Despite talk of coalition, US mostly goes it alone
While the strategy seems logical for the short term, the US may encounter problems if the war drags on.
WASHINGTON — Heeding the adage that too many cooks spoil the broth, the United States is keeping the military component of the war on terrorism almost exclusively a Stars and Stripes affair.
Despite carrying what some observers have called a "small British fig leaf," the military operation in Afghanistan is so far turning out to be pretty much a coalition of one. True, Britain announced Friday that it would send 600 troops for an eventual ground stage of the war, and Australia and Canada have committed forces for this as well. But to date, the US has carried out an overwhelming share of strikes.
While that may make military sense - especially in the short term, former US officials and other experts say - it also opens the door for the US to encounter mounting problems if the war drags on and is perceived increasingly as an American affair.
"Over time, we'll be a much more effective overall force if [our partners] are right there alongside us, working and fighting, and not just cheering from the grandstands," says Gen. Wesley Clark, who was supreme commander of NATO's US-led forces in Kosovo. "People get tired of cheering after a while, and it makes it easier to abandon the fight."
US officials have said since the outset that the international coalition assembled to fight terrorism would assign different tasks to different countries, with many of the players involved in intelligence-gathering, police work, and bushwhacking on money trails - but perhaps few actually joining in the military phase.
Still, the British have been involved since the first strikes Oct. 7, and President Bush has publicly indicated that several more countries would be involved. Other US allies, furthermore, have offered to participate in the hot war.
But a long list of military considerations, backed up by the US experience in recent campaigns, is prompting the US to opt so far for a US operation. Afghanistan did not present the array of targets that would have made a broad use of many countries' forces practical. Also, the speed required to get an unexpected war up and running didn't allow for forming a military coalition.
"It would have taken too long to assemble a coalition, especially given what needed to be done," says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
But underlying the military arguments are memories that don't sit well with the US military brass. The coalition the US assembled for the Gulf War is still blamed for dissuading the US from marching into Baghdad and ending Saddam Hussein's rule in Iraq, for example.
But Kosovo is the more recent experience the military cites to argue against using more coalition partners. Officials say the decisionmaking process among NATO allies was too cumbersome, that the US had to haggle with its allies over every target it proposed hitting.
Even some US allies recognize why the US military prefers to act alone. "The more you take on allied participation, the more you have to share the decisionmaking," says Frederic Bozo, a specialist in US-European relations at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris.
Others argue, however, that while employing NATO may have been as messy as democracy, it ultimately helped achieve the goal of removing Slobodan Milosevic's forces from Kosovo.
"It's true the allies made it more difficult, but on balance it was worth it," says General Clark, who has written a book, "Waging Modern War," drawing on the lessons of the Kosovo engagement. "The US and Europe are much better off that we won the war in Kosovo collectively."
Even as the coalition supporting the US war is holding firm, some allies are beginning to voice unhappiness with the American solo act, diplomatic observers say.
A former State Department official says governments - including the British - have begun to grumble.
The grumbling could be the first sign of trouble ahead, according to some experts, if the concerns are not addressed.
Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to the first President Bush during the Gulf War, says European allies especially are mindful of why the limited military campaign makes their participation impractical, but they're also increasingly frustrated over standing on the sidelines. "If things keep on like this," he says, "we risk losing them."
One problem is that being left out risks the possibility of allies entertaining recurring fears about the US. "People were dissuaded from their immediate worry after Sept. 11 that the US would react unilaterally and without measure, but this feeling of being left out leads to new worries," says Mr. Bozo. He says the concerns include civilian casualties and where the US might seek to take the war next.
But Clark says in the end, it is the heavy public-relations element of this war that makes avoiding a label such as "America's war" so important.
"I'd like to see more reliance on the coalition players to get the diplomatic throw-weight we'll need for the broader war," he says. Behind the discussion of unilateral US action, "there's always the problem of America's role in the world. The broader the coalition and the more it's driven by the whole world, the more we're likely to succeed while deflecting some of the criticism" from the US.