US, beware the consequences in Afghanistan

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American and British airstrikes on alleged Taliban targets will hardly eliminate Islamic extremism or terrorism on Afghan soil. If anything, they may be proving counterproductive. Not only are the attacks inflicting rising civilian casualties, but they are also inciting a potential new onslaught of anti-Western militants - many angered by what they see as an attack against Islam - in other parts of the Muslim world.

As a journalist who has covered Afghanistan since before the 1979 Soviet invasion, I still wonder what the United States hopes to achieve with its attacks, and how it sees the possible consequences. While American and European diplomatic sources maintain that military and political leaders are brainstorming behind the scenes over what needs to be done, these leaders are also uncertain of what the ultimate result will be.

Clearly, Washington wants to be seen taking action. It claims military intervention is required to pressure the Taliban to end its support for Islamic extremists, such as Osama bin Laden. But a week ago, the allies also began bombing Taliban front lines, a move that could help put the opposition Northern Alliance in power without its having to engage in healthy compromise or coalition-building. A British military source notes: "Perhaps we should be doing a bit of reading of the history books."

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As a nation already devastated by 23 years of war, Afghanistan offers little of tactical relevance. The only real threat to the allies is possible US-made Stingers or surface-to-air missiles left from the Soviet war. More adept at guerrilla warfare, both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance rely on conventional, highly mobile weapons, such as Kalashnikovs, mortars, and rocket launchers, to combat each other. Supply lines may present the most valid targets.

It is doubtful, however, whether the bombing or the just-launched special-forces operations on the ground will significantly affect the ability of the Taliban or Al Qaeda to stay in business. The destruction of power plants will only make life more difficult for ordinary Afghans. The Taliban will use fuel-driven generators, and even these are not really necessary to people who have endured war and deprivation for years.

What is certain is that the US-led attacks are causing growing civilian casualties. Further, the US is dropping cluster bombs; though they're not intended for civilians, it is likely that ordinary people, including children, will be hurt and killed by them - which does little for Washington's moral standing.

As the Soviet Army learned, real power doesn't lie in bombing. It lies in the ability to provide sufficient privileges, such as cash payoffs or access to smuggling profits, to those who matter - notably war lords, commanders, and clan leaders. Much, too, depends on effective divide-and-rule approaches among the tribal and ethnic groups on the ground.

This is what the British did so well with Afghanistan's ruling tribes during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and what the Pakistanis, Arabs, and the likes of Osama bin Laden have done with the Taliban. You have to make sure the right people are paid off to foster coexistence.

This is not to suggest that the US and the international community should seek to buy off Afghan political leaders or commanders. The point is for outsiders to have a better understanding of how Afghanistan works. And for intervention to be successful, the real beneficiaries must be the Afghan people.

What Afghanistan needs most is a regional peace settlement, facilitated by the United Nations or a respected neutral country, coupled with a massive reconstructive Marshall Plan that will end once and for all the country's enduring conflict. There also needs to be pressure on the regional players - such as Pakistan, Iran, India, and the former Soviet Central Asian states - to support the creation of an interim coalition government without meddling in Afghanistan's internal affairs. The European Union or the United States could fulfill this regional role. Unlike the bombing, this is the only sort of international action that will make a difference.

Washington decisionmakers from the 1980s should remember that the US bears heavy responsibility for Afghanistan's continuing war and the rise of Islamic militants. During the Soviet occupation, Washington provided about $3 billion worth of aid to the Afghan resistance, primarily through Pakistan. Much of this was creamed off by the Pakistani military, with the bulk of the remaining aid channeled to extremist groups dominated by Pashtuns, Afghanistan's ethnic majority.

By abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Washington allowed Pakistan's military Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to call the shots. The ISI helped pave the way for the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996. If the US has learned anything, it is the need to ensure that Pakistan does not again dominate Afghanistan. Similarly, the US should rely far less on Pakistan - which has its own agenda - for intelligence and logistical support.

While many war-exhausted Afghans are willing to tolerate US involvement in the region, they need to know that peace and reconstruction will be part of the long-term plan. Dropping bombs and humanitarian relief packages at the same time - little more than a naive propaganda ploy, say some aid agencies - is hardly the way to disperse intelligent aid.

Some 6 million Afghans, roughly a third of the population, are desperate for massive humanitarian assistance to survive this winter. Afghanistan urgently needs to be opened up to large-scale humanitarian relief, both in Taliban- and non-Taliban-controlled areas.

There are already strong indications that rising anti-Taliban sentiment in the cities may oblige the Taliban to open up, but aid officials do not believe it will happen during the bombing. As it is, they warn, tens of thousands of Afghans may already be condemned to death in the more isolated parts of central and western Afghanistan.

Bringing peace to the region is not a matter of dealing with black and white, good and bad. Nor does it mean imposing the Northern Alliance as a replacement regime. Even though the alliance has become more diverse, drawing rising numbers of Pashtun commanders, many of them recent defections from the Taliban, it still does not represent an across-the-board coalition of ethnic and tribal groups.

Another problem is that, while there are some good commanders in the alliance, others have well-known histories of human-rights abuse. One of these is Abdul Rashid Dostum, a ruthless former pro-Soviet militia commander whose ethnic Uzbek soldiers were involved in large-scale murder, rape, and looting during the 1990s.

The alliance further includes heavily conservative influences such as Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who was supported by Arab money and volunteers during the Soviet occupation. The alliance also boasts former members of Gulbudin Hekmatyar's extremist Hezb-e-Islami, whose leader is now said to be making a comeback from exile in neighboring Iran.

As anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Masood noted before his assassination last month, there can be no military solution to the Afghan conflict. Any political settlement will have to include representatives from both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban.

As in the past, there is increased discussion of bringing back Zahir Shah, the octogenarian ex-king. One of the country's few remaining national symbols, his role would be to convene a traditional loya jirga, or grand council. Consisting of respected individuals, local leaders, religious scholars, and commanders, the council would seek to appoint a representative interim government.

While the fundamentalist groups, as well as the Pakistanis, have long opposed the king's return, many Afghans remember, rightly or wrongly, the Zahir Shah years of the 1960s and early 1970s as a period of peace. It is doubtful, however, that a loya jirga could be held before the onset of winter in a few weeks.

If and when an interim government is appointed, the international community faces the challenge of what to do. Clearly, the United Nations and the international aid community would have to help run the administration. Over the years, thousands of Afghan doctors, teachers, engineers, and agronomists have fled the country. Few are likely to return. And there are almost no journalists left capable of operating Radio Television Kabul or setting up a new free press.

The United States and its allies must commit now to a workable peace settlement that includes rebuilding the country in the interests of Afghans. Even if this takes the form of "buying" the peace - through massive humanitarian and development aid - it will certainly prove cheaper than an ineffective war. If not, Americans will have to pay later, just as they are now paying for a disastrous policy of neglecting Afghanistan after 1989.

Edward Girardet is a former special correspondent of the Monitor. He is editor of the Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan and a director of Media Action International, a Geneva-based humanitarian organization.

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