In war on terror, don't overreach

The Northern Alliance conquests in northern Afghanistan and the Taliban's evacuation of Kabul deserve at least two cheers from the Bush administration. These are true military successes. They might hasten final defeat of the Taliban and its ally - the outlaw Osama bin Laden and his terrorist gang.

But these military successes also carry the seeds of political turmoil, and of more of the ethnic and tribal warfare that has torn Afghanistan apart since before the Soviet invasion in 1979.

What is needed to convert this week's armed achievements into political victories is a broad new coalition government in Afghanistan. Such a government should function under a United Nations umbrella, guided by people like the UN's extremely capable diplomat-on-the-spot, Lakhdar Brahimi, who could replace Western forces with UN peacekeepers if necessary. The United States and allies advocate this, but they seem unable, so far, to summon enough vision and energy to help implement it.

Lacking such a coalition - a broad spectrum of the Northern Alliance's ethnic minorities, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, and others, together with the dominant Pashtuns - Afghanistan could tumble into a new cycle of civil wars.

The Taliban's remnants and Mr. bin Laden's allied gang of Arab and other Muslim mercenaries could fight from the Taliban bastion of Kandahar. Once Kandahar falls, they may retreat into the vast labyrinth of caves, tunnels, and mountain bunkers the American CIA and Pakistan once helped bin Laden's construction engineers prepare as hideouts during the 1979-89 war against the Soviets.

The guerrilla war that would follow might be a hideous repetition of that earlier conflict, this time with the US and its allies seeking to flush out and destroy their Taliban-bin Laden adversaries, and taking great losses.

Bin Laden's Muslim and Arab mercenaries, who have already wreaked havoc in societies from Algeria and the Philippines to New York, seem to be regarded by the Bush administration as on a par with local guerrilla and terrorist organizations, with support from Syria and Iran to North Korea and Indonesia. Having expanded the list of organizations it considers terrorist, the Bush administration seems to think the US should try to destroy all terrorist groups, everywhere.

This is impossible, and a tragic error of judgment. The advisability of attacking Iraq, under debate in Washington, in order to destroy the terrorists and chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons it may harbor, is questionable. But attacking non-Arab Muslim states like Iran, which supports the anti-Israel Hizbullah organization in Lebanon - or attacking Lebanon and Syria themselves for similar reasons - would be sheer folly.

As King Abdullah of Jordan, one of America's most faithful Mideast allies, has been urging, what the region needs is not US military attacks on presumed terrorists. It needs a concerted diplomatic effort to negotiate and, if necessary, impose peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Such a peace would have to guarantee Israel's security, a central US objective since the Jewish state's birth in 1948, while ending its long military occupation and progressive Jewish settlement of the Palestinian territories. This would enable the long-suffering Palestinian people to form an independent Palestinian state, which President Bush endorsed following Sept. 11.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom Mr. Bush still refuses to meet in person, wisely chose to disassociate himself and the mainstream Palestinian movement from bin Laden's gang. And despite some early "pro-bin Laden" street noise by frustrated, mostly young Palestinians in the occupied territories after Sept. 11, even such extremist groups as Hamas and Hizbullah, though on the Bush administration's newest hit lists, have avoided support for bin Laden & Co.

As prescient statesmen from Theodore Roosevelt to Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela have always recognized, talking is better than fighting, whenever fighting can be avoided, or to end a war, righteous or otherwise. What the US should do now is offer to attack the real roots of the Afghan conflict and of much of the violence everywhere in the world: poverty and ignorance.

Some have suggested a kind of grandiose new Marshall Plan, aimed at reducing the vast gap between the world's possessors and the dispossessed, and between those who daily use computers and other electronic tools, and the vast majority, especially in Africa and Asia, who may have never used a telephone, never read a newspaper or book, or scarcely listened to a radio.

Dreams, or impractical visions, a reader might scoff. But what's wrong with using our American imagination and tremendous resources for such ends, rather than expending our wealth only to bomb real or imaginary enemies out of existence?

John K. Cooley, an author and former Monitor Mideast correspondent, reports for ABC News. His most recent book, 'Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America, and International Terrorism' (Pluto, 2000), will soon appear in several languages.

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