RALLYING 'ROUND THE FLAG
while leaving some major questions unanswered
Friday, September 21, 2001
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
On the evening of Thursday 20 September, nine days after the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by terrorists coming out of the sky without warning, President George W. Bush addressed a Joint Session of Congress in order to at least begin the process of explaining what steps will have to be taken to effectively respond to the unprovoked atrocities which occurred at New York City's World Trade Center and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C. While very well preparing the American People for future actions that will have to be taken by his Administration, President Bush- nonetheless- left major questions unanswered in his speech, questions that he will- in my opinion- have to much better answer as this sustained campaign against international terrorism- this new war, this crusade- goes forward.
Make no mistake about it: if you are a fellow American of mine who is reading this, you are- just like I am- a target. I suppose that, in a sense, we Americans have long been targets but it is quite apparent that, since Tuesday 11 September, the reality of just how easily we can be so targeted and, thus, become victims of terrorism ourselves has hit home quite hard. Any one of us could have unwittingly boarded an airplane turned weapon of mass destruction, and any one of us could have been in a high office tower or residential block into which such a plane could have been purposely crashed or could have been merely walking down one of the streets surrounding such tall buildings while going about our daily business. So, just as we Americans become 'citizen-legislators' when we vote on a bond issue or popular referendum on the ballot, we are all now- pretty much by definition of our American citizenship- 'civilian soldiers' in this dawning age of war between Liberty and Terror.
But America is still a Democracy and- while we are a Republic in which such Democracy is only directly conducted, in the main, by elected representatives of the People and their appointees rather than in Town Meeting- this fact means that we who are eligible to vote in this country are, nevertheless, all indirectly participants in the decision-making process as regards how this new war is to be conducted on our side, the side of Liberty. It is in the spirit of my being, after all, only one participant in that Democracy but, at the same time, one who- like every other American since the events of 11 September- now assumes the risk of so clearly being a target for an intractable enemy, that I offer my comments herein:
Unlike the speech President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the day after that Day of Infamy back in December 1941, President Bush asked for no Declaration of War of the Congress before whom he was speaking; in truth, he didn't have to- we are already at war with at least one nation. For what President Bush demanded- in his measured, business-like manner- was nothing less than the Unconditional Surrender of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; he never put it in exactly those words, yet that is precisely what his demands on our behalf amount to. And, unless you believe that the Taliban are going to so quickly cave in to said demands (I think the jury is clearly out on that particular question), we are- for all intents and purposes- in an unstated state of war with the de facto government of Afghanistan, and with the distinct implication that we will more than likely conduct some kind of military operation in that country in the near future.
This would, of course, be a mission much fraught with peril: the Hindu Kush mountains north and east of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, contain peaks in the 16,000 to 19,000-foot range: not as high as either Mt. Everest or K2 in the nearby Himalayas, to be sure, but significantly high nonetheless. Even where the Hindu Kush fans out into the ranges which collectively make up the Paropamisus in the center of the country, the peaks in this interior are still 11,000 to 15,000 feet high. Thus, the terrain in which the terrorists who are our targets have their hiding places is, by definition, quite unforgiving and the climate (for, even though we have not yet reached the Autumnal Equinox, the first signs of Winter are already apparent in many of these ranges) equally so. I would dare say that this might very well the most difficult terrain American military ground units (no matter how large or small in size) would ever be fighting in; certainly, American soldiers have not fought in anger in anything even approaching potential conditions like this since, perhaps, they were forced to fight Chinese Communist troops pouring across the Yalu River and down through the mountains of northernmost Korea during the Winter of 1950/51.
Where Afghanistan is not so mountainous- in the periphery of the country to its far west and south- it is largely barren: the Naomid Plain in the west, for example, is a vast salt flat; the Sistan Depression in the southwest is a salt marsh. Only the area immediately surrounding Herat, the largest city (if one can call it a city) to be found in the northwestern part of the country, is verdant enough to support significant agricultural activity.
Putting aside difficulties of terrain and climate, there is the simple matter of distance. It is nearly 400 miles from Herat to Kabul- but this is "as the crow flies"; by Highway 77 (the only direct land route between these cities), it is nearly twice that distance. Similar things could be said about the distances between Herat and the city of Kandahar in the south of the country as well as Kandahar and Kabul (each pair some 300 miles distant in a straight line, but some 500 miles [give or take] apart via Highway 1). Not to neglect the issue of naval support, the southern border of Afghanistan is a good 300 miles inland from the Arabian Sea coast of Pakistan, Kandahar is some 150 miles beyond that, with Kabul another 200 miles or so further from the sea than Kandahar. And when one talks about such Hindu Kush locales as Baglan and Kunduz and Taleqan, one is talking around 200 miles or more from the border with Pakistan- forget about the distance inland from any possible naval force parked off the coast of Pakistan!
