A quick victory may wreck the long-term goal
BY ANATOL LIEVEN IN PESHAWAR
TIMES / SATURDAY OCTOBER 13 2001
A GRIM logic is now at work in Afghanistan, as it was previously in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia.
This logic dictates that if the US and its allies use air power in support of local forces without deploying Western ground troops, then those local forces are likely to have a free hand that may allow them to commit atrocities against local civilians and to dominate the postwar order.
In the former Yugoslavia, this led to the ethnic cleansing of local minorities and the ascendancy to power of extremely undesirable elements.
In Afghanistan, US and British air power is working to the advantage of the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance and this could pose severe dangers for the long-term success of the allied operation to eliminate the whole of Afghanistan as a potential haven for international terrorists. For part of the Alliance has a record of massacres equal to that of the Taleban and a record of rape and looting which is worse.
My conversations with Afghans in Peshawar have made it clear that a large proportion of Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest single ethnic group, see the Northern Alliance as an ethnic minority force with a strong anti-Pashtun bias.
The Mujahidin Government which ruled Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996 - from which the Alliance forces largely descend - was crippled by its crimes, incompetence, bitter internal feuding and limited ethnic base. This failure opened the way for the Taleban to seize power, drawing on Pashtun resentment, religious fanaticism and the promise of a restoration of order.
The entire spectrum of Pashtun Afghan opinion which I have encountered is unanimous that rapid advances by the Alliance deep into Pashtun territory could lead to a big swing of Pashtun support to the Taleban. Above all, they say, it is crucial that the US and Britain discourage the Alliance from trying to seize Kabul. If Alliance forces move against Mazar-i Sharif in the north, and Herat in the west, there will still be Pashtun disquiet, but probably not to nearly the same degree as if Kabul is attacked.
If Alliance forces do attack Kabul, almost all the likely outcomes look bad. If they storm the city, many Pashtuns would be outraged, both by the loss of the capital and by the likely casualties and atrocities. If the Alliance failed, this would be a major victory for the Taleban.
If the battle settled into a drawn out siege with intermittent bombardment, then the resulting civilian casualties and refugees would be widely blamed on the US and Britain, gradually eroding our moral prestige. For even the most bitterly anti-Taleban Afghans in Peshawar have been deeply unhappy at the prospect of being seen as America's allies in a war which could claim numerous Afghan civilian lives.
If large numbers of Pashtuns were to join the Taleban, then even the capture of the main cities by anti-Taleban forces would not prevent an ongoing war - with many areas remaining both magnets and havens for al-Qaeda or other Muslim extremist groups.
US officials, aware of these dangers, are working to hold back an Alliance attack on Kabul and to build up a strong Pashtun alternative to the Taleban. For as Qazi Mohamed Amin Waqad, the former Mujahidin commander and minister, said: "If you have no legitimate alternative to the Taleban, how can you ask Pashtun commanders and leaders to fight against the Taleban? The US cannot tell the Pashtun majority to be silent spectators while America, Russia and Iran help other forces to conquer Afghanistan."
But this sensible US approach may be undermined by two hard facts. The first is that, objectively, the US and British bombardment is strengthening the Alliance at the expense of the Taleban, but the Alliance is hardly a united and disciplined force. If the Taleban forces north of Kabul are badly weakened, then sooner or later an ambitious Alliance commander may be irresistibly tempted to move on the capital, setting off what one Western official termed a "land rush" by his comrades.
The second problem is one of time. The Alliance has at least the appearance of unity, and quite strong military forces; the Peshawar-based Pashtun opposition to the Taleban has neither. Fostering these qualities will take time and great political and cultural sensitivity. Despite President Bush's words, it is not yet clear if America possesses the necessary patience for the task.
Present US political strategy is three pronged: to promote the deposed King Zahir Shah as a symbolic figure who can rally Pashtuns while also reaching out to the other ethnic groups; to promote Abdul Haq, a former anti-Soviet Mujahidin commander, as a military leader; and by sticks and carrots to encourage tribal leaders and Taleban forces to join these two figures, to overthrow the ruling Taleban, and then to enter a grand assembly, or Loya Jirga, with Alliance representatives.
But the former King has not visited Afghanistan or even Peshawar for 28 years. A majority of Afghans were not even born when he reigned and the culture, values and social class he represents are detested by many Afghans. Abdul Haq is an impressive figure, but US support for him is already causing deep jealousy. He has told me that he opposes the US bombing and wants to see a slow strategy of pressure and inducement: "The Taleban are hard but brittle. If they are hit in the right way, they will shatter. But bombing them is not that way."
What the US and Britain need to recognise is that ending Afghanistan's potential as a base for international terrorism will be a very long process requiring far more than just the military defeat of the Taleban, and that a quick military conquest may wreck the long-term goal. The Russians failed in both Afghanistan and Chechnya because they forgot the maxim of their own Marshall Kutuzov: "Patience and Time".
We shouldn't make the same mistake.
* Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington DC.
|Back to News Archirves of 2001|
Disclaimer: This news site is mostly a compilation of publicly accessible articles on the Web in the form of a link or saved news item. The news articles and commentaries/editorials are protected under international copyright laws. All credit goes to the original respective source(s).