BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 11.11.01

Film: IAIN WATSON reports on how willing the American public is to see the lives of US troops risked in a ground war in Afghanistan.

IAIN WATSON: The mood at the Pentagon is tense; there are signs that the tide may be turning in America's favour, with setbacks for the Taliban, but military planners now have to work on the next phase of the war to avenge September the 11th. So far, the American people back the military action, but the politicians will have seen evidence that a significant minority are worried about sending more ground troops to Afghanistan and even former pillars of the US military elite are warning that a US victory isn't pre-ordained. ADMIRAL STANSFIELD TURNER: It's going to a dirty kind of war. We lost one in Vietnam under different climactic circumstances, but very similar fighting circumstances. SENATOR SAM BROWNBACK: We know it's going to be long, we know it's going to be difficult, we know that the possibilities of casualties are high, but we have to win. We cannot lose in this campaign. WATSON: F16 fighter planes patrol the skies over Washington. And it's largely from the air that the US campaign in Afghanistan has been fought too. With a low number of casualties, political sniping had been kept to a minimum but now influential congressmen, themselves potential terrorists targets, want an escalation in military activity. REPRESENTATIVE JOE KNOLLENBERG: I think we have to accept the fact that this will go beyond where we are today and will necessitate not just US ground troops but also ground troops from the various coalition members and it will continue for some time; if anyone were looking for a short war, it's not gonna come. WATSON: So more ground troops if necessary? KNOLLENBERG: If necessary? you bet! WATSON: But for some Americans, the call for more ground troops evokes memories of an apocalyptic era in US history and a former head of the CIA warns the military enthusiasts not to repeat the mistakes of Vietnam TURNER: There's a similarity in that we have people fighting for their homeland who are very dedicated to doing that; the Afghans have done it with you; the Afghans have done it with the Russians; and they will certainly do it with us and there's a danger even these disparate groups inside Afghanistan may coalesce if they think they are being invaded by the Americans SENATOR JOE BROWNBACK: We're going to go ahead and see this through, it may well take a great deal of escalation, in that sense of the parallel to Vietnam of an escalation, but the objective here is very clear and the objective in Vietnam I think got very muddled. WATSON: Even on a pleasant, peaceful autumn day in Washington, Vietnam casts a long shadow. This memorial reminds Americans of the chilling cost of fighting in foreign lands. Fifty-eight thousand people commemorated here, lost their lives. Military experts say that ground troops in Afghanistan wouldn't be on the same scale, perhaps as few as five thousand, certainly no more than forty-five thousand. But perhaps symbolism matters more than statistics. Ever since Vietnam there's been a psychological resistance to committing large numbers of troops to fight in far off lands of which the American public know little. But September 11th saw a direct attack on United States itself; and the headlines from US opinion polls suggest that the American public are willing to contemplate losses to win the war against terrorism. But on closer examination, if there's to be a protracted conflict in Afghanistan, then support could fall away UNNAMED WOMAN: I know people are really concerned and I certainly am because I have a twenty-four year old son and you know if the draft came back or anything I'd hate to see him go off to war even though I know we have to defend our country. UNNAMED MAN: The only thing I'm worried about is long term, that the American people won't stand strong. UNNAMED WOMAN: We didn't ask for this, it was forced on us and we have to do what we have to do, and yes, I think the American public is going to stand firm. WATSON: The most recent in-depth opinion poll on American attitudes to the war was published by the Gallup organisation just a few days ago. The headlines proclaim that eighty-six per cent of the American people support the military action in Afghanistan, a figure largely unchanged since September 11th, but when the public were asked whether they supported large numbers of ground troop going into Afghanistan that figure falls to sixty-six per cent. And there have been similar findings in other polls. FRANK NEWPORT Generally speaking the fewer Americans that are involved to achieve objectives the better. Special forces are highly trained people, small numbers that sounds more appealing than massive numbers of ground troops that are involved. I saw one question recently large numbers of ground troops with many casualties and deaths. I mean when you say that it sounds ominous and you certainly have a per cent of Americans who pull back from support. WATSON: Americans have never been bashful about displaying the stars and stripes; but since September 11th patriotic fervour has apparently blossomed. But specific polling on casualties suggest that a significant minority of people are more concerned about the potential loss of further American lives than some politicians may wish to believe. In the Gallup poll, forty-one per cent or four out of every ten Americans said the war should stop if casualties were too high. Asked to define what is too high twenty-four per cent of this group said a hundred deaths would be too high, while a further twenty-seven per cent said a thousand deaths would be too many for them. BROWNBACK: The absolute worst thing that can happen to the American people and to the civilised world is for us to quit and go home and not see this through. That's the worst scenario because then you've emboldened terrorists everywhere around the world that now the United States, the civilised world, can be cowed by some casualties, by threats, by terroristic threats. NEWPORT: What would actually happen if there are a thousand casualties I think is hard to project, because it really depends on how those casualties came about and if it looked like that in the course of sustaining those deaths, the US was really achieving objectives, if those deaths were sustained and there was no progress I think Americans will react in other ways. So I think we have to really wait and see how the public's going to react. My overall take on the data is that there's strong support but not a blank cheque WATSON: The last of the autumn leaves are about to fall in Arlington, Virginia. Here at the national cemetery, two-hundred-thousand Americans who had distinguished military careers are laid to rest. Even before