War in Error
Sending a general to do a sheriff’s job
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Conservative" -- --
Small events sometimes reveal large truths. Last month’s U.S.
missile strike in the remote Bajaur district of Pakistan was such an
event. Aimed at taking out Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s
chief deputy, the strike missed its intended target and killed as
many as 18 residents of the small village of Damadola. But the
episode did not end there: outraged Pakistanis rose up in protest;
days of highly publicized anti-American demonstrations followed. In
effect, the United States had handed Muslims around the world
another grievance to hold against Americans.
In stark, unmistakable terms, the Damadola affair lays bare the
defects of the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. When
President Bush in September 2001 launched the United States on a
global war against terrorism, he scornfully abandoned the
law-enforcement approach to which previous administrations had
adhered. To all but the most militant true believers, it has become
increasingly evident that in doing so Bush committed an error of the
Underlying Bush’s declaration of war were two assumptions: first,
that terrorism is subject to defeat; second, that military power,
aggressively employed, offers the shortest road to victory. The
Damadola incident only adds to the mountain of evidence calling both
of those assumptions into question.
As most Americans have come to understand, terrorism, as currently
employed in Washington’s political lexicon, is a code word.
Seemingly referring to a tactic, it actually alludes to the violent
Islamic radicals who perpetrated 9/11 and who if given the chance
will attack us again.
In dealing with the radicals themselves, the old adage applies: it’s
kill or be killed. On this point there can be little room for debate
and none for compromise. But for the killing to be purposeful, it
must occur selectively: to employ violence indiscriminately is to
replenish the ranks of al-Qaeda and its spawn faster than we can
deplete them. That way lies not security but bankruptcy and
Although paying lip service to this principle, the Bush
administration has violated it in practice, most egregiously in
Iraq, where heavy-handed tactics fanned the flames of insurgency,
but also in Afghanistan and now Pakistan. Using President Bush’s
conception of war as their mandate—and at times as a de facto grant
of immunity—U.S. forces charged with bringing the guilty to book
have too often ended up victimizing the innocent.
The fault lies less with the soldiers who pull the triggers, aim the
missiles, and drop the bombs than with the nature of war itself.
Even in a high-tech age, it remains a blunt instrument. Precision
weapons have not made war precise, a truth brought home yet again by
the events at Damadola.
It’s hard to tell which more vividly testifies to this president’s
stupefying hubris: his self-proclaimed mission to democratize the
Middle East or his claim that his administration is reinventing war.
It’s probably a toss-up. The truth is that war remains today what it
has always been: fraught with risk, uncertainty, and chance. When
the unexpected happens, bystanders with the misfortune to be in the
wrong place at the wrong time are most likely to suffer the
Granted, in some circumstances, the penalty for killing innocent
civilians is nil. The Anglo-American “Transportation Plan” of World
War II—the 1944 strategic bombing of Occupied Europe in preparation
for the Normandy invasion—caused the deaths of some 12,000 citizens
of France and Belgium. Whatever moral questions this bombing
campaign might have raised, most of which remain largely unexamined,
the bloodletting in no way impeded the Allied march to final
victory. In the brutal calculus of that war, sacrificing some number
of those whom the Allies were promising to liberate was “worth it.”
But outside of the bounds of total war, killing civilians—even
unintentionally—becomes politically problematic. The attack at
Damadola illustrates the consequences.
For the United States to unleash a salvo of missiles at a Pakistani
village thought to house an al-Qaeda chieftain is the equivalent of
the Mexican government bombing a southern California condo complex
suspected of harboring a drug kingpin. Even if, as the Pakistani
government has subsequently claimed, the missiles killed a handful
of unidentified “foreign militants,” that minor success can in no
way justify the use of force that takes the lives of women and
children. Morally, the arithmetic doesn’t work. Politically, it’s
For the United States government to shrug off those deaths with
expressions of regret or offers of monetary compensation simply
confirms the worst that others have come to believe: that Americans
are callous and arrogant with little regard for the lives of
In depicting the attack on the World Trade Center as the opening
volley of a global war—a reprise of Dec. 7, 1941—the Bush
administration spun the awful events of that day in the wrong
direction. The Islamists may nurse bizarre dreams of restoring the
caliphate, but their existing claim to political legitimacy is
marginal. Al-Qaeda is not the Wehrmacht or the Red Army; it is an
international conspiracy, one that committed a singularly heinous
crime. Osama bin Laden is not Hitler or Stalin —as a historical
figure he comes nowhere near their baneful significance. He is a
When gangs besiege a neighborhood, the authorities send in more
cops. If the authorities are smart, they insist upon the cops
playing by the rules. Winning back the streets means taking the
thugs out of circulation while protecting those who obey the laws.
Coercion wielded without restraint only makes matters worse.
So too with the threat posed by radical Islam. Preventing a
recurrence of 9/11 requires not war on a global scale, but the
sustained, relentless enforcement of international norms. The task
requires not an army but a posse. Rather than invasions and
stand-off missile attacks, we need police and intelligence agencies,
backed by special-operations forces, bringing the perpetrators of
terror to justice, while taking care not to incite more Muslims to
join the Islamist cause.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the law-enforcement approach to dealing with the
Islamist conspiracy did fail. Yet it failed not because such an
approach is inherently defective but as a result of incompetence and
ineptitude at the highest levels of the United States government,
evident in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
By the time this essay appears, the Bush administration will have
moved on. As far as official Washington is concerned, the nameless,
faceless dead of Damadola are already forgotten. Our
warrior-president will continue to insist that we have no choice but
to press on, seemingly blind to the moral havoc wreaked by his war
and oblivious to the extent to which he is playing into the hands of
But our own interests demand that we not forget those whom we have
killed. At Damadola we have handed the Islamists a victory of
considerable proportions, further enflaming antipathy toward the
U.S. in Pakistan and among Muslims generally. And the lesson to be
taken from this self-inflicted defeat is clear: four bloody years
into President Bush’s war, the time to think anew is at hand.
Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston
University, is a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign
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