US Afghan Policy Needs Readjustment

By , Susan R. Johnson, a US Foreign Service officer with experience in Afghan issues, is currently on a nongovernmental assignment. The views expressed are her own.

THE current stalemate at Jalalabad, and the apparent failure of the Afghan resistance to unite behind a coherent political strategy, demands that the United States take a close look at its interests there. Clearly the US would like to see the mujahideen develop a broad-based government acceptable to a large majority of the Afghan people. The US also has an interest in an early return to normalcy in Afghanistan, for only then will it be in a position to play a more direct and constructive role in extending support and cooperation to a stable Afghan government in Kabul.

While the overall situation in Afghanistan remains fluid, several developments since the Soviet withdrawal should cause concern. The interim government, decided upon after protracted deliberation and now recognized by the Organization of Islamic Countries, still falls short of expectations for a broad-based government. By all accounts, it remains divided within itself. Mujahideen commanders have not hailed it with enthusiasm, nor have Afghans in exile, who unanimously supported the armed struggle and who can play a useful role in national reconstruction.

On the other hand, more than a month after the Soviet withdrawal, the Kabul regime remains entrenched in major cities. Its best hope lies in prolonging the conflict, wearing down the resistance, and gaining time and opportunity for political maneuver. At the same time, a protracted conflict with increasing polarization of highly armed political players in Afghanistan will be a recipe for continuing fragmentation and internecine strife among mujahideen groups scrambling for control.

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The so-far inconclusive battle for Jalalabad should have a sobering impact on the interim government, as well as on its key supporters - Pakistan, the US, and Saudi Arabia. While mistakes of military planning and tactics cannot be discounted, the fact remains that contrary to expectations, the city did not fall from within, and the Kabul Army fought with resolve instead of crumbling or defecting en masse. There were few apparent political incentives for it to do otherwise. One clear lesson emerging is that political strategy is as vital as military tactics.

The Afghan situation is not susceptible to a conventional approach; the US has so far not dealt directly with the disparate Afghan resistance factions. But sentiment is growing in favor of more direct contacts through the appointment of a special envoy. This step in itself will require a policy review to develop a clear mandate and future course of action.

Against this backdrop, what should the US do? First, Washington should continue to avoid identifying itself with any of the constituent groups of the Afghan mujahideen. Visible patronage of any group would undermine that group's political standing in the intra-Afghan struggle. The US will be better off staying outside the complicated political maneuvering. It would be prudent not to put US influence at risk by premature commitment to one or another group within the fractious Afghan resistance.

Second, it should be clearly understood that the bulk of economic resources committed for national reconstruction will have to await return of normal conditions, which in turn will depend on the establishment of a viable Afghan government in Kabul. But during this murky transitional stage, the US also needs a strategy for economic assistance to the Afghan resistance, especially the interim government, to induce it to broaden its base and to strengthen unity and discipline. Political reconstruction is a sine qua non for economic reconstruction. At present, economic reconstruction cannot be viewed entirely altruistically and independently of the need to strengthen political forces whose interests coincide with those of the US and which are conducive to the stabilization of Afghanistan.

Third, and perhaps most important, the US should clearly define its interests and enter into immediate high-level dialogue with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which both wield considerable influence over the mujahideen. Close coordination of US interests with theirs is essential to developing a coherent and effective response to the current, more sensitive and critical situation in Afghanistan.

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