the Afghan campaign, there were plans to accommodate sixteen-thousand more. Current polls suggest a majority of Americans would be willing to see further sacrifices to achieve the objectives of the war on terrorism, but about a third doubt these will ever be realised. The latest Gallup poll reveals that thirty-one per cent, almost one in three Americans, are either not too confident or not at all confident that Bin Laden will be captured or killed; while thirty-six per cent were not confident the US will destroy all terrorist operations in Afghanistan. UNNAMED WOMAN: I have a big concern about sending ground troops in, I guess any of us old enough to remember Vietnam feel like they don't want to see that kind of history repeat itself; it looks like an awfully difficult place to send ground troops in and be successful, so I guess I have some real big concerns that way. UNNAMED MAN: A sense of direction; a sense of mission; and we want the information to let us know we have are achieving that mission; if they do that then I feel that the casualties will be justified - it is war, and that's what happens. WATSON: Two months to the day since the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and the American public are getting anxious for success. Bin Laden hasn't been found and the al-Qaeda terrorist network hasn't been eliminated. The question facing military planners and their political masters at the Pentagon is whether more ground troops in Afghanistan could bring the war there to a swifter conclusion; but some experts say their indecisiveness in this issue isn't based on worries about public opinion; instead, it exposes serious strategic errors in the conduct of the campaign. Larry Korb is a director of an influential think- tank, but was previously Ronald Reagan's Assistant Defence Secretary, so he's not a natural critic of republican administrations. Nonetheless, he thinks this one has got it wrong. LARRY KORB: There's no doubt about the fact that they started the military action before they had their political strategy worked out; they were not clear whether in fact they wanted the Taliban just to give up Bin Laden, whether they wanted to destroy the Taliban government and then what would come after, who would be in the government, what of the various ethnic groups would be represented? WATSON: These US troops are working alongside the Northern Alliance. So far, American involvement, apart from air support, has been limited to small numbers of special forces. By taking the town of Mazar-e-Sharif, the Northern Alliance has eased some of the political pressure to deploy more US troops; but simultaneously, they've made it militarily possible by providing a gateway inside Afghanistan. But even some supporters of more ground troops say the US administration must do the political groundwork first. ANTHONY CORDESMAN: If you do not have the people with you, sending lots of ground troops into a city and even smashing it flat, not only doesn't bring you victory, the real casualties and costs begin after you have won - because that kind of victory isn't simply pyrrhic; it tends to be a military mire. WATSON: Bi-partisan support for the war against terrorism remains strong here in Washington - publicly at least. But behind the scenes there is a growing sense of unease. To say anything openly is politically risky and could even be deemed unpatriotic. But as one senator told me 'publicly, we support the President - privately, I'm worried we will make the same mistakes as the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan.' So there are some concerns here that America could be facing a war without end. This memorial commemorates a world war two battle against the Japanese, which was won at a high cost in human lives. With some success now in Afghanistan, politicians here in Washington aren't proclaiming any doubts they may have about the conduct of the current conflict; but former high ranking military officials are expressing fears about a lack of an exit strategy. TURNER: One concern one has to have in these situations is that once you start a military machine rolling, it's apt to keep rolling, that is, they will say one more new type of bombing, one more new type of commando raid, will do the job, and each time you get one step further down the track. KORB: This is not something that you want to spend years doing - I mean the Soviets were there for ten years and they had some successes early on, but after a while it began catching up with them, because what will happen is that the Taliban, if you are able to drive them out of Kandahar and Kabul, will go to the mountains for a while, so if you come in with a government that doesn't have support of all of the factions, they will come out again. WATSON: Polls show the Americans are ready for the long haul in the war on terrorism, but they are less keen on a protracted conflict in Afghanistan itself. In a Gallup poll published at the start of this month, of those Americans supporting ground troops, forty per cent said they'd back their deployment for an indefinite period, but almost as many, thirty-seven per cent, supported only the limited deployment of troops for a few days or a few weeks. No previous US president has enjoyed such sustained popularity as George W Bush; but a decision on whether, or for how long, to send in more ground troops may determine how history judges him. KORB: If it doesn't look like there's much progress, I think there's going to be a reaction against the Bush administration politically, and in the elections we have in the Fall of two-thousand-and-two I think you could see some real losses at the polls for the republican party. NEWPORT: Anything can happen, anything can change, and if at some point Americans begin to believe that not so much maybe that we're, the US is not reaching its objectives but that the leadership is beginning to be weak, I think the ratings would come back down. CORDESMAN: These polls, when you particularly you get these extraordinarily high peaks, they are necessarily volatile. No-one should take them seriously and no one should try to sustain them; if you did, you would basically be trying to fight a war to influence public opinion at such distorted levels that you virtually could not fight. WATSON: A short distance from Washington, at Arlington cemetery, this solemn ceremony in honour of America's war dead is performed. President Bush knows that the majority of the people in the United States will accept further casualties in Afghanistan, so long as they see progress in the war against terrorism. But with some unease already present amongst a significant minority of Americans, fear of growing discontent may lead to politicians to constrain the military's room for manouvre.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.