SINGAPORE — More than three weeks into the US air campaign in Afghanistan, the war against Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network isn't going well.
Militarily, the Taliban are taking a fearful pounding, but politically and morally, they are winning. The main reason is the increasing reports that Afghan civilians are being killed. This is leading ordinary Muslims in Afghanistan and elsewhere - no doubt prompted by Al Qaeda's whispers - to ask why innocent Afghans are dying when not a single Afghan was involved in the attacks of Sept. 11.
The key to this war is not in Afghanistan. It is in the hearts and minds of the American public and in the global Islamic community. Mr. bin Laden knows this: As a volunteer with the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, he saw the Soviets withdraw when Moscow lost the will to carry on. He also saw the Americans pull out of Somalia in 1993, once they lost 18 servicemen. No wonder bin Laden is said to regard the United States as a "paper tiger"; he feels that for all of America's technological and military might, its public opinion represents its soft underbelly.
Hence bin Laden knows that to achieve his political goal of an American and more general Western disengagement from the Muslim world, he does not need to fight the US armed forces directly. Through terror attacks on US targets and fomenting anti-Western unrest in Muslim countries, he can break the will of the American people to resist his designs. He is fighting a political war.
Actually, this is not a "new kind of war." Bin Laden is employing what the French general and strategic thinker André Beaufré long ago called an indirect strategy. In direct strategy, the enemy field forces are seen as the "center of gravity," and diplomacy, propaganda, and other instruments are geared toward supporting the military action. The coalition assault on the hapless Iraqi Army in 1991 is a good example of this "direct" approach.
However, in indirect strategy, the enemy public is seen as the center of gravity; military action is auxiliary to diplomatic, economic, and other actions designed to undermine the will of the enemy to wage war. In this respect, the Tet offensive of 1968 was excellent indirect strategy, because of its larger effect of turning Americans against the Vietnam War. In this sense, bin Laden is not doing anything terribly different from what Vo Nguyen Giap did.
But if the US is serious about "draining the swamp" of disgruntled Muslims, it has to play the same game of indirect strategy. This means that the quest to find and eliminate bin Laden cannot be the main focus, and Afghanistan the main theater, in this war. Rather, the military effort must support, or at least not undermine, diplomatic and other moves elsewhere aimed at preventing Muslim radicalization.
The challenges are therefore political, not military: persuading Arab governments to be less repressive; assisting them in improving socio-economic governance; encouraging them to rein in the extremist ideologues; and inducing their cooperation in setting up a Palestinian state without jeopardizing Israeli security.
The devil is in the details, but this is beside the point. What is needed in a political war is to be seen making a sincere and concerted effort in these areas. A positive image of America is long overdue throughout the hub of Islam.
The imperative of generating the right impression applies equally to the US military campaign in Afghanistan. In order to support the main diplomatic-political effort, this must be carefully calibrated, not only to reduce collateral damage, but also to project the same message as that of American public diplomacy: that only extremists are being targeted.
Hence the current policy of bombing, while helpful to President Bush domestically, is, in a wider sense, politically counterproductive.
First, it prevents food aid from reaching the Afghans. Second, even smart bombs can do dumb things, like hit civilians. The bombing is sending a powerful unintended message to Muslims everywhere that bin Laden is telling the truth when he says that America is at war with Islam. If the bombing campaign carries on into Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, Al Qaeda's hand will be strengthened even more.
That is why the West needs to stop bombing and start thinking indirectly. It needs a strategy that targets the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide and elevates political considerations over strictly militarily operational ones. Bombing the rubble in Afghanistan is not a recipe for success.
Kumar Ramakrishna is an assistant professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University. His book, 'Emergency Propaganda: The Winning of Malayan Hearts and Minds,' will be published by Curzon Press later this year.