Bush was quick to announce that "We will encourage our friends
to head south, but not into the city of Kabul itself." Oh?
And why not? the media wanted to know. Bush was vague on this
point, but his guest, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf,
was more forthcoming, bluntly stating that the last time these
guys took Kabul from the Soviets they carried out "total
atrocities," and "mayhem" was the order of the day: "And I
think if the northern alliance enters Kabul we'll see the
same kind of atrocities being perpetuated against the people
there." He might well have added: and, just like last time,
Pakistan will have to deal with half a million refugees, as
Afghans fleeing their "liberators" pour over the border in
an unstoppable human wave.
reluctance to cuddle up to the Northern Alliance is justified
on a number of levels. To begin with, Musharraf is right about
their thuggish proclivities: Human
Rights Watch has detailed their sorry record on this score.
After all, the very success of the Taliban in overthrowing
them to begin with was due, in large part, to the Northerners'
brutal campaign of pillage, rapine, and mass murder, which
did not exactly endear them to their subjects. The Taliban,
for all their ferocity, seemed like they might be an improvement
over the Alliance: at least the violence of the former was
predictable and focused on implementing some concept
of law, even if it meant an absurdly extreme interpretation
of the Sharia, or Islamic law. The violence of the
Northern Alliance was and is utterly lawless. Just on
moral grounds alone, they are insupportable (unless, of course,
you're Bill Kristol or Richard Perle, in which case the horrific
human rights record of our unsavory Afghan allies is just
another way to show how tough-minded we are).
grounds, however, the Northerners are even less attractive
as a potential proxy force for the US. To begin with, the
ethnic make-up of this tenuous Alliance makes its victory
highly unlikely: for it is an alliance of three minorities
which, taken together, add up to barely 50 percent of the
population. Tajik supporters of (Tajik) President Burhanuddin
Rabbani and Uzbeks of the Junbish-I-Milli party, have
joined together with the Shi'ite Muslim Hazara of the Hezb-i-Wahdat
against their common enemy of the moment. Riven by intense
rivalries, these disparate and fully autonomous groupings
have continually fought one another over the years, and could
turn on one another at a moment's notice. And then there is
the problem of the lack of military leadership….
A DEAD END
headed by President Rabbani, the Northern Alliance was up
until September dominated by its military leader, the Tajik
Commander Ahmed Shah Masood. Masood's untimely assassination
at the hands of Bin Ladenite agents threw the leadership into
the hands of a very dicey character, even by Afghan
standards, Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum. In the 1980s,
Dostum joined with Soviet puppet President Najibullah in fighting
the anti-Communist insurgents: when the rebels took Kabul
he decided to go with a winner and abruptly switched sides.
The Taliban regime sent him fleeing northward, where he established
his own fiefdom headquartered in Mazar-i-Sharif; although
he was being aided by Russia, India, and Iran, Dostum couldn't
hold on even to that, and was soon driven out of the country.
He took refuge in Turkey, and, on his return, once again joined
up with the Northern Alliance: the Uzbek commander is the
logical successor to Masood except that, politically,
his pro-Communist record makes him political poison and isolates
the anti-Taliban opposition even more. So the irony is that,
even as they rack up military victories, the Northern Alliance
with the support of a rapidly shrinking sector of the
population is a strategic dead-end, and the Bush administration
WAR BY PROXY
of the proxy force strategy rests on the task of somehow appealing
to the Pashtun majority in the central and southern regions
of the country, including the area around Kabul, but there
is little chance of that at the present juncture. The only
other contender for Pashtun loyalties who might be enticed
into the ranks of the Alliance is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, onetime
leader of the Islamic Party, known as the Butcher of Kabul:
his siege of that city in 1992 resulted in 20,000 civilian
deaths. Not many
relish the thought of Hekmatyar's return. In any case,
has just announced that he might indeed return to fight
at the side of the Taliban.
INTO THE QUAGMIRE
As we get
bogged down in the details of which tribe should get which
ministerial post in a postwar government, the distance from
the original cause of the war grows until the connection between
the two is so tenuous as to be nonexistent (or, at least,
deniable). Only the other day, US combat commander Tommy Franks
did indeed deny it, declaring that the targeting of Bin Laden
"dead or alive," as Bush put it is
not the goal of the US military mission. But then, what
is the goal? The overthrow of the Taliban? The restoration
of the Afghan monarchy? The "liberation" of Afghan women?
