The detour war

Geraldine Sealey
April 6, 2004 1:40AM (UTC)

Richard Clarke's book "Against All Enemies" is required reading these days for understanding how the Bush White House handled -- or mishandled -- the al-Qaida threat before 9/11. But what Clarke says about the war in Afghanistan has received less attention. That may change with a Seymour Hersh article in the New Yorker this week. Clarke criticized the Pentagon's tactics in Afghanistan, especially relying on airpower and not ground troops in the early weeks of the war to go after Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida operatives. Clarke told Hersh that the administration saw Afghanistan merely as a detour to the war that mattered most to the president: Iraq.

A military analysis commissioned by the Pentagon backed many of Clarke's claims, Hersh reports. The Pentagon asked Hy Rothstein, a retired army colonel and leading military expert in unconventional warfare, to examine the war in Afghanistan. But the DOD didn't like what Rothstein found. Hersh writes: "His report was a devastating critique of the Administration's strategy. He wrote that the bombing campaign was not the best way to hunt down Osama bin Laden and the rest of the al-Qaida leadership, and that there was a failure to translate early tactical successes into strategic victory. In fact, he wrote, the victory in Afghanistan was not, in the long run, a victory at all."


"The report describes a wide gap between how Donald Rumsfeld represented the war and what was actually taking place. Rumsfeld had told reporters at the start of the Afghanistan bombing campaign, Rothstein wrote, that 'you don't fight terrorists with conventional capabilities. You do it with unconventional capabilities.' ... Nonetheless, Rothstein wrote, the United States continued to emphasize bombing and conventional warfare while 'the war became increasingly unconventional' ... The failure to adjust U.S. operations in line with the post-Taliban change in theater conditions cost the United States some of the fruits of victory and imposed additional, avoidable humanitarian and stability costs on Afghanistan ... Indeed, the war's inadvertent effects may be more significant than we think."

"The result has been 'a campaign in Afghanistan that effectively destroyed the Taliban but has been significantly less successful at being able to achieve the primary policy goal of ensuring that al-Qaida could no longer operate in Afghanistan.' The Administration's decision to treat the Taliban as though all its members identified with, and would fight for, al-Qaida was also a crucial early mistake ... Instead, Rothstein wrote, the American military campaign left a power vacuum. The conditions under which the post-Taliban government came to power gave 'warlordism, banditry and opium production a new lease on life.' He concluded, 'Defeating an enemy on the battlefield and winning a war are rarely synonymous. Winning a war calls for more than defeating one's enemy in battle.'"

It may be no surprise to learn that after Rothstein delivered his report to the Pentagon last winter, "it was returned to him, with the message that he had to cut it drastically and soften his conclusions. He has heard nothing further. 'It's a threatening paper,' one military consultant told [Hersh]. ... In interviews, a number of past and present Bush Administration officials have endorsed Rothstein's key assertions. 'It wasn't like he made it up,' a former senior intelligence officer said. 'The reason they're petrified is that it's true, and they didn't want to see it in writing.'"

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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