Blowing up bits of Afghanistan may be satisfying, but will it accomplish anything?

It’s hard to tell.

The U.S. airstrikes [DN1]came 26 days after 5,500 people died when hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. America launched 50 warplanes and 65 cruise missiles into Afghanistan. So far no one has been able to verify what was bombed, who was killed and if anything was destroyed. After two days of attacks, the United States government is cautiously claiming that only strategic targets and terrorist camps were hit. The Taliban claims civilians perished. The full truth may not be known for years.

The U.S. government[DN2], citing a need for military secrecy, has not released all of its evidence against Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born millionaire and international terrorist it holds responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

It’s hard to be sure what, exactly, we’re bombing and why. The war on terrorism is a war against an ill-defined enemy based on evidence the American public hasn’t seen.

Terrorism is not a country, nor is it nice enough to have a recognizable government or military. Terrorists are, whatever their ideological pretensions, criminals. Wars are not fought against criminals. Trying to bomb al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s organization, is like launching cruise missiles into Chicago to take out the Mafia.

We may never know if the airstrikes kill bin Laden. At the end of the campaign, the Pentagon may point to a smoking crater and in an authoritative tone say, “bin Laden.” And then a few days, weeks, months or years later something else will blow up and bin Laden will claim responsibility.

He may not have to be alive to claim responsibility. His followers can keep using his name as a terrifying phantom, something whispered whenever an American airplane crashes.

If the U.S. can prove bin Laden is dead, we may be even worse off. Dead, bin Laden will be a martyr, inspiring a new generation of terrorists within the Arab world and Afghanistan.

Though the crimes he is accused of are horrific, the United States must bring bin Laden to trial like any criminal. To do this will take more than airstrikes. It will take time, money and quite possibly the lives of American soldiers.

Osama bin Laden and terrorists like him have found refuge in a war-ravaged country, a nasty side effect of the Cold War that the U.S. allowed to fester.

Afghanistan is not so much a country as a neighborhood in Eurasia so rough that even Russia and Pakistan avoid it. Most of the population lives without paved roads, running water or electricity. The largest industry is opium. The Taliban is more of a thugocracy than it is a theocracy and the Northern Alliance, whom we hope will take over the country when we’re through, lost power years ago because of corruption and infighting. High explosives, even the expensive kinds, will solve none of these problems.

Simply bombing Afghanistan and installing a new government will not help America either. For too long, American policy in the Middle East has focused on cynical, short-term solutions. This time, we must do right by the 26 million starved and scared residents of Afghanistan.

Dropping food and supplies is a good start. Unfortunately, we are not putting it directly into the hands of refugees. Afghanistan is a lawless county, especially while we drop bombs on it, and in a lawless country people with guns tend to make the rules about who gets to eat. We need to do more than drop bombs and food and then leave.

At the end of World War II, America launched the ambitious Marshall Plan to revive a shattered Europe. Helping Afghanistan onto its feet will be much, much harder – it has no legal economy to speak of, no infrastructure for one and over 50 percent of Afghans are illiterate. We would not be rebuilding a nation – we would have to build one. It would cost a lot of money and time.

It might, however, work. And it would be the right thing to do.