The war in Afghanistan has abundant complications: The terrain is more difficult than the desert of the Persian Gulf war, getting Pakistan, a reluctant but tactically important ally, to cooperate in overthrowing the Taliban regime it created will require subtlety and cunning, etc. Yet for all these complications, what the U.S. war effort most needs is the clarity of simple-mindedness, the understanding that nothing much matters next to the goal of achieving a decisive victory in Afghanistan, which in turn requires annihilating our enemies. Not disrupting their command-and-control, not degrading their infrastructure, not diminishing their morale — although these may be useful antecedents — but killing them.
It is a natural temptation to flinch from the awful necessity of killing, to think that conflicts and disputes can be worked out or, failing that, settled by the application of a nicely calibrated amount of violence. But a determined and fanatical enemy is immune to any persuasion short of destruction, and on that all else hinges. The U.S. has sought to prompt revolt in the Pashtun south of Afghanistan; the revolt won’t come until the Taliban is destroyed. Pakistan complains that the bombing campaign is dragging on too long; it won’t, if the Taliban is destroyed with dispatch. The State Department worries about forging the post-Taliban future; its leverage to do so will increase only when America destroys the Taliban with massive force.
At this stage, in other words, little ails the campaign in Afghanistan that can’t be solved, or at least alleviated, by the ferocious application of American power. The administration pleads for patience, and we should indeed be patient about achieving our goals. But we should be impatient for the administration to take the actions necessary to achieve those goals. So far it hasn’t. The administration has adopted a Clintonian approach to warfare, the usual cruise-missile strikes and air raids from 15,000 feet, with a dollop of special-operations raids. The war has been characterized by the incrementalism that has been the bane of American warmaking since Vietnam.
The Powell Doctrine has gone out of style in recent months, but if it sometimes seemed merely an excuse for never fighting wars, its emphasis on overwhelming force was correct. In the current circumstances, that means not only a stepped-up air campaign, but a large-scale effort to supply the Northern Alliance, and the use of American troops, at the very least to secure strategically important ground and possibly to prosecute the core of the campaign itself. It is unclear whether the assassination of Abdul Haq by the Taliban amounts to the catastrophic setback in the south that some have portrayed it as being. But its symbolism was disturbing: The Taliban killed an opponent, perhaps with their bare hands, while we sent an unmanned drone aircraft — too late — to assist him.
Winston Churchill wrote after Pearl Harbor that he knew that America’s critics would be wrong. We wouldn’t just “be a vague blur on the horizon to friend or foe.” Osama bin Laden needs to know it too.