Our current military misadventure in the hostile environs of Afghanistan is bogging down on the eve of the holiest days of the Muslim calendar. The timing is sheer accident, but we can turn it to our advantage. The U.S. should seize the high ground and stop the bombing for Ramadan.
True, our leader and president has already declared his commitment that the U.S. military “will not rest” — or even pause — to mark Islam’s holy days, but that doesn’t mean the matter is closed. Bush has changed course before, after shooting off his mouth and then being reined in by more savvy advisors. In this case, several avenues of logic argue for that same result.
In military terms, hopes for quick triumph on the strength of overwhelming technology have already been abandoned. Administration officials talked at first of Taliban defections and Afghani uprisings, but whatever was the basis for those early projections, they didn’t pay off. The reports from the ground are unanimous: As the bombing campaign wears on, the enemy spirit only grows stronger.
Here, the administration and its few allies are having more and more difficulty explaining just what it is they’re bombing, and why. The jokes about bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age are growing tired, but the punch lines remain apt. Aside from the simple refusal to back off, administration officials say they cannot stop the bombing because the Taliban will regroup. But wouldn’t that just make for more convenient targets? Besides, the most candid assessments we’ve gotten from the Pentagon suggest our commanders are stalling because no leader or coalition has emerged to replace the Taliban.
Need to buy time? Ramadan, anyone?
The political argument is even more compelling. In the weeks since September 11, Osama bin Laden and his radical cohorts have sought to frame the conflict as a religious war between aggrieved Islam and aggressive infidels. It’s a brazen argument — the attacks on New York and Washington were certainly acts of aggression — but just as certainly it has struck a chord in the world of Islam, where debate rages over the proper response to the conflict.
So far, we have managed to cobble together an unwieldy coalition, resurrecting atrophied alliances and seeking new friends in Pakistan and even Iran. But with the continued bombing, many of our tentative allies are growing increasingly uneasy. Muslims as far from the conflict as Indonesia and Thailand are taking to the streets to call for a truce through the holy days. Should we desist, we’d underscore in graphic terms that our dispute is with terror and not with Islam; should we persist, we leave that distinction blurred.
President Bush dismissed these subtleties in his usual belligerent fashion when he declared last Friday that “This is not a political campaign — this is a war.” Here, of course, the president directly contradicts Carl von Clausewitz, whose most famous dictum asserted that the twain could not be divided: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”
A Prussian theorist whose tract “On War” was published in 1832, von Clausewitz came into fashion in U.S. military academies in the aftermath of Vietnam. His insight was that waging war involved more than sheer violence, but was part of the larger and far more complex social fabric that framed a given conflict.
In Vietnam, we outgunned the enemy but lost the battle for hearts and minds, first of the Vietnamese and, finally, of the American public. In the war on terror, Islam forms the backdrop, and a pause for Ramadan, however expedient, would send a powerful signal.
George W. Bush ducked the bloody testing grounds of Southeast Asia by enlisting for a stint in the Air Force Reserve, but most of his contemporaries in the Pentagon did not. We can only hope that they — chastened by our last great effort to shape history to our design — will step forward and set their commander straight.