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Pinpricks Still Won't Work

November 04, 2001|JACOB HEILBRUNN | Jacob Heilbrunn is a Times editorial writer

WASHINGTON — A young and inexperienced president from a dynasty surrounds himself with experts. Early in his presidency, he announces a global crusade on behalf of freedom. No price, he announces, is too high to pay. Step by step, he becomes progressively embroiled in a war in a small country mired in civil war and located near a vital industrial region.

Sound familiar? This was the situation confronting John F. Kennedy in Vietnam. It is also the one that George W. Bush faces in Afghanistan. So far, his administration has bungled the challenge. Despite Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's claim that critics are looking for "instant gratification," the war effort is in deep trouble. The United States is not headed into a quagmire; it's already in one. The U.S. is not losing the first round against the Taliban; it has already lost it. Soon, a new credibility gap will emerge as the Pentagon attempts to massage the news.

It didn't have to be this way. There is a big difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam. In contrast with the arrogance of power that suffused Robert S. McNamara and Co., Bush's advisors are not only aware of Vietnam, but Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has devised a coherent doctrine to avoid its mistakes. The Powell doctrine's most fundamental tenets are that the United States needs to define its political goals; that once it has decided to use force, it needs to do so in an overwhelming manner; and that it needs an exit strategy. America's hawks, such as Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, have always hated both Powell and his doctrine, which they see as a synonym for isolationism and passivity.

But now the Powell doctrine is starting to look better and better, even if its inventor has backed away from it. The secretary of State has defined the war as being primarily about "legal, financial" means. All well and good. But not good enough. Indeed, the irony is that at the very moment when the Powell doctrine is most needed, the administration is not following it. On the contrary, it is violating it. The Powell doctrine has become one of the most prominent casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Consider the deviations from the doctrine. As in Vietnam, the U.S. is searching around for a viable opposition force. In Afghanistan, it is searching for a post-Taliban order even before the Taliban has been toppled. But there does not appear to be a political force capable of replacing the Taliban. If the administration were following the Powell doctrine, it would not be trying to calculate the intricacies of Afghan tribal politics. Instead, it would focus on eliminating the Taliban, then present a fait accompli.

The constant pinprick bombings represent another departure from the Powell doctrine. Both Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) have complained that the U.S. is conducting a half-hearted campaign. The bombings are designed to convince the Taliban that further resistance is futile. But the Taliban isn't listening. Instead, it has dug in and seized upon U.S. irresolution as a victory.

The Pentagon's new quick fix is Special Operations forces. But this, too, doesn't comply with the Powell doctrine's advocacy of massive force. Moreover, use of special forces was precisely the method of warfare that got the U.S. bogged down in Vietnam. Kennedy was fascinated by the idea of using elite commando troops. It was Gen. Maxwell Taylor who convinced him that U.S. Army Special Forces would ensure an easy victory in Vietnam. Young commandos would even be invited to Hyannis Port for weekend games with the Kennedy clan. These special advisors were sent into Vietnam and Laos; in a few years, hundreds of thousands of ground troops followed.

The Bush administration seems to be following the same course. It is deploying 100 "liaison officers" to coordinate anti-Taliban groups, most notably the Northern Alliance. But even if the U.S. bows to the inevitable and sends in ground troops, it is not clear that the army is properly equipped for the fight. Another lesson that has not been learned from Vietnam is that armored and mechanized divisions are not always the answer. Today's military remains muscle-bound and fixated with high-tech weaponry. The wild variations in the estimates of soldiers needed to win in Afghanistan, ranging from Sen. John McCain's tens of thousands to other guesses of hundreds of thousands, suggest that the U.S. is as poorly prepared for this conflict as for Vietnam.

Had the Powell doctrine been followed from the outset, it is possible that the Taliban might by now have been stunned into submission. But it has not been. Now the U.S. is learning, once again, that an indigenous foe in a remote, inhospitable terrain is proving far more tenacious than it ever anticipated. The longer the Bush administration pursues its current strategy, the more confident the Taliban will grow. Bombing campaigns, no clear objectives and no exit strategy are bad news. Vietnam may not be back, but the Vietnam syndrome has gained a new virulence. The cure may be the Powell doctrine.

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