Is America losing the war on terrorism?

A month into the conflict, critics raise doubts about the Bush team's strategies.

Washington

It's been a wartime honeymoon of astonishingly short duration.

Not even a month into the military campaign in Afghanistan, rumblings of discontent are being heard in Washington over how the Bush administration is handling the war on terrorism. A few prominent voices are even suggesting that, so far at least, the US is losing the war both abroad and at home.

One of the most cutting public criticisms has come from John McCain, a respected Republican senator and Vietnam war hero. Late last week, he faulted the administration for fighting the military war in "half measures." Shed a tear for innocent lives lost, he urged, and "get on with it."

Even officials within the administration have told reporters (anonymously, of course) of their dismay with the government's confused handling of the anthrax cases. These regrets coincide with new polls showing the first erosion of public confidence in Washington's ability to meet the terrorist threat, though Americans still strongly back President Bush himself.

"Americans will continue to feel that this is not a moment for questioning the president per se," says Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism expert in the Clinton administration. "But there is going to be more questioning of his advisers and the policies he has in place."

In Afghanistan, the criticism is grounded not so much in a single wrong step as in a collective stack of small setbacks. Among these: An on-the-ground raid by US Special Operations Forces yielded limited intelligence. A key Taliban opposition figure was captured and executed. Bombs have strayed to civilian targets, including the two-time hit of an International Red Cross warehouse.

Not mincing words

"We are losing - losing the first round," says international-affairs columnist Robert Kagan, in one of the most blunt assessments yet of the administration's military strategy. Speaking at a forum of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace this week, Mr. Kagan argued that, as in Vietnam, "we have built our strategy, such as it is, around constraints."

Just as the United States was mindful to keep China out of the Vietnam War, it is restricted now by various coalitions and political considerations, he says.

Further, the Bush team is constricted by a reluctance to fully commit ground troops, he says, although the public seems ready to back such a move. Sixty-one percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan would be worth the cost of "several thousand" US troops, according to a New York Times-CBS poll this week.

Senator McCain, too, is cautioning against relying too much on air power. America's enemies, he said in an Oct. 26 Wall Street Journal op-ed, doubt its determination to use "all force necessary" to achieve victory. He also advises against suspending military actions during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan - something the Pentagon says it will not do.

Still others fault the administration for its political planning - or lack thereof - of a post-conflict Afghanistan. "Just defeating the Taliban militarily by itself will not be victory.... We need a different regime in Afghanistan," says James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser to President Clinton.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter, is concerned that the administration is switching goals. "When we started out, we were going to smash Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban. Now we seem to be getting engaged in an Afghan civil war, almost as an end in itself. That could be a quagmire."

Like many others, he says it is far too early to judge whether America is winning the war on terrorism or not. In World War II, American troops didn't win a decisive battle against the Japanese until six months into the fight and against the Nazis until 11 months.

The Pentagon, for its part, is satisfied with the campaign so far, says Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This week, the campaign intensified markedly, with saturation bombing of Taliban frontline positions north of the capital, Kabul, and outside of Mazar-e Sharif.

Airstrikes have damaged the Taliban's communications system to the point that field commanders have trouble summoning reinforcements, he said this week. "They are having extreme difficulty communicating one to the other."

The intensification is perhaps the "Round 2" that Mr. Kagan says is so needed.

US officials are now describing a new strategy of pairing US advisers with anti-Taliban forces on the ground. The advisers are expected to move with the forces of the Northern Alliance during any advance.

The Bush administration had at first held the alliance at arm's length, so as not to offend rival groups in the south who would be needed for an eventual coalition government. For the moment, though, military concerns appear to be trumping political ones.

Anthrax response: public's bigger worry

On the home front, the anthrax attacks continue to puzzle authorities, as they try to discover how the fourth person to die - a stockroom worker in a New York City hospital - was exposed to anthrax spores in the first place. It's a worrisome issue for Americans: 53 percent of them say the government has not done enough to prepare for biological attack, according to the New York Times poll.

The growing criticism on all fronts must be of concern to the White House, says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University here. "The ultimate danger," he says, "is [that] the president becomes undermined and has no central core of authority to produce a solution or multiple solutions."

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