Afghan Quagmire Beckons
DESPERATE TIMES CALL FOR DESPERATE MEASURES
Perhaps the full weight and consequences of a massive and overt military strike did not register in Washington, a few weeks back, when America still had the unquestioned moral high ground. Now, well into the second week of bombings and suffering from some bad PR over Afghani civilian deaths, the US is staring into the morass of potential disaster. The American people themselves are too terrified of the increasing terrorist threat of anthrax, hijackings and bombs to take much heart in the destruction of empty Taliban bases (and a few apartment buildings).
was the wholehearted opposition of Muslims throughout the Middle East
and Asia, and also underestimated was the incredible pressure this
would have on the stability of "allied" regimes, such as
Arabia, and Egypt.
Arafat is in danger from his own people. His security forces shot
three Palestinian protesters, ironically thereby increasing the risk
of a Palestinian civil war just as Western leaders are starting
to float the idea of a Palestinian state.
This dynamic, what I call old-school interventionism, never went away, though the means of fighting wars have changed. New times call for new measures, not the application of outdated tactics to modern problems.
The confusion in US thinking is most apparent in the changing relationship with the Northern Alliance. Once thought to be the Talibanís political replacement, this predominantly Uzbek and Tajik minority force is now being held at armís length. The US is desperately stalling on letting them take Kabul. Why? Well, for one, under their late leader, General Massood, the Northern Alliance supported India in regards to Kashmir. Since India is Pakistanís archenemy, and the Taliban is basically a nightmare dreamt up by the Pakistani secret service, it is no surprise that any anti-Taliban force would ally with India. The second reason why Washington is putting on the kid gloves with the NA is because the more they see of them, the less they trust them. The opinion has been voiced by journalists and even by Afghani women (who should know) that the NA is just as thuggish and brutal as the Taliban.
LETíS REWIND: THE OPPOSITIONíS STATURE ON 3 OCTOBER
two weeks ago, the initial US enthusiasm for the Northern Alliance
was getting great coverage from an obedient press. In fact, for a
short time it was in danger of becoming a made-for-TV epic
Afghanistan: the Fight for Freedom. Since itís always more
entertaining and less confusing to relate events within a prepackaged
storyline, the narrative was set to unfold in its usual, simplistic
way. For whereas the Northern Alliance had lost a hero in the assassinated
General Massood, they (and we the spectators) then gained a potential
hero in his wily, monolingual replacement, the great Afghani
HEY, IT'S THE AFGHANI A-TEAM
The article then goes on to give a modest biography of this dependable, loyal monoglot who has apparently never traveled outside of Afghanistan, but headed up significant military and intelligence operations for Massood since the early 1980ís. Despite Fahimís reluctance to take the lead and his lack of eloquence, AFP promised that heís flanked by a "crack team of reemerging military and diplomatic heavyweights." Among these notables are the brother of the late General Massood, and the spokesman for the Alliance, the man with a name like a teen pop idol, Abdullah Abdullah. Besides these heavy-hitters, Fahim could count on Yunus Qanooni and Masood Khalili, both dubbed "seasoned Afghan players." With the addition of Burhanuddin Rabbani (still recognized by the UN as Afghanistanís president), this means that Afghanistanís Northern Alliance is controlled by six ethnic Tajiks.
US VERSUS THEM BUT LISTEN TO THIS
Taliban claims to speak for Afghanistanís largest ethnic group, the
Pashtuns. The Pashtuns are most widespread in the south and
center of the country, whereas their various enemies (the Uzbek and
Tajik minorities) dwell in the north, on the borders with Uzbekistan
and Tajikistan hence the words, "northern," and "alliance."
Since the majority of the leadership of both rivals is composed of
their respective ethnic group, the whole Afghani civil war can be
dismissed as ethnic infighting, with a long series of grudges, utterly
incomprehensible to Westerners. Yet occasionally the AFP reporter
stumbled upon incongruous, even "ironic" little tidbits:
Shouldnít this little "irony" show just how volatile and utterly mercurial these "allies" are whom we now embrace? If the bit about bin Laden wasnít disturbing enough, just think about the potential fallout of the AFPís cheery prognosis: Qadir is "likely to attempt to regain control of his province." In other words, once the Taliban is gone, itís going to turn into one giant mess and very likely the result will be a fractured, multi-state Afghanistan, a free-for-all where hated warlords like Gulbutten Hekmatyar will try to reassert their bloody hold. The clock is ticking; the Northern Alliance now fears that the US will sell them out to keep from losing the support of Pakistan. After all, the NA says, why isnít the US helping them by taking out the Talibanís front line positions, if they are really on their side?
