October 22, 2001   Talk about it  E-mail story  Print


Allies' Support Steady, but Concern Is Growing

 Coalition: Officials and analysts fear public outrage in the event of extended bombing.


LONDON -- After two weeks of unrelenting bombing of Afghanistan, similar questions are being raised at cabinet meetings and kitchen tables around the world: Are the airstrikes as effective as the U.S. government says they are? If so, why are they continuing? And who is winning this war, which now involves ground troops?

The short answer from allied governments and military analysts is that these are early days.

Some take issue with U.S. claims of success and warn of potential damage on the political and intelligence fronts, but most also take President Bush at his word when he says that this will be a long war. Official support for the war on terrorism from the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Japan and Russia has been unwavering. Key allies in the region, such as Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, also are holding firm in the face of U.S. bombing of a fellow Muslim country and the deployment of U.S. Special Forces to fight the Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.

But there is growing concern among some allies and political analysts that the longer the air war continues, the greater the risks of mounting civilian casualties, public outrage over increased hunger and misery, and fissures in the coalition.

"It is important that military operations in Afghanistan end the soonest, achieving their goal," Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero said in Luxembourg on Wednesday. The bombing, he added, "has a political price because . . . civilian victims have repercussions on the public opinion of both Arab and Western countries."

Britain, the main partner in the U.S. campaign, concurs with Washington's assessment that the air barrage has hit 80 carefully selected targets in the effort to smoke out Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, and the Taliban, his host in Afghanistan.

U.S. and British missiles took out Taliban air defenses, airports and military installations, paving the way for the introduction of ground troops and the use of low-flying aircraft to move and support them, officials and analysts say. The bombs also have hit several of Bin Laden's training bases, which although most likely empty, are now no longer operational.

Bin Laden Remains as Elusive as Ever

But while arguing that the air campaign has limited Bin Laden's room to maneuver, Britain concedes that the allies are not much closer to their primary goal of nabbing Washington's most wanted man than they were when the bombing began Oct. 7.

"I believe the opportunities he has to hide out in Afghanistan are much reduced," Defense Minister Geoff Hoon said in an interview. "That's not to say we know where he is. We don't. . . . We are operating on the assumption that he is still in Afghanistan because there isn't any evidence he's anywhere else."

The United States and Britain also have not located the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, although American commandos occupied and searched one of his residences in a raid early Saturday They have not offered hard evidence that the air war is causing the Taliban to reconsider sheltering Bin Laden or to lose its grip on power. Beyond the training camps, there is no indication that Bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization has been hit.

Perhaps no government knows the perils of war in Afghanistan better than the one in the Kremlin. Soviet forces spent a disastrous decade in Afghanistan before finally retreating in 1989. But Russia--which expects U.S. approval for its war in Chechnya in return for supporting the Afghanistan campaign--has praised the first two weeks of the U.S. operation as well-planned and well-executed.

"Afghanistan is not a dot on a map. It is a large country, and it takes a certain amount of time to destroy all the militarily important enemy strongholds," said Anatoly S. Kulikov, a former Interior Minister. "From the military and technical points of view, the United States has obviously chosen the right targets, the destruction of which will effectively paralyze the Taliban troops."

Maj. Gen. Alexander N. Kalita, vice chairman of the Security and Defense Committee in the upper house of parliament, added: "Naturally the public demands that [the air war] be conducted as rapidly and effectively as possible. This is totally understandable, but public opinion should not be allowed to influence the planning of a large-scale operation like this."

2 Aspects of Campaign Against Terrorism

But in this so-called international war on terrorism, as in any counter-insurgency war, the campaign for hearts and minds is half the battle. The United States wants to drain support for Al Qaeda, which is based in Afghanistan but operates in dozens of countries. But the air war might be fueling anti-Americanism and discouraging quieter intelligence support from countries such as Iran.

"The bombing might be counterproductive. It is being perceived [in the Arab and Islamic world] as an excessive show of forces, as the U.S. trying to prove something," said Kirsten Schulze, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics.

Despite London's and Washington's repeated assertions to the contrary, Al Qaeda "is finding it possible to turn this into a war of the West against Islam," added Paul Rogers, a military analyst at the University of Bradford in northern England.

This concern has been echoed by Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and by Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. Both said the war in Afghanistan should end as quickly as possible. They fear rising internal opposition to their support for the U.S. campaign, as does the German government, which sees signs of discontent from its pacifist Greens coalition partner.

