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Editorial: Not so hollow / Old political claims about the military are exploded

Saturday, December 29, 2001

American military might has been extraordinarily successful in Afghanistan, providing bombing of such precision and intensity that previously weak indigenous rebels were able to rout the Taliban forces in a matter of weeks. Among those who should be surprised and pleased by these events are American voters.

During the 2000 presidential election, the campaign of George W. Bush delivered a stinging critique of military deterioration during the Clinton-Gore years. The military was hollow, the Republican argument went, underfunded and overstretched. Vice President Al Gore was forced to defend the administration's record even as he too called for more military spending.

As it turns out, the only signs of hollowness in Afghanistan have been bomb craters where Taliban or al-Qaida fighters once were. Conservative minds will be tempted to draw the reflexive conclusion that a new leader who is a friend of the military (unlike, it is said, his predecessor) has put the fight back in American's fighting machine. But just that doesn't explain the apparent turnaround.

As an institution, the military is a slow-moving and generally unwieldy supertanker. If the captain signals a turn, the ship doesn't answer the helm until it has sailed some distance. Mr. Bush, for all his promises of a thorough review of the military's mission and preparedness, is not far enough into his administration to have made much of a difference materially. The Quadrennial Defense Review, the first fruits of this administration's efforts but launched well back in the Clinton years, was released three months ago.

The Bush administration can be credited with pursuing the war with great savvy, using American technology extensively while limiting and sharply tuning participation of American troops. Wisely, most of the actual fighting was left to anti-Taliban forces such as the Northern Alliance. And no doubt morale is higher in American ranks for having Mr. Bush as commander in chief.

But those extraordinary bombs and missiles are not finding their targets because of improved morale; they are, in fact, products of years of research and development -- they are from the arsenal of that "hollow" military sometimes derided by Republicans. Although the military did have its problems in the Clinton years, its performance in Afghanistan indicates that its effectiveness was sold short to the voters in the 2000 campaign.

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