The Bush administration is belatedly discovering that a political strategy for Afghanistan is as important as bombs and commandos.
Three weeks of U.S. air strikes against Taliban military assets haven't achieved much, and the Taliban is making hay from inflated claims of civilian casualties. Contrary to early U.S. hopes, the Taliban regime hasn't collapsed, and there have been hardly any defectors. A high-level Pentagon briefer told journalists he was "surprised at how doggedly they're hanging on to power."
As for the highly publicized commando raid that was meant to demonstrate American toughness, Afghans viewed it as a sign of weakness because we hit near-empty targets and didn't bag any Taliban leaders. Bombing alone even bombing plus special forces won't be sufficient to do the job.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not against the bombing in principle. The Afghan Taliban host al-Qaida terrorists who have no qualms about mass murder of Americans. Those who pretend this threat can be eliminated without bloodshed are deluding themselves.
As for civilian casualties, they are unavoidable in war and will be redeemed if we help return Afghanistan to sane rule. Having been in Baghdad just before and after the end of the Gulf War, I can testify that American smart bombs are incredibly precise.
Smart bombs, however, do occasionally miss their targets. The Taliban is further encouraging carnage by hiding men and weapons in mosques and homes, just as Saddam Hussein put a command bunker below a civilian shelter. So a long spell of air strikes is bound to create resentment against us in the region.
This should not stop us from bombing if bombs help get rid of the terrorists. But bombing will achieve little unless it is synchronized with political strategy.
Here's why. Bombs won't break the Taliban. To achieve that, we need to take the Taliban capital, Kandahar, as well as the traditional political capital, Kabul. We need to synchronize our bombs with ground forces Afghan ground forces. We are not going to repeat the Soviet disaster by sending a U.S. ground army into Afghanistan.
But those ground forces don't yet exist in the Pashtun areas of southern Afghanistan around Kandahar. We haven't yet persuaded Pashtun tribal leaders to turn against their fellow Pashtuns, the Taliban. We also need Pashtuns to provide intelligence to our special forces to target Taliban and al-Qaida leaders in the south.
To woo Pashtuns, we have to help create something for them to defect to a loose alternative government ready to step in as soon as the Taliban crumbles.
There is another reason we must work to facilitate this alternative government. Until it is created, the Taliban can't be driven out of Kabul.
Our only Afghan allies on the ground near Kabul are the fighters of the Northern Alliance who come from minority Uzbek and Tajik tribes. If we speed their way to Kabul via heavy bombing, we could provoke a new Afghan civil war that would undercut our efforts to crush al-Qaida. Before Kabul falls, a new broad-based government must be ready to step in, with room for both the Northern Alliance and Pashtuns.
The Bush administration was slow to focus on the need to mesh political strategy with military action. Conservatives who claim that messy Afghan politics are an unnecessary sideshow are savaging Secretary of State Colin Powell for turning his attention to the problem. The White House, however, now recognizes it has no choice.
So what must be done?
The administration should give strong support to the efforts of special United Nations emissary Lakhdar Brahimi. He is trying to stitch antagonistic Afghan factions into a transition government that includes the symbolic presence of the exiled Afghan king Zahir Shah.
Brahimi is top notch, with long experience in Afghanistan. If anyone can handle this Sisyphean task, he can. But U.S. arm-twisting will be required, to push Pakistan, Russia, and Iran all Afghanistan's neighbors to accept Brahimi's product.
The coming Muslim holy month of Ramadan might provide an excuse for a useful bombing pause to let Brahimi play catch up. If he succeeds, U.S. bombers finally will have ground troops to support with their payloads.
Only then will the bombing provide the desired results.
Trudy Rubin's e-mail address is email@example.com.