WASHINGTON -- Asked by a friend late last week to describe the probable U.S. military response in the war against terrorism, a prominent Republican senator with close ties to the Defense Department replied: "We're going to bomb Afghanistan into a parking lot." That sounds like word straight from the Pentagon, but this response may be neither effective nor desirable.
Carpet bombing of Afghanistan might temporarily assuage the justified public demand for quick punishment of the Sept. 11 assassins. Much more doubtful is whether such a strike would root out the terrorists, while it costs this country global support and sympathy now professed all over the world.
War fever has raged on Capitol Hill since Tuesday morning. On a bus filled with congressmen headed for the Pentagon Wednesday to inspect damage, Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia solicited signatures for a "declaration-of-war." Few colleagues turned him down even though administration lawyers quietly lobbied against giving terrorists any semblance of legitimacy.
Whether or not war is legally declared, feverish desire for a vengeful military solution may be frustrated. While a devastating aerial assault on Afghanistan might be satisfying, it is unlikely to punish terrorists. According to intelligence sources, the terrorists surely have cleared out of Kabul along with international aid workers in advance of American cruise missiles. These same sources are confident that Osama bin Laden's camps have been evacuated after days of threats from Washington.
Congressional experts in intelligence oversight contend that the CIA's defects, which resulted in no advance notice of the Sept. 11 onslaught, also plague effective retribution. The CIA has been crippled by a generation of liberal tinkering, starting with Sen. Frank Church's elimination of assassination as a last resort option for U.S. policy.
More recently, the CIA eliminated the hiring of paid informers with unsavory reputations. The downgrading of the CIA was signaled when George Tenet, a member of the intelligence buddies network, was named director by President Clinton and retained by President Bush. The new president likes Tenet, but he may be the sacrificial victim to account for another intelligence failure.
The CIA, in its present state, is viewed by its Capitol Hill overseers as incapable of targeting Osama bin Laden. That leads to an irresistible impulse to satisfy Americans by pulverizing Afghanistan, a desire heightened by Friday's refusal of the country's Taliban rulers to give up bin Laden.
Usually level-headed members of Congress have told me that American citizens should be prepared for sending a U.S. expeditionary force to fight in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar, the supreme Taliban ruler, on Friday warned Americans of the dire fate of British and more recently Soviet troops at the hands of Afghan guerrillas.
President Bush wisely has sought to build an international anti-terrorist coalition (similar to his father's Gulf War alliance), but so far emphasis on courting Pakistan suggests an attempted anti-Taliban front. The results have been less than satisfying. Pakistan, spurned by Washington in recent years, has been friendly but not willing to grant fly-over rights to U.S. warplanes. Tajikistan, the former Soviet republic bordering Afghanistan, is just plain uncooperative.
If Afghanistan is actually carpet-bombed, global support will be all the more difficult to coalesce. Armed attack against any Moslem state as an accessory in the Sept. 11 terrorism will need incontrovertible evidence to gain international backing, and that will take time.
The problem of funneling American rage into specific enemies was demonstrated last week when William J. Bennett, an important conservative voice, was interviewed on CNN. Asked who could be targeted, Bennett replied: "It's not just these individuals and group, but it's these states that sponsor or support." Those, he continued, "could be" Syria, Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran -- and, Bennett added, China. An American attack on some of those countries would be a geopolitical disaster.
While American patriotic resolve and unity are laudable and heartwarming, the desire to strike back hard -- and do it now -- may be frustrated. Will bombing empty terrorist camps in Afghanistan and leveling its battle-scarred capital really inhibit religious fanatics eager to embark on suicide missions? That is the question pondered by worried officials who understand the complexity of this crisis for America.