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Published on Friday, October 12, 2001
A New Kind of War: "We're Making It Up As We Go Along"
by William D. Hartung
President Bush, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and other top administration officials have repeatedly stated that their undeclared war on terrorism will be a new kind of conflict involving unconventional tactics. Rumsfeld underscored this assertion when he stated that "The uniforms of this conflict will be bankers' pinstripes and programmers' grunge just as assuredly as desert camouflage."

Now that the air war has begun, the bankers and programmers may have to take a back seat for a while. But, the day after strikes began, in apparent effort head off criticism, Rumsfeld stated that "cruise missiles and bombers are not going to solve this thing." Instead, he argued, air strikes "contribute by adding pressure, raising the cost for the terrorists* draining their finances and creating an environment that is inhospitable to the people that are threatening the world."

Whether the initial strikes have made it more difficult for Osama Bin Laden to operate remains to be seen. Pentagon officials acknowledge that the majority of the suspected training camps hit were abandoned well in advance by Al Qaeda fighters, but they claimed an 85% success rate in hitting their chosen targets. The department also released a "before and after" photo of one camp which showed that the buildings had indeed been demolished. Since there is virtually no Western media presence on the ground, it is impossible to verify the Pentagon's claims at this point. What is clear is that the bombing campaign has claimed its first civilian casualties: four Afghan employees of a United Nations de-mining initiative were killed when their building was struck in error. A number of the named targets, which included all the country's major airports, the Taliban defense ministry in Kabul, and a neighborhood in which Osama Bin Laden was thought to have once lived, would certainly lend themselves to the possibility of "collateral damage" (i.e., killing of civilians).

In the mean time, despite the Bush administration's public relations gesture of dropping 37,500 "humanitarian" ration packets into the central highlands of Afghanistan prior to the air strikes, the net effect of U.S. operations was to drastically reduce the amount of food aid available to the estimated 5.5 to 7.5 million Afghans at risk of starvation. A World Food Programme effort to supply 52,000 tons of wheat a month to hungry Afghans had to be suspended when the bombing began. And, as Alex Renton, a spokesman for Oxfam, said, "random food dropping as the worst possible way of delivering food aid* Afghanistan is the world's biggest minefield - this is by no means the way to deliver food aid, and it can kill people."

As the anti-terror campaign unfolds, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has taken to comparing it to the Cold War, which he has described as a fifty year sustained campaign of pressure that rarely involved direct military confrontations. Pentagon budget-makers seem to have taken Rumsfeld's words to heart. In this fiscal year alone, Pentagon spending could hit $375 billion, once the Pentagon's share of a $20 billion mid-September emergency anti-terror bill and a forthcoming supplemental appropriation designed to defray the costs of current military actions are taken into account. Paul Nisbet, a longstanding defense stock analyst currently working with JSA Research Inc., has suggested that next year's Pentagon budget (which will be submitted in February of 2002) could hit $400 billion, asserting that, "all the cards are in the row, and America's public opinion is in favor of spending more for defense." Never mind that many of the items being purchased, from missile defense testing to nuclear attack submarines, have virtually no application to the war on terrorism, no matter how one chooses to define it.

The next stage of the conflict is widely expected to include helicopter operations, commando raids, and an offensive by the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, an opposition group representing factions that governed Afghanistan prior to the Taliban's rise to power. By supporting the Northern Alliance, Washington is falling into the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" trap that created the Taliban in the first place. The Northern Alliance is hardly a group of nascent democrats yearning to breathe free. A Human Rights Watch report, Afghanistan: Crisis of Impunity, notes that the Northern Alliance "amassed a horrible record of attacks on civilians" when it ran Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996. In fact, the Taliban's initial appeal was that it promised to put in end to "warlordism," which ruled via theft, intimidation, and arbitrary rapes, assaults, and murder.

And on top of everything else, the Pentagon announced that the next step is to send in helicopters on search and destroy missions. U.S. troops and equipment will then be vulnerable to the "boomerang" effect of weapons that last longer than political alliances. The Taliban are reported to have 100 to 300 of the U.S.-supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles originally given to Afghan rebel forces in the 1980s remain in the Taliban arsenals. This poses a grave and immediate threat, and in the long term raises serious questions about the U.S.'s weapons sales policy.

All and all, the Bush administration's approach thus far to the war on terrorism was probably best summed by an unnamed Pentagon official who reportedly told NBC Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, that this was a "come as you are war." He added, "We're making it up as we go along."

William D. Hartung is the President's Fellow at the New School University's World Policy Institute and the director of the Arms Trade Resource Center ( He is also the author of And Weapons For All.


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