Profs. weigh in on Afghanistan war

by Alison Schmauch | 11/7/01 6:00am

While some Dartmouth professors see definite changes in American military strategy in Afghanistan, they still think it is unlikely that the U.S. campaign will extend to other countries, such as Iraq.

"The administration initially underestimated the Taliban's resolve and overestimated the strength of the initial bombing campaign," government professor Stephen Brooks said.

Professor William Wohlforth also noticed that while some of the Bush administration's decisions suggest that policymakers have underestimated the Taliban, those same administrators have been very careful not to overestimate the Taliban in public statements.

Brooks noted that the United States particularly overestimated the willingness of various Afghan political groups to move against the Taliban.

"Because the Taliban is repressive, particularly because of their extreme subjection of women, we assumed that a large percentage of the population would be willing to move against them. We overestimated the willingness of groups from southern Afghanistan to move against them. That hasn't happened," he said.

Government professor Michael Mastanduno, though, hesitated to say that the U.S. had significantly underestimated the Taliban.

"It's too soon to tell," he said, "and it depends on what you judge the purpose of the strikes to be. If the objective is to dismantle the Taliban, we haven't done that yet. But we may have made progress."

Mastanduno said he regretted the way that "people try to judge the outcome of a war after 72 hours."

"The Chinese prime minister said that he would support the U.S. so long as the war was fast and there weren't many casualties. He forgets that war is often long and involves casualties," he said.

According to Mastanduno, the swiftness with which the Gulf War was fought and its relatively low casualty rate has "flavored people's perceptions of what war should be like, especially wars in the Middle East."

All three professors said that the United States has recently shown fewer reservations in its military tactics.

"The U.S. initially restrained the extent of its bombing in order to keep Pakistan as a coalition partner," Brooks explained.

Brooks said it was useful to think of the U.S. coalition in three tiers of stability.

One tier includes nations like Britain, which are directly aiding the United States with military force. Countries like France, Germany and others that firmly support the United States but are not contributing troops, constitute a second tier. The third tier is comprised of countries like Pakistan, which have decided that it is in their best national interest to support the United States, but are doing so with reservations.

Wohlforth largely agreed with Brooks' scheme, but he added that he might further subdivide the third tier into nations that have tacitly accepted U.S. policies and those that have more openly expressed reservations.

Brooks said that America's alliance with nations in the first tier is "unlikely to fray," that its alliance with nations in the second tier is also "relatively unlikely to fray," but that the alliance with nations in the third group is "more problematic."

Brooks again referred back to this scheme for classifying coalition nations when asked if it would be wise for American troops to attack nations like Iraq.

"It would fray the coalition at higher levels," he said, "especially the third, but maybe even the second and first."

"The key question would arise," he said, "if compelling evidence comes out that Iraq had a role in planning terrorist attacks against the U.S."

"In the absence of this question, it's easy for the U.S. to decide not to attack Iraq," he said.

Wohlforth voiced similar sentiments. "Unless some new and dramatic piece of evidence comes out" to link Iraq to anti-American terrorism, "the likelihood of expanding our attacks to Iraq is small. Attacking Iraq would highly disturb the coalition," he said.

Mastanduno also noted the difficulties of keeping the coalition together as time wears on and "images of casualties replace images of the Sept. 11 attacks."

He added that "there will be times that the U.S. must do what it has to do, regardless of what the coalition thinks."

Wohlforth foresaw difficulties ahead for the Bush administration as it formulates military strategy.

"The U.S. is being criticized from two sides," he said. "On one side, it's being criticized for not bombing hard enough, and on the other, it's being criticized for bombing too hard and for harming civilians.

"It's almost impossible for the Bush administration to find the perfect balance," he said.

Mastanduno also worried about troubles the Bush administration may run into fighting the war on the home front.

"Pundits fight wars, as well as generals," he said.