Two months into the war, and the Americans were hard-pressed to point to a single success, never mind the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The argument that the Afghan war is a quagmire waiting to swallow them seemed more credible than ever, and significant voices of dissent were beginning to be raised, in Europe if not quite yet in America. Then, suddenly, a "victory" the Northern Alliance, our foot-soldiers on the ground, scored a major success with the taking of Mazar-i-Sharif, and our laptop bombardiers exulted: On to Kabul! Ah, but not so fast…
President 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.
The American 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).
On practical 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….
Nominally 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 knows it.
The success 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, he has just announced that he might indeed return to fight at the side of the Taliban.
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.
The bombing 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.
As usual, 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.
I was struck by something the writer Tariq Ali said to an interviewer, in answer to a typically leftoid question:
Q.: "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?"
Tariq 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."
The situation, 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.
And here 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 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.
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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