Waiting for anti-Taliban Afghan leaders around the world to piece together a new government under their former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, may be a fool's errand.
Perhaps that's why President Bush went ahead with the bombing on Oct. 7 with no end-game on who will rule Kabul once (or if) the Taliban turns tail and runs.
US planes also are not currently bombing Taliban forces at the front line with the opposition Northern Alliance, mainly to avoid having that rag-tag set of militias dash into a power vacuum and set up shop, thus antagonizing both the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, and neighboring Pakistan, whose military ruler stuck his neck out to help the United States.
Such US calculations, aimed at restoring Afghanistan to a civilized state that doesn't harbor global terrorists, can only go so far. At some point, the US will need to step aside and let the United Nations take over the risky job of nation-building.
Why? While the US is the only possible country that can oust the Taliban, as a non-Muslim country it cannot impose a government on the fiercely independent Afghans. The UN, however, which has just appointed an Algerian Muslim, Lakhdar Brahimi, as its special representative to Afghanistan, would have far more acceptance by Afghans in cajoling the disparate ethnic factions to divide up power along traditional lines.
The UN has done well in helping "failed states," such as Cambodia in 1992, and now East Timor. Such a UN role for Afghanistan likely will be supported on the Security Council by the usual naysaying big powers of China and Russia. They have a strong incentive to support a UN effort to stabilize Afghanistan and rid it of radicals who want to export militant Islam to Central Asia.
Helping chaotic states join the modern world and avoid being havens for criminal gangs or terrorists should be one of the main tasks for the UN in the post-cold-war era.
Of course, the US and its Western allies must fund such UN efforts. And Bush's promise not to forget the Afghans after the conflict was a welcome signal that the US will likely put up the billions of dollars needed to develop that war-torn nation.
The West, too, will need to help the UN in resisting pressure from Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and others to maintain influence over a new Kabul regime. At the least, the UN must ensure Afghanistan doesn't continue as the world's leading exporter of opium.
Putting Afghanistan back together again will be a "great game" among big powers in coming days. Unlike past attempts to shape that country, let's hope they get it right.