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U.S.: Pentagon Wages War For Public Opinion

  • Andrew Tully

Each day, U.S. citizens wake to grim television images of civilians displaced, injured, and killed by the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan. At the same time, criticism is mounting that the U.S. is not using ground forces aggressively enough in its efforts to eliminate Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda terrorist network, as well as the Taliban forces who are harboring them. From Washington, RFE/RL correspondent Andrew Tully reports on the Pentagon's new war -- the war of public opinion.

Washington, 31 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As the United States maintains its offensive against Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, it has lately been on the defensive because of the increasing number of civilian casualties in the war and criticism that it is not conducting its campaign aggressively enough.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is asked almost daily about the latest reports of civilian casualties -- reinforced by video from the Persian Gulf satellite-television network Al-Jazeera.

Rumsfeld's reply is always the same: that allied forces are careful to strike only military targets, but that, regrettably, innocent people always die in war. And Rumsfeld has repeatedly noted that the U.S. and Britain are not the only combatants whose weapons miss their marks, a reference to fighting between the Taliban and its Northern Alliance foes.

Defense analyst Jack Spencer supports Rumsfeld's view. Spencer, who works for the Heritage Foundation, a policy analysis institution in Washington, tells RFE/RL that America is in a difficult position: "We have to remember why we're there to begin with. The United States isn't in Afghanistan because it wanted to go there. It went there because the United States was attacked, and there's no other option."

Perhaps the most influential critics of the way the war is being waged are not members of the Washington press corps but the citizens of predominantly Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, whose support for the military campaign against Afghanistan is seen as essential for its success.

Spencer says the U.S. may be squandering an opportunity to make sure its message is reaching these people: "Too often, the United States is cast as the haters and cast as the murderers, and that's why it's absolutely important that we do have an effective public diplomacy strategy."

Spencer recalled that when American and British forces began the strikes against Afghanistan, senior U.S. officials -- such as Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell -- declined invitations to be interviewed by Al-Jazeera and thus have their positions broadcast across the Muslim world. Two weeks ago, they finally granted such interviews. But Spencer says that, since then, top U.S. officials have not been aggressive enough in their efforts to ensure America's goals in the war are universally understood.

Kenneth Allard agrees. Allard is a retired U.S. Army colonel who specialized in intelligence service. Allard -- now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank -- says the U.S. has not done enough to counter the effect of Al-Jazeera's daily fare of pictures of dead, wounded and displaced Afghanis: "This is an information war, there's no question about it. And right now, I think the other side is winning, simply by default."

Allard says he also disagrees with the way Washington is conducting the war itself. He says the U.S. is a superpower that appears to be reluctant to use its power fully: "What we have done here is to -- at the very, very least -- be guilty of not using decisive force in a very decisive way. And by that, I simply mean that from the level of force that we have thrown at the Taliban thus far, the only thing that I think that they have concluded from that is that we're simply not serious -- or if we are serious, they can wait us out until we aren't."

In particular, Allard says he is infuriated that the U.S. and Britain seem to have very few ground forces in place in Afghanistan, not only to help warplanes attack more efficiently and avoid collateral damage, but also to mount a coordinated assault on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

"If you are doing either an infantry attack or an air strike that are not mutually reinforcing, you're wasting your time."

Allard says the generals running the war appear to have been trained during the past decade, starting with the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. He says their brand of warfare is characterized by almost exclusive use of air power to minimize allied casualties. This, he says, is a mistake militarily, and tends to lead to collateral damage, as well: "These flag officers [high-ranking officers] that you've got in charge right now all came up [were promoted] in an era in which casualty avoidance was the absolute sine qua non [essential condition] on the road to advancement and promotion."

Allard's comments are echoed by recent opinion columns published in America's most influential newspapers. On 30 October, for instance, "The Washington Post" printed two articles that accused the U.S. Defense Department of not using all its might against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

At yesterday's Defense Department briefing, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was asked about these commentaries: "I would just be dumbfounded if I found that everyone agreed with everything that we did. We expect that there'll be differences of views. I must say that I find those differences of views often helpful and interesting and informative and educational."

Rumsfeld's comment on the diversity of opinion in America was, essentially, a clever evasion of the question. But the secretary and his spokespeople have repeatedly said they will not comment on ongoing operations because they do not want to compromise the security of allied forces in the region.

So the world will not know whether the U.S. and its allies plan to expand the war in Afghanistan until after the expansion has begun.