How to conduct the war in Afghanistan has become an intense policy debate in the United States. Now a leading analyst says the best strategy is to stop the war. In his opinion, it will not succeed in destroying either the terrorist network or the Taleban, who are capable of prolonged resistance.
We must destroy al-Qaeda and the Taleban, says John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. But the current war is not the way to do it.
Writing in the New York Times, he says bombing does not work because there are too few targets in destitute Afghanistan, and civilian deaths are eroding the support of other countries. The outnumbered, poorly led Northern Alliance seems to be losing ground to the Taleban even with U.S. air support.
It would be very difficult to put a large U.S. army into land-locked Afghanistan, and if it were done, U.S. forces would face the kind of guerrilla warfare that broke the Russians.
The best strategy, says Professor Mearsheimer, is to use money, covert action and good intelligence that will allow strikes on the terrorists when it is known where they are. In the meantime, he concludes, the war is counter-productive.
Professor Mearsheimer is half right, says William Taylor, a former top U.S. army strategist. Covert actions are necessary, but so are military strikes. Special U.S. operations forces, along with those of other countries, are already making headway, even if it is not reported.
"You send them in on special missions. They can go in for an hour, three hours, a day or two. You pull them out," he said. "Maybe you leave stay-behind patrols. That is routine, and they are to designate targets. They will have some local language speakers with them, and they will have plenty of cash if they need to buy off any tribal leaders. All this is going on, all of it."
It should be going on even faster, says Michael O'Hanlon, military analyst at the Brookings Institution. Slowing or stopping the war, as Professor Mearsheimer suggests, would prolong the agony of the Afghans and allow terrorism to continue.
"For these reasons, we really want to see some progress on the battlefield and hopefully see the resistance units conquer some major cities and major transportation arteries in the course of the next few weeks," he said. "So I am not advocating patience, just the opposite. And that is why I so fundamentally disagree with Mearsheimer."
Both analysts say committing a large ground force to Afghanistan would be a mistake. But more limited military action is essential.
Mr. O'Hanlon says bribery and other forms of covert activity are needed to encourage defections among Pashtun commanders. "But it is also important for these people in the south to recognize that the Taleban are not going to survive," he said. "We have to create that reality in their minds, and once they realize that there is no future with the Taleban, they will have a very immediate self-interest in changing sides."
That is why the coming Northern Alliance offensive is so important, says Mr. Taylor. The world will be watching. "Whether you are an Arab Muslim or a non-Arab Muslim, in that part of the world they respect and join winners. If the Northern Alliance moves on Mazar-e-Sharif, and if they move on Kabul, that offensive better work," he said.
And if it doesn't? That is what Professor Mearsheimer and others fear: an inconclusive war with no end in sight.