The implantation of democracy in the most inhospitable soil
imaginable? The conquest of Afghanistan by US troops and the
creation of a giant Bosnia in the midst of Central Asia? As
the original justification for the war gets lost in a welter
of political and military maneuvers, any and all of the above
will tend to fill the vacuum and we will have fallen
into the very clever trap Bin Laden has laid for us.
of the Beirut barracks, in which 241 American soldiers were
killed, and the assaults on the Khobar military outpost in
Saudi Arabia, must surely serve as a warning to American policymakers
who might otherwise not hesitate to establish a US military
presence in Afghanistan or anywhere in the region. Our
own bases on the Saudi peninsula are precarious and exposed
enough as it is, without setting ourselves up for an even
larger-scale potential disaster. If the logistics don't defeat
us, the weather and the Afghans' well-earned reputation for
being fiercely resistant to foreign invaders will and this
is one instance where a defeat is out of the question, as
far as the Bushies are concerned.
our warmongering punditocracy, insulated by ignorance and
motivated by sheer bloodlust, is clamoring for Bush to "unleash"
the Northern Alliance and biting at his heels about the likelihood
of sending in US ground troops. Their darling, Senator John
McCain, is palavering about the alleged necessity of this
course, and this chorus, together with the "on to Baghdad"
crowd, is howling for escalation. The Bushies, for their part,
seem torn, caught between the Powellian strategy of using
both military and political pressure to split the Taliban
and get at Al Qaeda, and the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz school of
steady escalation. Clearly, the administration realizes that
the "northern strategy" of using the Alliance as a proxy force
would unite most Afghans against the foreign invaders. What
they aim to do is to isolate Bin Laden, both politically and
militarily, casting Al Qaeda in the role of the foreign invasion
force. It is a tricky maneuver which may be impossible for
the President and his Secretary of State to pull off, not
so much due to resistance on the part of the Taliban, but
because of political pressure on the home front. The McCainiacs
and their neocon handlers are pushing for an American Jihad,
fought by American troops, on the ground in Afghanistan, and
if the Powell strategy doesn't bear fruit before the onset
of winter the momentum for escalation may be unstoppable.
AN ASTUTE ANALYSIS
I was struck
the writer Tariq Ali said to an interviewer, in answer
to a typically leftoid question:
"What would you say is at stake in this war? What is the center
of the dispute: access to gas and water in the Middle East,
establishment of hegemony in the Islamic world, assuring a
permanent U.S. presence in the region, or none of the above?"
Ali: "I really don't believe that this war was begun for economic
gain. We, on the left, are always quick to look for the economic
reasons and usually we're right, but not this time. I think
the war was basically a response to domestic pressure after
the events of September 11. There were choices to be made.
The US could have decided to treat this for what it was: a
criminal act and not an act of war. They chose war. Obviously
they will use it to strengthen and assert US global hegemony
on all three fronts: political, military and economic, but
first they have to get out of the situation they're in."
I might add, we are all in. It is a very astute analysis,
one that avoids America-bashing and Bush-bashing while identifying
the tragic dilemma faced by this administration. Although
he doesn't quite say it, Ali clearly sees that Bush is right
on one major point: we didn't start this war. We didn't choose
this battle, it has been chosen for us. But how we fight it
is vital to the question of whether we succeed or not, or
else create a worse disaster.
AT WHAT PRICE?
we stumble on real reason for this war: the need to appease
domestic opinion, to appear to be doing something anything!
as long as it looks and feels decisive. Furthermore,
our leaders, of course, are only human: they, too, have emotional
reactions, which often overshadow the national interest. Vengeance
on behalf of the victims of 9/11 is emotionally satisfying
but the question is, what price will we pay for that satisfaction?
THE NATIONAL INTEREST
The US national interest is in no way served
by the destabilization of Pakistan, and the news in this regard
is hardly comforting: the latest is that Islamabad is relocating
its nuclear weapons out of the country. Kashmir is about to
explode, and this could trigger a nuclear exchange with Pakistan's
arch-rival, India. Across the Muslim world, the "street" is
roiling and ready to explode in a paroxysm of rage, bringing
down pro-Western governments from Cairo to Riyadh, threatening
even Turkey. Such a pan-Muslim uprising would throw the world
economy into chaos, with the West's access to oil blocked:
our recession could well turn into a worldwide depression.
GOD HELP AMERICA
A war fought
against this ominous backdrop would soon take on the character
of a global cataclysm. The most farseeing advisors to the
President surely see this: God help us if they fail to convince
Bush. For in that case, we are all screwed, and nothing short
of a miracle can save us.
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