Critics say air power won’t suffice

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

After more than three weeks of inconclusive bombing in Afghanistan, the Bush administration is facing the same question that reverberated through the last two major U.S. military engagements: Can air power do the job by itself?

Although the Pentagon has never ruled out use of ground forces in Afghanistan -- and has already staged at least one Special Forces raid -- the military’s almost exclusive reliance on air power so far is drawing increasing criticism from many of the conservative analysts who denounced the Clinton administration’s efforts to wage the 1999 war in Yugoslavia from 15,000 feet.

“We cannot fight this war from the air alone,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said late last week. Since then, a chorus of GOP foreign policy hawks -- and even some Democrats -- has quickly echoed McCain’s concern that the air campaign isn’t producing enough progress toward toppling Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.

“McCain is not a lonely voice,” said Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton administration national security aide now at the Brookings Institution, a moderate Washington think tank. “He is verbalizing a frustration that is more widespread.”

On Tuesday, Robert Kagan, a leading GOP foreign policy analyst, said the United States is “losing the first round” of the war.

Few critics go that far, and Pentagon officials insist that the Afghan campaign is on schedule. But the emerging questions about its course highlight how differently this war has unfolded than many expected.

Almost all experts agreed that the attacks of Sept. 11 made the U.S. public much more willing to accept a full-scale military response -- with the risk of ground casualties -- than it was in either Yugoslavia or the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In a CBS/New York Times poll released Tuesday, three-fifths of Americans said they believe the war in Afghanistan would be worth the cost even “if several thousand American troops lost their lives.”

Yet, nearly one month into the military campaign, the administration has pursued a moderated, primarily aerial response that has rekindled the old arguments about whether the United States is trying to achieve its objectives “on the cheap,” as Kagan put it Tuesday.

“I think everybody is surprised by the return of this debate,” said Gary J. Schmitt, executive director of the Project for a New American Century, a hawkish think tank. “Given the provocation, everybody did anticipate the kind of military campaign that wouldn’t be held back by the constraints that were the case in Kosovo.”

Those who sympathize with the administration’s approach say a ground war would further radicalize opinion in the Islamic world against America and potentially destabilize Pakistan, which is facing domestic opposition to the war.

McCain and his allies say the greatest threat to Pakistan would be a lengthy stalemate that produces steadily more civilian casualties but no real progress toward overthrowing the Taliban. “As more time goes on, we are eroding coalition support,” said Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.

This clash about the strategy in Afghanistan underscores a dispute that has raged for years in the Pentagon over the capacity of air power to win wars.

Air power advocates maintain that today’s precision bombing, which gives the United States the potential to destroy an adversary’s military capabilities and will to fight, can now do most of the work. Some maintain that proof of this came two years ago, when NATO’s 72-day air campaign in Yugoslavia brought the capitulation of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo province.

“The air war worked,” said Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, former President Clinton’s national security advisor at the time.

But McCain and like-minded critics argue that Milosevic gave in only because the U.S. finally began serious planning for the use of ground troops. Likewise, they note that air power alone wasn’t enough to drive Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait; that took the 100-hour ground offensive of the Gulf War. “No conflict that I know of has ever been won by air power alone,” McCain said in a television interview Sunday.

The critics have leveled two distinct indictments against the military campaign in Afghanistan. Initially, the hawks complained that the Pentagon had not bombed Taliban forces aggressively enough, in part because of a reluctance to pursue operations that could cause the government’s collapse while the State Department struggles to assemble a coalition that could run a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

More recently, the critics have complained that the war’s first weeks show that even a more robust bombing campaign by itself will not dislodge the Taliban.

“What has changed, and the reason people are less optimistic, is they sense the Taliban is not going to be defeated in the air, [that] it has to be defeated on the ground,” Daalder said. “And then the question is, do we want to take it on as an operation?”

On Tuesday, two leading conservative thinkers -- syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol, the publisher of the Weekly Standard -- published opinion pieces in the Washington Post echoing that conclusion. “The war is not going well, and it is time to say why,” Krauthammer wrote. “It has been fought with half-measures.”

More cautiously, some Democrats have begun to question the war’s direction. On Sunday, Sens. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., and John F. Kerry, D-Mass., argued that the U.S. needed to intensify the pace of its operations against the Taliban. “You have to defeat the Taliban as rapidly as possible and gain a foothold in the country,” Kerry said.

At a briefing Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld responded to such comments with an almost bemused equanimity, saying he found articles such as the Kristol and Krauthammer critiques “often helpful [and] educational.”

Rumsfeld added that the Pentagon already has a “very modest” number of ground troops in Afghanistan -- used primarily for targeting air strikes -- and hasn’t ruled out a more significant deployment.

Given that posture, the debate over ground troops in Afghanistan is not so much a question of whether, but when and for what purpose, Berger said.

But the administration has not tipped its hand about what level of ground commitment it is considering, and even the critics haven’t fully specified their ideas.

Daniel Goure, a former defense official, said that to take on the Taliban and the forces of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network directly would require at least 250,000 troops and perhaps as many as 500,000. The Soviets had a peak force of about 120,000 in Afghanistan during their war there, which lasted from 1979 to 1989.

McCain has suggested a third alternative between a full-scale invasion and the current focus on air power: using ground troops to seize and defend a forward base in Afghanistan. From that base, he said, the United States could launch more intensive air and ground operations than it can from distant sea-based platforms. McCain aides say that approach might require 10,000 to 15,000 ground troops.

Senior defense officials make clear that they hold open the option of establishing a forward base inside the country. But some have expressed concern that seizing territory in Afghanistan might allow the Taliban to mobilize domestic support by portraying the war as a foreign invasion.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Marisa Schultz contributed to this report.