A more dangerous Afghanistan

Afghan resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud had long been a critic of Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mr. Massoud had also long warned of the danger that Afghanistan, Mr. bin Laden's base, was increasingly controlled by Arab and Pakistani interests - and that the Afghan civil war was serving as cover for a clandestine training ground for terrorists.

Now Massoud is dead, killed Sept. 9 by two Arab infiltrators posing as journalists - and with possible links to bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban government.

Massoud's demise is likely to make the United States' task all the more difficult in the region, where Washington has failed to form a coherent policy since the Soviet pullout in 1989.

The assassination of Massoud closely resembles the suicide approach of suspected terrorist operatives in the US. The fact that the murder was well planned and that the Arab perpetrators were clearly educated and sophisticated - but also fanatical enough to die for their cause - suggests a similar profile to the hijackers of the American planes.

The Taliban and their Pakistani and Arab backers - bin Laden in particular - have much to gain from Massoud's death. While neither side in the Afghan war appears capable of winning, Massoud's Northern Alliance will be hard put to fight back in a concerted manner. The alliance was the only credible resistance to the outside interests operating in Afghanistan.

Massoud cared deeply about ordinary Afghans, while the Taliban and its backers have shown little interest - even in the face of what could be the world's worst humanitarian crisis this winter. These outside backers have made it increasingly difficult for international aid agencies to operate in Afghanistan. Almost all aid agencies have pulled out their foreign staff, leaving only Afghan nationals to provide relief.

In many respects, Washington has itself contributed to the rise of Islamic radicals in Afghanistan through its willingness to allow Pakistan to develop and sustain the Taliban as an extremist religious movement. The US openly supported the Taliban during the late 1990s in a bid to help the US oil group, UNOCAL, obtain pipeline rights in Afghanistan. It was only when protests by US feminist groups grew too vehement that UNOCAL pulled out and American support withered.

Over the past decade and a half, thousands of Islamic militants - from Algeria, Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, and even Malaysia and the United States - are now believed to have gone through the Afghan training mill. Many of these are now dispersed throughout the world, some of them living as respectable business people, professionals, civil servants, or academics. Some could have been involved in last week's attacks.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Islamic volunteers flocked to Afghanistan in search of the world's only holy war. With ample cash at their disposal, it was not uncommon to meet groups of armed Arab militants operating in the mountains of eastern and northern Afghanistan. All proclaimed hatred for America, Israel, and the West.

Many Arabs were disappointed by their Afghan experiences. In general, Afghans were willing to take Arab funding, but disliked the arrogance of their Islamic brothers. They also resented Arab efforts, later implemented by the Taliban, to enforce a form of Islam that had little to do with Afghan culture. Mujahideen leaders such as Massoud, whom I first met in 1981, welcomed foreign Muslims, but only if they respected the Afghan way of life.

After the Taliban's rise in 1994, growing numbers of militants headed back to Afghanistan as part of a growing Islamic "foreign legion." According to Western intelligence, they now represent one-quarter to one-half of the Taliban's force of at least 40,000. While the majority are young, partially educated Pakistanis from religious schools across the border, many are from the Mideast and North Africa, Malaysia, Central Asia, Chechnya, and China. Some come from Muslim communities in Britain, Germany, France, and elsewhere.

While bin Laden himself owns a sumptuous villa in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, he is believed to operate a number of mountain redoubts and bases inside eastern Afghanistan, with 2,000 to 3,000 well-equipped Arab combatants under his command. The Taliban controls about 70 percent of the country.

Journalists who have met bin Laden say he has virtually no Afghans in his entourage. However, opposition sources maintain that he and his forces are increasingly dominating the war effort against the rest of Afghanistan. For them, bin Laden has become the de facto minister of war for the Taliban.

Much of bin Laden's support for the Taliban has been in the form of raising funds to pay commanders to join the movement. No doubt, his money helps to ensure that his Afghan hosts will keep protecting him. His reported offer of one of his daughters in marriage to Taliban leader Mullah Omar has probably helped cement his relationship with Afghan tribal leaders.

It is doubtful how effective military attacks on Afghanistan would be. Previous American missile attacks against bin Laden's bases did little to weaken his operations. America is correct to pressure Pakistan. But some Afghans think the US should adopt a more Afghan approach by placing, and publicizing, a price on the heads of bin Laden and his principal followers, prompting Afghans to act.

Perhaps the most effective approach would be to finally elaborate a sound regional policy that would end the war in Afghanistan. In this manner, Afghans themselves could take matters into their own hands.

Edward Girardet, a former Monitor correspondent, is editor of the Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan, published by Crosslines. His report on his recent trip to Afghanistan will appear in the December issue of National Geographic.

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