Few of us can have been enthusiastic about the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, but most of us conceded its inevitability. Would we have done so, however, if we knew its human costs—knew that our bombing would kill at least a thousand civilians, would indirectly lead to an estimated 3,000 other civilian deaths, and produce 500,000 refugees and displaced persons? In short, if we knew that our campaign would kill more Afghan civilians than the September 11 terrorists killed Americans would we have demanded that the government find an alternative to bombing?
In October, when the bombing began, voices, our consciences echoing them, warned that Afghan civilians would be killed. But we had been attacked, and we felt justified in striking back. Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan, al Qaeda ran terrorist training camps there—camps where at least some of the September 11 mass murderers had learned their tactics. Bin Laden had to be apprehended, al Qaeda broken up, the camps destroyed to make Americans safe against future terrorist attacks. The Taliban government of Afghanistan, sustained with bin Laden's money and helped in its civil war against the Northern Alliance by al Qaeda's fighters, had to be dislodged to accomplish these objectives. International law experts assured us we didn't need worry that the Afghan government had declared no belligerency against us and that no Afghan citizen had been among our attackers. A state can be held responsible for crimes against other states committed by groups on its territory, and in any case as a practical matter the Taliban was indistinguishable from al Qaeda. Invading Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, army against army, was a logistical and historical impossibility. Besides, there already was an army on the ground, the Northern Alliance, as U.S. planners eventually realized. Our part would be to bomb the Taliban out of power. There was no other way.
Of course our leaders told us to expect civilian casualties—but not this many, not the 4,000 calculated by Carl Conetta in a comprehensive assessment of the war published by the Project on Defense Alternatives. Whether Human Rights Watch, which will soon investigate the extent of collateral damage in Afghanistan, will confirm these figures remains to be seen. In any case, many died, and many others were maimed to make us more secure. Are we? What has the campaign in Afghanistan achieved?
According to an FBI estimate cited by Conetta, al Qaeda's capacity to strike American interests has been degraded by 30 percent. Could we have accomplished that by limiting ourselves to bombing the terrorist training camps and sending U.S. Special Operations forces to capture or kill al Qaeda's leaders? The Taliban are gone, but Afghanistan is less stable than it was before the attack, riven among rival warlords. The country is less repressive but also less safe for ordinary Afghans—or so the journalist Peter Maass writes in the January 6, 2002 issue of The New York Times Magazine, citing a rise in inter-ethnic violence and of the outlawry stamped out by the Taliban. Thus, at least for now, in the let-us-hope brief interregnum before the new central government in Kabul can exert control, the conditions that gave rise to the Taliban have returned. We have taken several hundred Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners, but, according to a well-sourced New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh, we allowed Pakistan to airlift several thousand of its nationals fighting for the Taliban out of the besieged city of Kunduz and many al Qaeda fighters went with them to Pakistan. Did we let more escape than we captured, and if so, can the al Qaeda-directed thrust of Operation Enduring Freedom be reckoned a success? And, of course, we have yet to capture Osama bin Laden, though, together with the Northern Alliance, we have killed up to 4,000 Taliban and al Qaeda troops trying to get at him. A majority of Americans say they won't consider the war on terror successful unless he is killed (he may already have been) or captured. Finally, will we experience "blowback" from the bombing campaign? Conetta cites polls showing nearly 70 percent of Turks opposed to the bombing, and Turkey is our NATO ally. Anger against us in the rest of the Muslim world, where fundamentalism has deeper roots, can be assumed. Will hate-filled young men who would not have joined al Qaeda before the bombing now turn to terrorism? Will innocent American lives be lost because—unintentionally and tragically—we took innocent Afghan lives?
These considerations—instability, blowback, and above all civilian casualties—should give us pause as the Bush Administration threatens to expand the war on terrorism to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, if it determines that these "rogue states" are developing weapons of mass destruction to use against us. The collateral damage wrought by bombing Afghanistan, we may reluctantly conclude, had the justification that we faced a real threat to our security. Attacks on these other states—none of which have been shown to have had a part in September 11—would kill real people over a putative threat. How could we justify that?