On behalf of critics

Posted: Nov 16, 2001 12:00 AM
The vice president of the United States is quite satisfied with recent developments in the Afghan war -- so much so that he couldn't resist a gentle dig at critics of the administration's policy. "When you read the Washington press and see what all of the pundits have to offer and some of the talking heads have to offer, it's nice, at a moment like this, to be able to remind them that a lot of what they put out over the course of the last few weeks was just dead wrong. The results are there for all to see." Well, unaccustomed as I am to defending the Washington press corps, and though I readily grant that much of what the pundit class has to say on any given subject is bound to be hooey, this jab seems unjustified. Dick Cheney, it should go without saying, is one of the brightest stars in our political galaxy. Beyond smarts, he has a steadying dignity that is rare in our time. But was the administration really right, and were the pundits really wrong? Is that what the events of the last few days show, or the reverse? Of course, it's hard to make such a judgment. The pundits were all over the map. Many were poor-mouthing the efforts of the United States, reciting dozens of reasons why our strategy would never work. The Taliban were battle-hardened fanatics who were growing stronger not weaker due to U.S. bombing. Ramadan was coming and would unite the Muslim world against us. The Northern Alliance was composed of a bunch of incompetents. All of that did prove to be "dead wrong." But if vice president Cheney is including in his indictment the conservative pundits who questioned the wisdom of our strategy, events have not vindicated the administration. In fact, the conservatives have been proved right. Last week, several prominent pundits, including Bill Kristol, Ralph Peters and Charles Krauthammer, urged the administration to pull out all the stops in pursuing victory in Afghanistan. The president did not heed their advice. Instead, when the Northern Alliance stood poised to take Kabul on Saturday, Nov. 10, President Bush publicly told them to stop. "We will encourage our friends to head south across the Shumali Plains," the president advised, "but not into the city of Kabul itself." But within hours, the Taliban having fled in disarray, the Northern Alliance rolled into Kabul. And who can deny that it is an excellent thing that they did? There is no substitute for victory. The psychological effect of liberating Kabul cannot be overstated. The images of women shedding their burkas, men shaving their beards, music playing, and kites flying electrified the whole nation and gratified the civilized world. With those images filling television screens along with news of the liberation of other Afghan cities, Afghans unaffiliated with the Northern Alliance including the Taliban's fellow Pashtuns in the south are numbering the Taliban's days. The administration has done so many things right it may seem nitpicking to focus on the missteps. But the tendency to bow to diplomats in fighting a war is worrisome. If the Northern Alliance (SET ITAL) had (END ITAL) followed President Bush's advice, we would not now be celebrating what a successful policy Bush has pursued. The administration has many sensitivities to take account of and several allies to placate. But the influence of Pakistan in discouraging an outright win for the Northern Alliance was clearly excessive. Pervez Musharaf's desires regarding the future political organization of the Afghan government should be taken into account, but they ought not to dominate. For one thing, Pakistan is largely the author of Afghanistan's misery under the Taliban. And while Musharaf wisely switched sides after Sept. 11, the reward for that should be American aid and the assurance that any future Afghan government will not threaten Pakistan. It should not mean the right to dictate a Pashtun government, or any other kind. The collapse of the Taliban may not be a harbinger of the future progress of the war on terror. The government of Iraq, for example, has demonstrated a far greater capacity to withstand internal plots and external force than the Taliban. But what the Afghanistan experience should teach is that wars are to be won, nothing less. When you choose any outcome short of total victory, your enemies are emboldened and your friends become skittish. President Bush has said this many times, but his administration, pace Dick Cheney, has not always acted on this wisdom.