|September 27, 2001||atimes.com|
An "Afghan solution"?
For United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the complex situation in Afghanistan is like a game of billiards. "The balls careen around for a while. You don't know what'll do it. But the end result, we would hope, would be a situation where the Al-Qaeda is heaved out. And the people in Taliban who think that it's good for them and good for the world to harbor terrorists and to foment and encourage and facilitate that kind of activity, lose, and lose seriously," he said on Tuesday.
What exactly he thinks, sees, or knows is "careening" around in Afghanistan Rumsfeld didn't say, but aside from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban whom he mentioned, he was likely referring to the forces of the Northern Alliance, now pushing toward Kabul, and perhaps the first elements of US and British special forces, operating alone or in conjunction with Northern Alliance troops. In any case, it is becoming increasingly obvious that US planners of the "war on terrorism" are seriously considering taking up the Northern Alliance offer of acting in concert with their fighters in the effort of capturing or eliminating Osama bin Laden and shutting down his network and training bases (if any are still open).
On the face of it, that makes sense: Under such circumstances, the US and its allies could minimize deployment of ground forces and draw on the alliance troops' knowledge of the terrain and experience in fighting Taliban forces. But such - at least partial - "Afghanization" of the war on terrorism involves easily as many risks as advantages, and the risks are large.
There is first of all the disparity of goals. The US wants to get rid of bin Laden and his terrorist forces, but, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Tuesday, "[US policy] is not designed to replace one regime with another regime." The Northern Alliance, of course, has precisely the aim of replacing the Taliban regime and would be foolish to assist the US if it did not, in turn, expect assistance in its own quest. And what complicates the situation is that US policymakers themselves do not appear to be of one mind: US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, perhaps taking a cue from deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's talk of "ending states" that support terrorism, suggested on Sunday that removing the Taliban from power might be a policy aim, merely to be promptly contradicted by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
There is, secondly, the danger inherent in "Afghanization" of relying on an unreliable ally, as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger discovered with "Vietnamization" three decades ago. Between 1994 and 1996, the Taliban, from inconspicuous beginnings in Kandahar, rapidly established themselves in over 90 percent of Afghanistan. The forces of what is now the Northern Alliance (much like the South Vietnamese forces in the early 1970s) were discredited and lacked popular support and managed to hold on only to tribal areas of their own ethnicity near the Afghan borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Do US planners have reliable intelligence demonstrating that the Taliban in five years of harsh Islamic rule are now discredited as well and will be rejected by the minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, but also by the majority Pashtu?
A third element of high risk is the Pakistan-India complication. Since the early 1990s, India (and Russia and the former Central Asian Soviet republics bordering on Afghanistan) has supported the forces gathered in the Northern Alliance; Pakistan has been the principal supporter of the Taliban, militarily, economically and in administrative tasks. With trouble enough in Pakistan over the Musharraf government's support for the US, can Musharraf tolerate the installation of a Northern Alliance-based regime in Kabul?
These issues urgently need to be addressed and resolved if US and allied intervention in Afghanistan is not going to end in combined military and political fiasco. We have no solution to propose. But to begin with, the White House, the National Security Council and the State Department have to get on the same line. Then the Defense Department might usefully be told that this is not a game of billiards and that further cavalier remarks by Rumsfeld that "These folks [Northern Alliance], they know the lay of the land ... They know, in some cases, some targets that are useful; they have ideas about how to deal with the Taliban. I think that one has to say that they can be useful in a variety of ways," are hardly the pinnacle of wisdom. Finally, both Pakistan and India need to be consulted if - in addition to Kashmir - Afghanistan in not to become a further source of intractable conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
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