I am not reciting this litany of factoids to, in any way, discourage or disparage the ability of Our Nation's Armed Forces to carry out whatever mission they might have to execute within Afghanistan should the Taliban government reject our demand that they hand over Osama bin Laden and his many terrorist operatives within their borders; rather, I am- in my own way- preparing my fellow Americans who might be reading this piece for the realities of the war to come. This will be no Gulf War with video clips of unmanned 'smart bombs' precisely hitting the enemy's command and control apparatus outside a relatively urbanized area within the enemy's territory; instead, it will have to be something of a ground search-and-seize operation that will take both the time and, sadly, the lives of fighting men and women in a way that Americans have not seen since the Vietnam Conflict three decades ago. We all had better be prepared for this.
This new war will, at least in terms of its length, be much more like World War II than 'Desert Storm'- that is, a protracted struggle: but its similarity to World War II will pretty much end there. There will be no John Wayne movies or even a Saving Private Ryan screenplay coming out of much of this impending conflict; Americans on the ground will have to do many things that John Wayne or Tom Hanks would never be seen doing on the silver screen: things that, frankly, might not sit all that well with most of us under ordinary circumstances... except that these are, of course, not ordinary circumstances: Our Country was not attacked by a foreign power with assets that show up as so many place names seen on the pages of a library World Atlas-- rather, those who committed these horrific acts against the United States on 11 September are people who would willingly hide in holes in the mountains like cellar rats and, thus, their colleagues can only be rooted out in the manner- and using the methods- one would be forced to use in order to best root out such vermin. To paraphrase what I wrote in my 18 September Commentary: this is a war that will get rather nasty; it is true that all wars do so to a greater or lesser extent, but I believe that- in a war against terrorists like those now hiding out in Afghanistan- these nastier elements will have to be a major portion of both the strategy and the tactics behind the missions thus carried out by American military personnel. President Bush did not at all deal with this particular part of the equation in his speech- to be fair to him, it is yet too soon to do so: but he will- if he is to lead the United States through an operation such as this as it takes place- have to deal with this aspect of the missions at some point if he is to keep the American People behind this effort, unflagging. It will not be very pretty and we had all better be prepared for this as well.
The other major question that President Bush's speech left unanswered is suggested by his statement that our crusade against international terrorism will not end until every terrorist group with global reach has been found, stopped and defeated. That is certainly a pretty broad basis on which to define Victory! But can it be true that only Islamic extremist terrorists have such "global reach"? Here in the Metro New York/Tri State Region, we only hear- in the news- about apartments being raided in places like Jersey City and Bayonne which have, apparently, harbored people who have aided and abetted those who have at least some ties to Osama bin Laden. I, however, don't see any such raids being conducted in the New York City neighborhood of Woodside, Queens- a place which has long been a hotbed of activity in support of the Irish Republican Army, quite clearly another terrorist group with "global reach" and a group that has been supported by many States which also have supported the same kinds of terrorists who work within Osama bin Laden's network.
I happen to have lived in Woodside for nearly 14 years and I can tell you, from personal experience, that it was not all that uncommon for me to overhear a young adult woman in a supermarket or convenience store, a bank or a laundromat, talk to another- in a thick Irish brogue- about how her "man" (husband) was "out of the country" (having slipped into Northern Ireland after a flight to Ireland), perhaps "not likely to be home soon" (either having gone underground in Ulster or being in British custody) or "not coming back" (either in prison over there or, perhaps, even dead); this code was not all that difficult to discern! I am quite certain that the vast majority of my former Queens neighbors are good and outraged about what happened to both the Pentagon and, in particular, the World Trade Center Twin Towers (for which they could easily have had a ringside seat); however, I am equally sure that a fair number of them would not be all that happy should this new war on international terrorism include the IRA. These people would want the new war to concentrate on the "bad" terrorists who attacked their city instead of their own "good" terrorists; however, in a true crusade against international terrorism, there- of course- can be NO "good" terrorists and, no matter how just an American might feel is the cause of a terrorist group he/she supports, this new war is not going to work all that well if some Americans expect some terrorists to be exempt. It will be very interesting to see just how President Bush handles the domestic politics presented by scenarios similar to that which I have just outlined and which may crop up in the future.