And although the United States rejects any link between the terrorist attack and so-called "causes of terror," many U.S. allies do not.

"We need to think about ways to break the chain of hatred," said Kagoshima University professor Akira Kimura in Japan. "The terrorism was not the beginning; it was a result. We should think why the U.S. was attacked. Why is the U.S. so hated that terrorists attack by committing suicide?"

Apart from Britain, U.S. allies and analysts say they have no intelligence of their own to determine where the more than 2,000 missiles and bombs fired since Oct. 7 have fallen or to gauge whether they have hit the 80 targets that Washington and London say they have.

Normally, airstrikes are used to target industry, infrastructure and infantry, as they were in the 1999 war in Yugoslavia. The Taliban, however, has very little of any of these.

"Maybe they're hitting things, but we don't know what the effect of hitting things is," said British defense expert John Keegan. "In [the Yugoslav province of] Kosovo, you could hit a television station and things that were important to [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic's government. Bin Laden rather cleverly is using a TV station on foreign territory that we can't go after."

Bin Laden and his lieutenants have sent propaganda videos to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network, which airs his threats against Americans and his claims to be fighting a holy war around the Arab world.

Taliban's Claims of Casualties Unconfirmed

Allied governments and military analysts say they also have no independent means of judging the Taliban's claims that an estimated 600 Afghan civilians have been killed since the air war began. Unlike in the Kosovo war, there are no independent journalists or opposition groups on the ground to offer corroborating or conflicting accounts.

"We're hampered by the very restrictive information policy, and we're bothered by the notion of using military means to fight an amorphous problem like terrorism," said Reinhard Mutz, deputy director of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg, Germany. "We have no window on the actual situation, and we would need a direct look to determine whether the appropriate places and plotters are being hit."

Hoon, the British defense minister, insisted that civilian casualties have been "very small . . . much smaller than the Taliban claim." He would not discuss numbers, but he dismissed the Taliban assertion that there were hundreds of civilian casualties in one village, Karam.

He said an airstrike there caused "significant secondary explosions, showing that this was some sort of military facility. . . . These were clearly buildings associated with a weapons or ammunitions store, probably associated with Osama Bin Laden, given its location."

Still, some analysts who supported the airstrikes initially have been critical that the campaign has continued for so long. French political writer and Afghanistan expert Jean-Francois Deniau told Le Figaro newspaper that it is time for the campaign to stop.

"It's hard to believe that after 10 days of bombings by two of the world's best air forces--American and English--there would be anything left of the Taliban air power," Deniau said.

Hoon maintained that U.S. and British forces continue to find new targets and must revisit old ones.

"We've always said this will be intelligence-led. You put aircraft over Afghanistan, you see more, you find more, and there are more targets," he said. He added that pilots "have gone back to some of the targets" to prevent runways and other installations from being repaired.

Humanitarian organizations have argued for a pause in the bombing to allow food deliveries to starving Afghans before the onset of winter in a few weeks. The U.S. and Britain have rejected this proposal, saying it is the Taliban that is keeping food deliveries from civilians. The United States has made airdrops of food as part of a campaign to win ordinary Afghans' support, but aid organizations say these drops have not been nearly enough to meet the demand.

Taliban May Be in More Trouble Than Bin Laden

Lawrence Freedman, a defense analyst at King's College, London, said he believes the Taliban is in serious trouble. The regime will be dislodged by the combination of airstrikes, ongoing ground operations and the opposition Northern Alliance, Freedman predicted, and will retreat southward from the capital or into the mountains.

"Once they have decided the game is up, this can develop very suddenly. You can have splits in the movement, all sorts of things can happen," he said.

But like many other analysts, Freedman doubts that Bin Laden's network has been hard hit. Some Al Qaeda members are fighting alongside the Taliban, but many others have gone to ground or to Pakistan--where they can lie low for a long time.

"This may affect his future activities, but it does not make much difference to the here and now or to the people who take it upon themselves to do something for Allah because they feel it is their duty," Freedman said. "It is difficult to [prevent] the terrorist events that are already planned."

*Times staff writers Richard Boudreaux in Rome, Mark Magnier in Tokyo, Maura Reynolds in Moscow, Carol J. Williams in Berlin and special correspondents Alexei Kuznetsov in Moscow, Maria De Cristofaro in Rome, Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris and Amberin Zaman in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.




Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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