OLD-SCHOOL INTERVENTIONISM: DISASTER FOR AFGHANISTAN
Even before the Taliban came to power, the situation was the same. Russia and Britain had fought over Afghanistan, uselessly, in the previous centuries. Nowadays various Arab states and groups vie for control of this vast, forbidding pile of rocks. A National Geographic special on Afghanistan way back in October, 1993, quoted the security advisor to Massood, then the Defense Minister of the Afghan government. Reflecting on their previous "liberation" campaign, he said, "since the day we took Kabul, we have had mujahidin groups backed by Pakistan fighting groups backed by Saudi Arabia and God Almighty knows who else. If the foreigners would just leave us alone, I promise you we would be a lot better off!"
A GOVERNING BODY FOR THE 21ST CENTURY?
To his credit, the returning ex-king, Zahir Shah, also believes that the Afghanis should do it for themselves, without outside meddling. Like an aging prizefighter, Zahir Shah has come out of retirement at the age of 86 for one last fight, to lead his country into er, transition. With no guarantee that it will actually work, the king has presented plans for an egalitarian dare I say it, enlightened post-Taliban government. He has been advocating a reversion to the traditional Afghan ruling structure, last used in the 18th century the tribal council. Now that he has the support of Pakistan, and the apparent loyalty of some Taliban moderates, it looks like we might see them try it. A miracle of multiethnicity, the tribal council seeks to bring together representatives of each of Afghanistanís ethnic groups, from all parts of the country. Itís so righteous, it could almost win Americaís heart. Itís so beautiful, it could almost be a European coalition government. In other words it will never work.
IF EVERYONEíS SWITCHING SIDES, THEN WHO ARE WE BACKING?
As American bombs exploded over Afghanistan last week, news stories reported mass defections of Taliban troops, and even officers, to the Northern Alliance. This should seem to be great news for the "allies" of the west; clearly, morale is sinking fast in the ranks of the oppressors, and the Taliban will soon be bereft of the bulk of its fighting force.
Yet there is a more worrying correlative of the turncoat phenomenon: since the Taliban soldiers are going over to the other side as a means of saving their own hides, it follows that either they were never as ideologically committed to the cause as is portrayed (and, therefore, the offensive ideology lay in the domain of the few) or, that we will end up backing the same individuals in different uniforms in other words, the Taliban by a different name. (Hell, weíre already feeding the Taliban they have the guns and thus keep the airdropped foodstuffs from the starving Afghani civilians). Either way, the policy of blindly backing one side simply because it is the enemy of your current enemy is both foolhardy and dangerous yet unfortunately, it is also time-tested and US-government approved. The classic knee-jerk, old-school interventionist method is rearing its ugly head, just when it is becoming most dangerously outdated.
IN PRAISE OF REGIONAL WARFARE
beauty of localized squabbles, regional animosities, and shrill, lilliputian
arguments, is that they are indeed local and contained. Now, of course,
this is nothing wonderful to wish for; but given the choice between
a world war and a regional war, Iíll go with the latter. Yes, for
some reason small-scale conventional warfare, fought on clearly delineated
territory, seems more appetizing to me than biological attacks and
unexpected terrorism, coming from out of nowhere, leaving no chance
for honor, valor or self-defense.
and this is a phenomenon more unique to the current status of the
US as lone superpower, and of the rise of technology and communications
with the same tactics of old-school realpolitik intervention,
the US has been able to build up regional allies (and enemies) across
a far greater geographical distance. This, however, has exposed the
US to attack from an equally vast area. With the modern technologies
that have made the wide, wide world seem very small indeed, the attackers
enjoy invisibility and anonymity the conditions that terrorism
AFTER THE WAR
The important thing to remember is that we have choice. We can choose whether or not we want to get involved; we can choose whether we even need to back any particular side. It is not necessary that we be forced into supporting or denouncing a cause or group just because it is in another countryís interest. Since it is looking more and more like none of the rival factions are "worthy" (according to American political idealism) of US support, why not just let the Afghanis get on with it themselves? Why not let the king sort them out? After all, it seems that whether we destroy the Taliban, support the Northern Alliance, or do anything at all, in fact, it will only foster new resentment from new enemies. When you add this to the old resentments coming from the old enemies, it seems pretty clear that crippling exhaustion will soon set in. Thatís what happens when empire is overextended. Whether or not the US perfects a new type of intervention, one thing is clear in using the kind of old-school, knee-jerk intervention that has brought us this far, there lies nothing but disaster and ruin.
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
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