [Egyptian President] Mubarak or the Saudi royal family.”

Al-Qaeda strategy

Bowdoin College government professor Daniel Lieberfeld said the military campaign may in fact play into a longer-range strategy of Al Qaeda: to destabilize friendly or pro-American governments such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

“I think these groups are thinking strategically, and they’re thinking a couple of steps ahead. My guess is they’re expecting the U.S. military response, and it’s part of their strategy for getting rid of the governments in the Islamic world that they think are too corrupt,” said Lieberfeld.

The author of the book Talking with the Enemy: Negotiation and Threat Perception in South Africa and Israel/Palestine, Lieberfeld called terrorism primarily a communications and psychological challenge. “We need to out-psych and out-think the terrorists who want the United States to act as a destructive and aggressive power,” he said.

A war against terrorism is not something that is possible to win primarily through military means, Lieberfeld remarked. “The way you combat terrorism is through intelligence, by winning away terrorists’ membership, by getting out a political message that counters the terrorist message, by delegitimizing them in their own community.”

Some Americans drew attention to the incongruity of the world’s largest military power raining bombs on one the poorest nations on the planet. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver called the military action in Afghanistan childish. She said international courts, not a vengeful bombing campaign, were the appropriate response to the Sept. 11 terror. “If we were to put a few billion dollars into food, health care and education instead of bombs, you can bet we’d win over enough friends to find out where he [Osama bin Laden] is hiding,” Kingsolver wrote in an essay circulated after the bombing began.

Criminal acts, not war

Judith McDaniel, director of peace building at the American Friends Service Committee, said that television footage coming out of Qatar might change Americans’ opinion of the bombing raids if they were allowed to view it. Now that the bombing is underway, McDaniel said it’s difficult to talk about other approaches -- freezing assets, or, instead of bombing, going in to help the Afghan people who have been starving because of three years of drought.

“Sept. 11 did not happen in a vacuum; it didn’t happen without a long history that led up to it. When people ask what could we have done, we could have started years ago, not abandoning the Afghan people after the Soviets withdrew,” McDaniel said.

“We need to talk about the events of Sept. 11 as crimes against humanity and not as war. No nation declared war against us. This was a criminal act. And if you think of this as a criminal act, you’re looking for justice in the context of the law, whether that would be international law, or the World Court or the United Nations,” McDaniel said.

The American Friends Service Committee is concerned that the bombing campaign is likely to lead to wider bombing, “to carte blanche for the United States to reinforce its presence in the region no matter how,” McDaniel said.

Religions for Peace

Religions for Peace is an international organization of leaders of the world’s great religions who are dedicated to achieving peace. On Oct. 23-24, Religions for Peace hosted a symposium in New York that brought together international religious and political leaders to respond to the Sept. 11 attacks. From the event, which featured an address by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, a conversation for peace between Rabbi Menachem Fruman, a rabbi in a town in the West Bank, along with addresses by many other speakers, Religions for Peace is designing a long-term action plan to address the challenge of terrorism and to expand cooperation among religions in working for the common good. [Sheik Talal Sidra, a minister in the Palestinian Authority, was unable to obtain a visa to enter the country for the event.]

Like many, William Vendley, secretary general for Religions for Peace, is concerned that the military campaign in Afghanistan may inadvertently confirm the feelings of those who believe terrorism is an acceptable response to injustice. “Military instruments are not only not helpful, they can corroborate perceptions of victimization,” Vendley said. “We are in a situation where populations do experience perceptions of grievance. Those are not unrelated to past histories and current situations where there are huge inequities and where there are also oppressive political regimes that are in place. Populations are simply not going to be stable unless those deep issues of justice are addressed. Those are not quick fixes. They don’t mean a quick eradication of terrorism, but they do deal with the deeper roots of it.”

For Vendley, looking at the United States’ responses to World War I and World War II provides a useful analogue to what could be done today to lay the groundwork for a more peaceful and terror-free world. Terrorism feeds on the frustrations of those who feel themselves exploited, Vendley said. After World War I, the Versailles peace treaty left Germany economically straitened and vulnerable to the seductions of a fanatical dictator. But in responding to World War II, the United States saw the advantage to both itself and to Europe of rebuilding shattered European economies. Further, in another act of generosity, the United States established multilateral institutions like the United Nations after World War II, places where nations that could not demand inclusion on the basis of power were nonetheless given a seat at the table.

“The multilateral institutions like the United Nations were tragically derailed during the Cold War,” Vendley said. “The events that surface on Sept. 11 reemphasize the need to revivify a politics of interdependence and an economics of interdependence.”

There is a second issue Vendley brings up: The past decade of ethnically driven conflicts in the world illustrates the dangers of unhealed cultural memory. Religions and cultures must think of ways of addressing not only the need for dialogue among different peoples but the need for healing and resolving festering communal memories, he said. Vendley pointed to the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession as a model of what societies could do symbolically, with the sacrament involving both repentance for inappropriate acts, symbolic restitution and, finally, reconciliation.

Atrophied intelligence

For many, the search for a solution to terrorism almost inevitably involves altering U.S. foreign policies. Lieberfeld spoke of the need to emphasize political as opposed to military strategies as well as to improve U.S. intelligence capabilities that have atrophied since the end of the Cold War. Many Saudis and Egyptians were involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and Lieberfeld said the United States should press for reforms within Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

“These are governments that don’t offer their people much in terms of a political future or, in Egypt, an economic future. The United States should be leaning on those leaderships to open up. We need some strategy that is going to make these countries less fertile recruiting grounds for terrorists.”

Americans have been through a learning experience as a result of the events of Sept. 11, said Nalle. “We have been given answers to the question, ‘Why do they hate us?’ It’s not a healthy situation to be hated, but there are things we can do about it, for example, getting Israel to recognize the gravity of the situation and persuading them to take a more positive attitude to reaching a constructive settlement with the Palestinians.” That’s “a major undertaking” in terms of the politics of Israel and the United States, he acknowledged.

David Long is skeptical about talk of changing U.S. policy. A retired Foreign Service officer who served as deputy director of the State Department’s office of counter terrorism for regional policy and chief of the Near East research division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Long said some of the policies that most inflame the Muslim world, such as U.S. support for Israel, have widespread domestic support.

He brings the same skepticism to discussions of the new war on terrorism. International relations is the art of the possible, Long said, and usually involves a choice of several flawed courses of action. “We haven’t exactly been standing by since the bombing of the embassies and the bombing of the Cole,” said Long, referring to actions that have also been linked to bin Laden. “If you consider just doing the same things we were doing before, that wasn’t working. Then you have to decide whether to ratchet up your efforts to get him, and how high.”

As for thinking you can end terrorism, forget it. “Terrorism is too cheap, too tempting, too easy to ever eradicate,” Long said. “What you have to do is bring it to manageable proportions.”

Margot Patterson is NCR’s senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001 [corrected 11/23/2001]