US, beware the consequences in Afghanistan
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.