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THE NECESSARY FORCE



Published: Tue, November 6, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



THE NECESSARY FORCE

Washington Post: The number of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan is steadily expanding. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that he soon hopes to increase by three or four times the deployment of special forces -- currently fewer than 50 -- working with the Afghan Northern Alliance. Thanks to those specialized U.S. troops, he said, airstrikes against Taliban troop positions have significantly increased in intensity and effectiveness. Still, there is no sign that the Taliban's hold on Kabul and other major cities is weakening, and some military observers in the region and in Washington have begun to argue that far-greater force will be needed to break the resistance. The Northern Alliance and Western commandos, they say, won't be enough; large numbers of U.S. conventional ground forces will have to be deployed.

Though it may be too early in the campaign to draw that conclusion, it is not too soon for the Bush administration to start preparing for a larger ground troop deployment. As past conflicts have demonstrated, mobilizing and transporting U.S. armored forces or helicopter cavalry to a war zone can take several months, even under ideal circumstances. And Afghanistan is far from ideal: There are no permanent U.S. bases near the country, and allied governments currently hosting American forces, such as Uzbekistan and Pakistan, are not necessarily ready or willing to serve as a transit station for a larger force. Unless the diplomatic and logistical groundwork soon begins, the United States could effectively deny itself the option of using American troops to win the war through the first half of next year.

Patience: Administration officials are right to emphasize that the Afghan war has barely begun and to counsel patience to commentators demanding to know why Kabul has not yet fallen. In the fluid conditions of Afghanistan, there remains a reasonable prospect that the current strategy of backing the Northern Alliance ground forces with coordinated air power will be enough to drive the Taliban out of the northern half of the country, and perhaps even from Kabul. Pashtun commanders in the south might still be induced to defect. For both military and political reasons, that would be the best outcome; it would place Afghanistan's future more squarely in the hands of Afghans and avoid the risks of a U.S.-led ground war. These are considerable: not only the inevitable American casualties but also the risk of the endless guerrilla war that drove out the Soviet troops; not just the potential political backlash in Muslim countries but also the chance of U.S. forces becoming the only authority in an otherwise-anarchic state.

Yet without sufficient U.S. commitment, there is an even worse possible outcome: that the Afghan war will be lost; that the Taliban and al-Qaida terrorist network will remain in control of the country, continuing to rule over millions of Afghans, organizing new attacks on the United States and undermining support for the anti-terrorist coalition. If the war is to be won, the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership must be destroyed.




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